The United States Coast Guard: A Jack of All Trades

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D., University Dean of Security Studies

CTU Homeland Security Degrees - US Coast GuardThe United States Coast Guard (USCG) is a unique organization that combines a surprisingly wide variety of duties that include: national defense, search and rescue, law enforcement, counterterrorism, maritime safety, environmental protection and scientific research. The Coast Guard not only operates along the nation’s coastline, but also on the high seas and in the country’s inland waterways.

The Coast Guard has its origins in the Revenue Cutter Service, which was established by law in 1790 and tasked, by President George Washington, with enforcing federal tariffs and trade laws. At the time, this organization was the nation’s only armed maritime force (the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1783 and the US Navy was only established in 1798). The Coast Guard has always operated under a military structure and performed a military role. Unbeknownst to many, it is considered the fifth armed service after the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The service’s wartime role involves augmenting the Navy with ships and personnel. In addition, the Coast Guard  undertakes peacetime national security deployments overseas when the Navy is otherwise engaged or where the USCG’s skills are of particular use; for example, in enhancing port security in allied countries during wartime. The USCG was involved in virtually all of America’s wars, including the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the 1991 Gulf War. 

Throughout the 19th century, the service’s duties focused on prevention of smuggling and enforcing trade laws. In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the US Life-Saving Service and was renamed the US Coast Guard. As can be surmised by this merger, the USCG became responsible for search and rescue as well as the enforcement of customs laws. The Coast Guard underwent a further expansion in 1939 and in 1946 when the service took on various maritime safety missions. The USCG’s law enforcement mission also continued to expand to preventing the maritime smuggling of alcohol (during the Prohibition era) and the maritime smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons, as well as combatting human trafficking. 

In the latter half of the 19th century, the service’s responsibilities broadened to protect the nation’s ecological resources. The USCG engaged in missions as diverse as protecting seals in Alaska and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. In the 20th century, the Coast Guard also engaged in combatting the pollution of waterways and oil spills. As part of its mission to provide search and rescue resources when there are maritime accidents, the service also began regulating ship and boat safety. Since most waterways cross state boundaries, the USCG stepped in to support states that were unable to effectively manage this task on their own.

After 9/11, as with many parts of the US government, a shift to emphasize counterterrorism missions transformed the USCG from being a part of the Department of Transportation (where it had been for decades) to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. In terms of its counterterrorism mission, the USCG safeguards the maritime approaches to ports and inland waterways and inland ports near large cities or critical infrastructure assets in order to reduce vulnerabilities to water-borne terrorist attacks. The service also monitors all international shipping traffic destined for American ports and searches ships deemed to be potentially suspicious.

Since the USCG is organized along military lines, it has a cadre of officers (some of whom are graduates of the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut and others who are graduates of the service’s Officer Candidate School) as well as enlisted personnel. The total number of active duty personnel in the Coast Guard is around 38,000. The USCG also has a part-time Coast Guard Reserve force of some 8,000 personnel, over 6,000 civilian employees, and nearly 30,000 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers that support various Coast Guard missions.  

For more information about Coast Guard careers, please see:

CTU Faculty - Nadav MoragNadav Morag, Ph.D., is university dean of Security Studies at CTU. He works on projects for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, and he is a published author on terrorism, security strategy, and foreign policy. Connect with Dr. Morag on Twitter.

Image Credit: Flickr/Mike Baird

Copyright © 2016 Colorado Technical University (CTU). All rights reserved. No information may be duplicated without CTU's permission. The CTU logo is a registered trademark of Career Education Corporation. CTU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Programs vary by location and modality; see catalog for details. Financial aid is available for those who qualify. See the Accreditation & Licensure section for information on the agencies that approve and regulate the school's programs, including relevant complaint procedures here. Find employment rates, financial obligations and other disclosures below.

Privacy Statement Legal Terms and Conditions Student Disclosures Sitemap Student Safety Contact Us

 (855) 230-0555

Terms and Conditions By providing your mobile number, you agree to receive text messages from Colorado Tech via its mobile text message provider.  You may opt out of receiving messages by texting the word STOP to 94576, or simply reply with the word STOP to any text message you receive from Colorado Tech. While CEC or its mobile text message provider will not charge end users for receiving/responding to promotional messages, depending on the terms of your mobile phone plan, you may incur a cost from your mobile service carrier to receive and respond to any promotional text messages (standard messaging and data rates/fees and other charges may apply).  Charges will appear on your mobile phone bill or will be deducted from pre-paid amounts.  Current participating/supported carriers are: Alltel, AT&T, Boost, Cellcom, Cellular One, Cellular South, Cincinnati Bell, Cricket, Element Wireless, Golden State Cellular, iWireless, Metro PCS, Nextel, nTelos, Plateau Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless, Viaero Wireless, Virgin, and more.×