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The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is the maritime security, search and rescue, and law enforcement service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the country's eight uniformed services. The service is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the United States military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its duties. It is the largest coast guard in the world, rivaling the capabilities and size of most navies.
The U.S. Coast Guard is a humanitarian and security service. It protects the United States' borders and economic and security interests abroad; and defends its sovereignty by safeguarding sea lines of communication and commerce across U.S. territorial waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone. Due to ever-expanding risk imposed by transnational threats through the maritime and cyber domains, the U.S. Coast Guard is at any given time deployed to and operating on all seven continents and in cyberspace to enforce its mission. Like its United States Navy sibling, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains a global presence with permanently-assigned personnel throughout the world and forces routinely deploying to both littoral and blue-water regions. The U.S. Coast Guard's adaptive, multi-mission "white hull" fleet is leveraged as a force of both diplomatic soft power and humanitarian and security assistance over the more overtly confrontational nature of "gray hulled" warships. As a humanitarian service, it saves tens of thousands of lives a year at sea and in U.S. waters, and provides emergency response and disaster management for a wide range of human-made and natural catastrophic incidents in the U.S. and throughout the world.
The U.S. Coast Guard operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime. During times of war, it can be transferred in whole or in part to the U.S. Department of the Navy under the Department of Defense by order of the U.S. President or by act of Congress. Prior to its transfer to Homeland Security, it operated under the Department of Transportation from 1967 to 2003 and the Department of the Treasury from its inception until 1967. A congressional authority transfer to the Navy has only happened once: in 1917, during World War I. By the time the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, the U.S. Coast Guard had already been transferred to the Navy by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Created by Congress as the Revenue-Marine on 4 August 1790 at the request of Alexander Hamilton, it is the oldest continuously operating naval service of the United States. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton headed the Revenue-Marine, whose original purpose was collecting customs duties at U.S. seaports. By the 1860s, the service was known as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the term Revenue-Marine gradually fell into disuse.
The modern U.S. Coast Guard was formed by a merger of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service on 28 January 1915, under the Department of the Treasury. In 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was also merged into the U.S. Coast Guard. As one of the country's six armed services, the U.S. Coast Guard has deployed to support and fight every major U.S. war since 1790, from the Quasi-War with France to the Global War on Terrorism.
As of December 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard's authorized force strength is 44,500 active duty personnel and 7,000 reservists. The service's force strength also includes 8,577 full-time civilian federal employees and 31,000 uniformed volunteers of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. The service maintains an extensive fleet of roughly 250 coastal and ocean-going cutters, patrol ships, buoy tenders, tugs, and icebreakers; as well as nearly 2,000 small boats and specialized craft. It also maintains an aviation division consisting of more than 200 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. While the U.S. Coast Guard is the second smallest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of membership, the service by itself is the world's 12th largest naval force.
The Coast Guard carries out three basic roles, which are further subdivided into eleven statutory missions. The three roles are:
With a decentralized organization and much responsibility placed on even the most junior personnel, the Coast Guard is frequently lauded for its quick responsiveness and adaptability in a broad range of emergencies. In a 2005 article in Time magazine following Hurricane Katrina, the author wrote, "the Coast Guard's most valuable contribution to [a military effort when catastrophe hits] may be as a model of flexibility, and most of all, spirit." Wil Milam, a rescue swimmer from Alaska told the magazine, "In the Navy, it was all about the mission. Practicing for war, training for war. In the Coast Guard, it was, take care of our people and the mission will take care of itself."
The eleven statutory missions as defined by law are divided into homeland security missions and non-homeland security missions:
Non-homeland security missions
Homeland security missions
Search and rescue
The U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue (CG-SAR) is one of the Coast Guard's best-known operations. The National Search and Rescue Plan designates the Coast Guard as the federal agency responsible for maritime SAR operations, and the United States Air Force as the federal agency responsible for inland SAR. Both agencies maintain rescue coordination centers to coordinate this effort, and have responsibility for both military and civilian search and rescue. The two services jointly provide instructor staff for the National Search and Rescue School that trains SAR mission planners and coordinators. Previously located on Governors Island, New York, the school is now located at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown at Yorktown, Virginia.
National Response Center
Operated by the Coast Guard, the National Response Center (NRC) is the sole U.S. Government point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological, and etiological spills and discharges into the environment, anywhere in the United States and its territories. In addition to gathering and distributing spill/incident information for Federal On Scene Coordinators and serving as the communications and operations center for the National Response Team, the NRC maintains agreements with a variety of federal entities to make additional notifications regarding incidents meeting established trigger criteria. The NRC also takes Maritime Suspicious Activity and Security Breach Reports. Details on the NRC organization and specific responsibilities can be found in the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. The Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) database system is managed and used by the Coast Guard for tracking pollution and safety incidents in the nation's ports.
National Maritime Center
The National Maritime Center (NMC) is the merchant mariner credentialing authority for the USCG under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. To ensure a safe, secure, and environmentally sound marine transportation system, the mission of the NMC is to issue credentials to fully qualified mariners in the United States maritime jurisdiction.
Authority as an armed service
The six uniformed services that make up the U.S. Armed Forces are defined in Title 10 of the U.S. Code: "The term "armed forces" means the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard." The Coast Guard is further defined by Title 14 of the United States Code: "The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915, shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times. The Coast Guard shall be a service in the Department of Homeland Security, except when operating as a service in the Navy." Coast Guard organization and operation is as set forth in Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
On 25 November 2002, the Homeland Security Act was signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush, designating the Coast Guard to be placed under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The transfer of administrative control from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was completed the following year, on 1 March 2003.
The U.S. Coast Guard reports directly to the civilian Secretary of Homeland Security. However, under 14 U.S.C. § 3 as amended by section 211 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, upon the declaration of war and when Congress so directs in the declaration, or when the President directs, the Coast Guard operates under the Department of Defense as a service in the Department of the Navy.
As members of the military, Coast Guardsmen on active and reserve service are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and receive the same pay and allowances as members of the same pay grades in the other uniformed services.
The service has participated in every major U.S. conflict from 1790 through today, including landing troops on D-Day and on the Pacific Islands in World War II, in extensive patrols and shore bombardment during the Vietnam War, and multiple roles in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Maritime interception operations, coastal security, transportation security, and law enforcement detachments have been its major roles in recent conflicts in Iraq.
On 17 October 2007, the Coast Guard joined with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps to adopt a new maritime strategy called A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower that raised the notion of prevention of war to the same philosophical level as the conduct of war. This new strategy charted a course for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps to work collectively with each other and international partners to prevent regional crises, man-made or natural, from occurring, or reacting quickly should one occur to avoid negative impacts to the United States. During the launch of the new U.S. maritime strategy at the International Seapower Symposium at the U.S. Naval War College in 2007, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said the new maritime strategy reinforced the time-honored missions the service has carried out in the United States since 1790. "It reinforces the Coast Guard maritime strategy of safety, security and stewardship, and it reflects not only the global reach of our maritime services but the need to integrate and synchronize and act with our coalition and international partners to not only win wars ... but to prevent wars," Allen said.
Authority as a law enforcement agency
Title 14 USC, section 2 authorizes the Coast Guard to enforce U.S. federal laws. This authority is further defined in 14 U.S.C. § 522, which gives law enforcement powers to all Coast Guard commissioned officers, warrant officers, and petty officers. Unlike the other branches of the United States Armed Forces, which are prevented from acting in a law enforcement capacity by 18 U.S.C. § 1385, the Posse Comitatus Act, and Department of Defense policy, the Coast Guard is exempt from and not subject to the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act.
Further law enforcement authority is given by 14 U.S.C. § 703 and 19 U.S.C. § 1401, which empower U.S. Coast Guard active and reserve commissioned officers, warrant officers, and petty officers as federal customs officers. This places them under 19 U.S.C. § 1589a, which grants customs officers general federal law enforcement authority, including the authority to:
(1) carry a firearm;
(2) execute and serve any order, warrant, subpoena, summons, or other process issued under the authority of the United States;
(3) make an arrest without a warrant for any offense against the United States committed in the officer's presence or for a felony, cognizable under the laws of the United States committed outside the officer's presence if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a felony; and
(4) perform any other law enforcement duty that the Secretary of Homeland Security may designate.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office Report to the House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary on its 2006 Survey of Federal Civilian Law Enforcement Functions and Authorities, identified the Coast Guard as one of 104 federal components that employed law enforcement officers. The report also included a summary table of the authorities of the Coast Guard's 192 special agents and 3,780 maritime law enforcement boarding officers.
Coast Guardsmen have the legal authority to carry their service-issued firearms on and off base. This is rarely done in practice, however; at many Coast Guard stations, commanders prefer to have all service-issued weapons in armories when not in use. Still, one court has held in the case of People v. Booth that Coast Guard boarding officers are qualified law enforcement officers authorized to carry personal firearms off-duty for self-defense.
The Coast Guard traced its roots to the small fleet of vessels maintained by the United States Department of the Treasury beginning in the 1790s to enforce tariffs (an important source of revenue for the new nation). Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton lobbied Congress to fund the construction of ten cutters, which it did on 4 August 1790 (now celebrated as the Coast Guard's official birthday). Until the re-establishment of the Navy in 1798, these "revenue cutters" were the only naval force of the early United States. As such, the cutters and their crews frequently took on additional duties, including combating piracy, rescuing mariners in distress, ferrying government officials, and even carrying mail. Initially not an organized federal agency at all, merely a "system of cutters," each ship operated under the direction of the customs officials in the port to which it was assigned. Several names, including "Revenue-Marine," were used as the service gradually becoming more organized. Eventually it was officially organized as the United States Revenue Cutter Service. In addition to its regular law enforcement and customs duties, revenue cutters and their crews were used to support and supplement the Navy in various armed conflicts including the American Civil War.
A separate federal agency, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, developed alongside the Revenue-Marine. Prior to 1848, there were various charitable efforts at creating systems to provide assistance to shipwrecked mariners from shore-based stations, notably by the Massachusetts Humane Society. The federal government began funding lifesaving stations in 1848 but funding was inconsistent and the system still relied on all-volunteer crews. In 1871, Sumner Increase Kimball was appointed chief of the Treasury Department's newly-created Revenue Marine Division, and began the process of organizing the Revenue-Marine cutters into a centralized agency. Kimball also pushed for more funding lifesaving stations and eventually secured approval to create the Lifesaving Service as a separate federal agency, also within the Treasury Department, with fulltime paid crews.
In 1915 these two agencies, the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lifesaving Service, were merged to create the modern United States Coast Guard. The Lighthouse Service and the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation were absorbed by the Coast Guard 1939 and 1942 respectively. In 1967, the Coast Guard moved from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to the newly formed U.S. Department of Transportation, an arrangement that lasted until it was placed under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003 as part of legislation designed to more efficiently protect American interests following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
In times of war, the Coast Guard or individual components of it can operate as a service of the Department of the Navy. This arrangement has a broad historical basis, as the Coast Guard has been involved in wars as diverse as the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, and the American Civil War, in which the cutter Harriet Lane fired the first naval shots attempting to relieve besieged Fort Sumter. The last time the Coast Guard operated as a whole within the Navy was in World War II, in all some 250,000 served in the Coast Guard during World War II.
Coast Guard Squadron One, was a combat unit formed by the United States Coast Guard in 1965 for service during the Vietnam War. Placed under the operational control of the United States Navy, it was assigned duties in Operation Market Time. Its formation marked the first time since World War II that Coast Guard personnel were used extensively in a combat environment. The squadron operated divisions in three separate areas during the period of 1965 to 1970. Twenty-six Point-class cutters with their crews and a squadron support staff were assigned to the U.S. Navy with the mission of interdicting the movement of arms and supplies from the South China Sea into South Vietnam by Viet Cong and North Vietnam junk and trawler operators. The squadron also provided 81mm mortar naval gunfire support to nearby friendly units operating along the South Vietnamese coastline and assisted the U.S. Navy during Operation Sealords.
Coast Guard Squadron Three, was a combat unit formed by the United States Coast Guard in 1967 for service during the Vietnam War. Placed under the operational control of the United States Navy and based in Pearl Harbor. It consisted of five USCG High Endurance Cutters operating on revolving six-month deployments. A total of 35 High Endurance Cutters took part in operations from May 1967 to December 1971, most notably using their 5-inch guns to provide naval gunfire support missions.
Deployable Operations Group
The Deployable Operations Group (DOG) was a Coast Guard command established in July 2007. The DOG established a single command authority to rapidly provide the Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of Justice and other interagency operational commanders adaptive force packages drawn from the Coast Guard's deployable specialized force units. The DOG was disestablished on 22 April 2013 and its deployable specialized forces (DSF) units were placed under the control of the Atlantic and Pacific Area Commanders.
The planning for the unit began after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and culminated with its formation on 20 July 2007. Its missions included maritime law enforcement, anti-terrorism, port security, pollution response, and diving operations.
There were over 25 specialized units within the Deployable Operations Group including the Maritime Security Response Team, Maritime Safety and Security Teams, Law Enforcement Detachments, Port Security Units, the National Strike Force, and Regional Dive Lockers. The DOG also managed Coast Guard personnel assigned to the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and was involved in the selection of Coast Guard candidates to attend Navy BUD/S and serve with Navy SEAL Teams.
- United States Coast Guard Squadron One unit patch during the Vietnam War
- A Coast Guardsman stands guard over more than 40,000 pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $500 million being offloaded from the Cutter Sherman, 23 April 2007.
- A boatswain's mate keeps watch on a small boat as it heads for the USCGC Chandeleur in 2008
The new Department of Homeland Security headquarters complex is on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington, across the Anacostia River from former Coast Guard headquarters.
The fiscal year 2016 budget request for the U.S. Coast Guard was $9.96 billion.
Districts and units
The Coast Guard's current district organization is divided into 9 districts. Their designations, district office and area of responsibility are as follows:
|Area of responsibility
|New England states, eastern New York and northern New Jersey
|Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina
|South Carolina, Georgia, eastern Florida, Puerto Rico,
and the U.S. Virgin Islands
|New Orleans, Louisiana
|Western Rivers of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico
|California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah
|Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana
|Hawaii and Pacific territories
Shore establishment commands exist to support and facilitate the mission of the sea and air assets and Coastal Defense. U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters is located in Southeast Washington, D.C. Examples of other shore establishment types are Coast Guard Sectors (which may include Coast Guard Bases), Surface Forces Logistics Center (SFLC), Coast Guard Stations, Coast Guard Air Stations, and the United States Coast Guard Yard. Training centers are included in the shore establishment commands. The military college for the USCG is called the United States Coast Guard Academy which trains both new officers through a four year program and enlisted personnel joining the ranks of officers through a 17 week program called Officer Candidate School (OCS). Abbreviated TRACEN, the other Training Centers include Training Center Cape May for enlisted bootcamp, Training Center Petaluma and Training Center Yorktown for enlisted "A" schools and "C" schools, and Coast Guard Aviation Technical Training Center and Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile for aviation enlisted "A" school, "C" schools, and pilot officer training.