The United States Coast Guard: A Jack of All Trades

By CTU Faculty

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.  

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Image Credit: Flickr/Mike Baird