How the U.S. Coast Guard Works

By: Ed Grabianowski & Francisco Guzman  | 

U.S. Coast Guard, Memorial Day Parade
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard participate in the annual Memorial Day Parade on May 31, 2021, in Staten Island, New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For over 230 years, the Coast Guard has been responsible for protecting the American people from all maritime threats while promoting national and border security. The Coast Guard has a patchwork of functions, tasks and responsibilities. More than 50,000 members serve as first responders, rescuing Americans and foreigners stranded at sea; securing America's coastlines from enemies; inspecting merchant vessels; looking for drug smugglers at sea and a host of other duties. Coast Guard members also serve in times of war or when directed by the president.

The Coast Guard's mishmash job description stems from the fact that the service itself is a conglomeration of other government agencies that have been incorporated over the centuries. Some of the Coast Guard's primary responsibilities include:

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  • Preventing smuggling of illegal goods or untaxed goods into U.S. ports.
  • Making sure shipping companies pay all the appropriate tariffs and taxes on goods they ship into the United States. The Coast Guard facilitates movement of $15.6 billion worth of goods and commodities through the nation's Maritime Transportation System on an average day.
  • Preventing smugglers from bringing drugs into the United States. The Coast Guard seizes 1,253 pounds of cocaine and 172 pounds of marijuana on an average day.
  • Preventing the illegal dumping of chemicals, illegal fishing or hunting of marine life and otherwise enforcing marine environmental protection laws.
  • Searching for and rescuing anyone who needs help in a marine environment, including storm-wracked boats and ships, refugees and immigrants trying to float to the United States, and anyone else involved in an accident at sea. The Coast Guard conducts 42 search and rescue cases and saves 12 lives on an average day.
  • Preventing illegal immigration. The Coast Guard interdicts 18 illegal migrants on an average day.
  • Watching out for terrorist attacks and other hostile forces trying to attack the United States by sea. The Coast Guard screens 313 merchant vessels for potential security threats before arrival in U.S. ports on an average day.
  • Enforcing maritime laws, train civilians and commercial shipping crews in maritime safety, and ensure the speed, safety and reliability of transportation in United States coastal waters.

The Coast Guard has law enforcement powers within U.S. waters, which covers more than 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline and extends 200 miles from shore, and on international waters. Coast Guard authority supersedes that of the U.S. Navy in terms of law enforcement. A Coast Guard captain can halt, board and even seize any vessel without a warrant, court order or direct orders from a superior, including U.S. Navy vessels, although the latter is a very rare occurrence.

Next, we'll look at the Coast Guard hierarchy.

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Coast Guard Hierarchy

Coast Guard Joseph Tezanos , Drug Smuggling
The crew of a Coast Guard cutter Joseph Tezanos offloads nearly $15 million in cocaine and transfers custody of two suspected smugglers at Coast Guard Base, San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 12, 2021. U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is the smallest of the U.S. armed forces (apart from the newly formed Space Force) with over 50,000 active members. This is separate from the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary.

It is a military service, although it is not a part of the Department of Defense. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In the past, the Coast Guard has been placed under Department of Defense jurisdiction (within the Department of the Navy) during wartime, and current federal laws authorize this to be done at the authorization of Congress or the president.

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The Coast Guard is headed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard, a position held by Adm. Karl L. Schultz as of 2021. Coast Guard operations are then divided into Atlantic and Pacific commands, with a vice admiral in charge of each region. The commands are subdivided into nine districts (they are not numbered consecutively, which is why there are districts with numbers above nine). Here is an interactive map of the nine districts and the states in each district.

The Atlantic Area:

  • District 1 - Northern New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine
  • District 5 - Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina
  • District 7 - Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and 34 foreign nations and territories
  • District 8 - 26 states, including the Gulf of Mexico coastline from Florida to Mexico, the adjacent offshore waters and outer continental shelf, as well as the inland waterways of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee River systems.
  • District 9 - The five Great Lakes, the Saint Lawrence Seaway and parts of the surrounding states including 6,700 miles of shoreline and 1,500 miles of the international border with Canada

The Pacific Area:

Each district is divided into sectors. Each sector is responsible for protecting inland waterways and coastal waters within the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone (any water within 200 miles of shore). For example, Sector St. Petersburg, within District 7, is responsible for the western coast of Florida, plus a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico. Sector Buffalo is responsible for the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines and a segment of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The operational units within each sector are stations, which ships and boats use as a home base, and air stations, where Coast Guard air crews are based.

The Coast Guard generally uses the same order of rank as the U.S. Navy. Here is a list of the Coast Guard ranks, along with the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

Next, we'll look at the ships and aircraft that the Coast Guard use.

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Coast Guard Ships and Aircraft

commissioning ceremony
The crew of Coast Guard cutter Robert Goldman mans the rails during the commissioning ceremony in Key West, Florida, March 12, 2021. The ship will be the second sentinel-class fast response cutter assigned to Patrol Forces Southwest Asia and stationed in Manama, Bahrain. Senior Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir/U.S. Coast Guard

The most important pieces of equipment used by the Coast Guard are the naval vessels they use to patrol U.S. waterways. All Coast Guard ships longer than 65 feet are cutters. Originally, a cutter was a specific kind of ship, but now every ship of that size is a cutter, no matter what its configuration. Coast Guard ships are given names, prefaced by the designation USCGC (United States Coast Guard Cutter). Each Coast Guard ship also has an alphanumeric designation. The code starts with a W (the letter assigned to all CG ships during World War II). The next letters represent the endurance of the ship — how long it can operate at sea without stopping for fuel and provisions. HEC stands for High Endurance Cutter, and MEC stands for Medium Endurance Cutter. Other codes are used for ice breakers, buoy tenders and other types of cutters. A numeric code completes the specific designation for a given ship. For example, the USCGC Alert is a medium endurance cutter, so its designation is WMEC-630. The USCGC Maple is a buoy tender with the designation WLB-207.

The aging High Endurance cutters are being replaced by the National Security Cutter (NSC) class. According to the Coast Guard's website, "Compared to legacy cutters, the NSCs' design provides better sea-keeping and higher sustained transit speeds, greater endurance and range, and the ability to launch and recover small boats from astern, as well as aviation support facilities and a flight deck for helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles." Their designation is WMSL (Maritime Security, Large).

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The Coast Guard's largest ship is the CGC Healy, a 420-foot ship designed to conduct a wide range of research activities. reliance class cutters, 210 feet, operate as medium endurance cutters. These ships may be equipped with a helicopter landing deck, as well as crews to support the helicopters. Below the 65-foot cutter threshold, there are some smaller workhorses. The 25-foot Defender Class boats are designed for fast, flexible responses to a variety of situations, and can be transported on a boat trailer. (These are being replaced by the 29-foot response boats, officially referred to as Response Boat Small-II or RB-S II.) The 47-foot Motor Life Boat is a steadfast tool for search and rescue missions. The boats are virtually unsinkable and self-right themselves after capsizing.

Aircraft are used by the Coast Guard to perform search and rescue, spot smugglers and illegal immigrants and transport people and supplies. Most Coast guard aircraft are helicopters. For medium range missions, the Coast Guard relies heavily on MH-60T Helicopters. Shorter missions are suitable for the MH-65D/E Helicopters. While both helicopters are usually based on shore, they can operate from the larger cutters equipped with helicopter landing decks. The Coast Guard also uses a number of fixed-wing aircraft, including the HC-130H Airplane, HC-130J Airplane, HC-144 Airplane, HC-27J³ Airplane and the C-37A/B Airplane.

We'll look at how to join the Coast Guard and what Coast Guard life is like in the next section.

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Joining Up and Coast Guard Life

Coast Guard recruits boot camp
Recruits from boot camp company Papa-200 graduate at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, New Jersey, June 11, 2021 Seaman Christian Lower/U.S. Coast Guard

All U.S. residents between the ages of 17 and 31 with high school diplomas are eligible to enlist in the Coast Guard, providing they pass certain physical exams, as well as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) evaluation test. All recruits go through eight weeks of training at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey. While recruits will be taught how to swim, people who are afraid of being in or on the water should probably consider a different branch of service.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is located in New London, Connecticut. Anyone who wants to join the Coast Guard as a commissioned officer (and meets the eligibility requirements) can apply to attend the Coast Guard Academy. Unlike other U.S. military academies, a congressional petition is not required for entry. The academy provides a rigorous four-year academic experience that also prepares cadets for life as an officer in the Coast Guard. Graduates are commissioned as ensigns. Enlisted sailors and airmen can attend Coast Guard officer candidate school if they want to become commissioned officers.

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Another option for joining the Coast Guard is the Coast Guard Reserves. The reserves train and serve two days a month and two weeks each year. The 7,000 reserves don't form separate reserve units — they are integrated into full-time Coast Guard operations. Many non-law enforcement jobs are handled by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization with about 26,000 members. People who join their local auxiliary are specially trained in boating safety, search and rescue, and other maritime skills. The auxiliary helps with search and rescue, teaches civilian boaters in special seminars, conducts safety inspections and provides introductory youth classes in boating and maritime safety.

After basic training, graduates are promoted to seaman or fireman (E-2). The Coast Guard uses an apprentice system, where recruits work alongside a more experienced seaman and learn their job with hands-on experience. For more technical aviation specific jobs, recruits are sent to technical schools, such as the USCG Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which is a training program into the "A" school curriculum ("A-Schools").

Coast Guard cutters usually make lengthy patrols, during which they don't return to their home station unless they need to. These patrols typically last for four weeks but can be as short as a few days or as long as a few months. An example of a cutter patrol is the one taken by the USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913) in May 2020. The crew, with a deployed Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron crew, apprehended more than 25 suspected drug smugglers, four suspected drug vessels and seized more than 4,500 pounds of cocaine and 1,500 gallons of liquefied cocaine before returning to their home base in Key West following a 65-day counter-drug patrol throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Life on a cutter is not easy. Space is cramped and you spend a lot of time in very close proximity to your crewmates. However, crews form close bonds and learn to work together smoothly and efficiently. The person with the most responsibility onboard is the captain. Each captain has absolute authority on his or her ship. The personality and habits of a captain can have a tremendous effect on the character of the ship and the way a crew conducts itself. For most mariners, achieving a captaincy is a very high honor.

Between patrols, the crew takes care of ship maintenance or may take on shore duties. Some of them will take advantage of leave time (they get 30 days of leave each year). This pattern will continue for an enlisted sailor until his term of active duty has ended. Active duty lasts two or more years, depending on the contract the sailor signed at the time of enlistment. Once active duty is over, the sailor still must provide several additional years of service, either as a reserve or a ready-reserve who can be called to active duty at any time. Recently, members who are assigned to major cutters were eligible for up to 15 days of resiliency absence.

As members of a U.S. military organization, all Coast Guard sailors are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Dismissal from the Coast Guard can take a variety of forms, from an honorable discharge to a court-martial, depending on the circumstances.

Coast Guard veterans and retirees are eligible for a host of benefits, including health and life insurance, low-interest loans for mortgages or small businesses and veterans' health care. The full suite of benefits available may depend on the nature of the veteran's dismissal — usually an honorable discharge or retirement is necessary for access to all benefits. A comprehensive guide to Coast Guard veterans' benefits can be found at Coast Guard Insider.

In the next section, we'll explore the history of the Coast Guard.

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Coast Guard History

crew of a Coast Guard revenue cutter, circa 1900
The crew of a Coast Guard revenue cutter, circa 1900, poses for a picture. USCG Historian's Office

The Coast Guard, a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, was established in 1790 through a combination of different organizations. After the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Navy was disbanded. By 1789, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton realized that some kind of naval enforcement agency was needed to make sure tariffs were properly collected. Ten ships (called cutters) with a crew of 10 men each went into service in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service. Because these cutters were frequently out on patrol when naval accidents occurred, they naturally found themselves in the position to perform search-and-rescue operations.

Military conflicts in the next few decades led the Revenue Cutter Service to take on port defense tasks. The advent of American fishing around the coast of Alaska created a need for ice breaking and winter rescue capabilities (these remain Coast Guard specialties today). A separate service operated the lighthouses and other navigational aids across the United States until that, too, was merged with the Coast Guard. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and was officially renamed the Coast Guard, charged with both saving lives at sea and enforcing maritime laws.

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Although the Coast Guard is ostensibly a defensive and law enforcement organization, active duty members receive basic weapons training, and most Coast Guard vessels are armed in some way. When the United States has gone to war, the Coast Guard has gone too. Some of the Coast Guard's most notable wartime service came during World War II, when numerous Coast Guard cutters provided escorts to the transport convoys traversing the North Atlantic. Refitted with additional guns and depth charges, the cutters' took on a very dangerous duty, watching for German U-boats ( submarines). The U-boats hunted the convoys in "wolf packs," and their torpedoes sunk many transport ships, as well as the USCGC Alexander Hamilton, which went down near Reykjavik, Iceland in 1941.

Coast Guard crews had better training conducting sea-to-land assaults, so the landing ships at Normandy and other marine invasions in World War II were usually piloted by a Coast Guard seaman.

The Coast Guard is currently on a 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, which supports the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Security Strategy (NSS), and focuses on three main priorities to ensure a safe, secure and prosperous homeland. These are to:

  • Priority 1: Maximize readiness today & tomorrow
  • Priority 2: Address the nation's complex maritime challenges
  • Priority 3: Deliver mission excellence anytime, anywhere

For lots more information about the U.S. Coast Guard and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Special thanks to CDR Gary M. Thomas, USCG (Retired), Executive Director, Foundation For Coast Guard History for help with this update.

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Originally Published: Feb 21, 2007

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More Great Links

  • Blue, Rose and Naden, Corinne J. "The U.S. Coast Guard." Millbrook Press, Oct. 1, 1993. ISBN 978-1562943219.
  • Gaines, Ann. "The Coast Guard in Action." Enslow Publishers, September 2001. ISBN 978-0766016347.
  • GoCoastGuard.com (July 7,2021) https://www.gocoastguard.com/
  • Halberstadt, Hans. "USCG, Always Ready." Presidio Press, January 1987. ISBN 978-0891412564.
  • Holden, Henry M. "Coast Guard Rescue and Patrol Aircraft." Enslow Publishers, February 2002. ISBN 978-0766017153.
  • Military.com. "The Unique Role of the US Coast Guard" (July 7, 2021) https://www.military.com/join-armed-forces/coast-guard-mission-values.html
  • United States Coast Guard (July 7, 2021) https://www.uscg.mil
  • Walling, Michael G. "Bloodstained Sea." International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 1st edition, May 1, 2005. ISBN 978-0071457934.

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