United States Coast Guard
Organization and Missions
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in early September,
the U.S. Coast Guard organized its largest disaster response effort since
the interception and rescue of 55,401 Haitians and Cubans in the Caribbean
Sea in 1994. For the Katrina rescue and relief effort, the Coast Guard
deployed more than 5,000 members, saving more than 33,500 lives in Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama.
This was done as the service prepared for another major
hurricane, Rita, in Texas, responded to oil spills in the storm-ravaged
Gulf Coast region and elsewhere, conducted homeland security patrols,
interdicted drug smugglers, enforced fisheries laws, participated in
combat patrols in Iraq and, in the case of one cutter, partied at the
For years, analysts have sounded warnings about the
Coast Guard’s aging fleet and disparate mission set. They have
argued that the service is stretched thin and its assets are falling
apart. But despite these logistical and operational tempo woes, the Coast
Guard continues to function as a multifaceted organization.
To better address its mission scope, which includes
expansion of its homeland security duties, the Coast Guard in 2005 continued
realigning its units both at headquarters in Washington, D.C., and in
the field. The service aligned its headquarters divisions with its Defense
Department brethren, consolidating offices into a familiar CG-1 (administrative),
CG-2 (intelligence), CG-3 (operations), etc., framework. The service
also continued a process of consolidating its field offices to ensure
it has one commander in charge in critical U.S. ports and regions. This
move to coalesce groups and maritime safety units into “sectors” is
intended to streamline response, unify operations and improve communications
and response in emergencies.
The Coast Guard is a force of more than 40,000 active
duty personnel, 8,100 reservists, 35,000 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers
and more than 7,000 civilian employees. The service is part of the Department
of Homeland Security — the only one of the five U.S. armed services
that resides outside the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard is responsible
for guarding 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline and patrolling 3.4 million
square miles of the country’s exclusive economic zone. It regulates
operations at 361 U.S. ports, including three of the world’s largest.
Despite being one of the world’s busiest naval
forces, the Coast Guard has the 39th oldest fleet and has undertaken
a massive modernization project to upgrade its aging ships, aircraft
and communications equipment. Under the Deepwater recapitalization project,
the Coast Guard will replace its offshore cutters, patrol aircraft, helicopters
and systems in the next 25 years.
The Coast Guard’s predecessor, the Revenue Cutter
Service, was founded in 1790, charged with collecting tariffs and enforcing
regulations regarding the importation of goods. The Revenue Cutter Service
was combined with the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1915, creating the Coast
The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Navigation
and Steamboat Inspection Service would merge with the Coast Guard later,
adding to its mission set. Under Title XIV, U.S. Code, the Coast Guard
operates under the Navy during times of war as directed by the president.
The Magnuson Act of 1950 solidified the Coast Guard’s responsibilities
for the security of U.S. ports and harbors.
While the Coast Guard has had a homeland defense mission
since its founding (the Revenue Cutter Service was charged with preventing
smugglers and known enemies from reaching U.S. shores), the service’s
homeland security responsibilities were not put to the test until after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the aftermath, the service’s
homeland security role expanded to more than 50 percent of its operations.
Since then, roughly a quarter of the Coast Guard’s operations budget
has been spent on this role.
The Commandant of the Coast
Adm. Thomas H. Collins is 22nd commandant of the Coast
Guard, having been named to the post in 2002. He has overseen the service’s
transition from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security
and is charged with managing the Coast Guard’s growth in the areas
of homeland security, law enforcement and maritime security.
Since taking command, Collins has realigned the service’s
force structure and its headquarters divisions, streamlining the organization
to mirror its Defense Department partners’ tables of organization
and improve its ability to communicate with partner agencies, federal
law enforcement, industry and state and local governments. He also has
expressed his commitment to making effective use of emerging technologies
and developing new methods to improve Coast Guard performance.
Collins is one of two Homeland Security agency heads
who report directly to the homeland security secretary — the other
is the Secret Service.
Under Collins’ leadership, the Coast Guard has
successfully undertaken several large acquisition projects, including
the Deepwater program and Rescue 21, a search-and-rescue communications
system that, when complete, will allow the service to pinpoint origins
of rescue calls and provide interoperable communications with other agencies.
These accomplishments mark a continuation of Collins’ efforts while
serving as head of the Coast Guard’s Office of Acquisitions. As
commandant, he has lobbied for adequate funding and implementation of
these and other important programs.
Within the Coast Guard, Collins has set his leadership
priorities as “readiness, people and stewardship,” focusing
on having his people live up to the service’s motto “Semper
Paratus” — Always Prepared. He has encouraged Coast Guardsmen
to honor their core values — honor, respect and devotion to duty — and
has instituted new fitness standards and personal grooming regulations.
Collins has expanded the Coast Guard’s efforts
to cooperate with the U.S. Navy, seizing opportunities to conduct joint
training and research and development with the sister service. The Coast
Guard has signed several memorandums of agreement with the Navy, addressing
such issues as homeland defense, narcotics interdiction and asset sharing.
A Coast Guard-Navy team is manning the Navy’s newest experimental
ship, Sea Fighter, Coast Guard law enforcement detachments deploy on
U.S. Navy ships for counter-narcotics operations and Coast Guard personnel
are deployed overseas to bolster naval forces.
Organization, Missions and Capabilities
Coast Guard headquarters is responsible for overseeing
the administration, logistics, support, intelligence, acquisitions, and
research and development needed to run the service.
The operational Coast Guard is divided into two areas — Atlantic
Area and Pacific Area — each of which is commanded by a vice admiral.
The areas are organized into a total of nine districts.
In the past, districts were made up of groups, marine
safety offices (MSOs) and air stations. However, groups and marine safety
offices are now being merged, with the subsequent organization being
called a sector. Sectors oversee the MSO offices as well as the area’s
search-and-rescue units, called small boat stations. Sectors and Coast
Guard Air Stations report directly to district offices.
The Coast Guard has five core mission sets: search and
rescue (also called maritime safety), national defense, maritime security
and law enforcement, marine safety and mobility, and environmental protection.
The Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue role remains
its most visible mission, and during an average year the Coast Guard
rescues nearly 5,000 people. In 2004, the Coast Guard responded to 32,000
calls for assistance, saving 5,500 number lives. In 2005, it rescued
more than six times that number, counting those rescued during Hurricane
The Coast Guard works closely with other federal, state
and local agencies, and with foreign nations, to respond to mariners
in distress. It also maintains a vessel tracking system — the automated
mutual assistance vessel rescue — that allows it to divert nearby
commercial vessels to render assistance when necessary.
The Coast Guard runs a Marine Safety Program that oversees
regulation and inspection of boaters and merchant vessels, including
licensing of masters and crews. The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers free
boating safety courses, courtesy marine examinations for recreational
boaters, aids to navigation verification and inspections of commercial
The service maintains that protection of lives at sea
will become more challenging as demand for trade increases, and the number
of people traveling by ocean liner and recreational boats rises.
At the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coast
Guard deployed 1,250 members in-theater, including nearly 500 reservists.
The service sent two high-endurance cutters, a buoy tender, eight patrol
boats, four port-security units, a harbor-defense command unit, pollution-responders,
law-enforcement detachments and support staff to the Central and European
Command theaters of operation to support ongoing military operations.
Coast Guard forces contributed to the war effort by
seizing embargoed cargo, capturing the first maritime enemy prisoners
of war and finding a large weapons cache hidden in coastal caves of southern
Iraq. Coast Guard units also provided security in key ports and on oil
platforms in the North Persian Gulf.
Coast Guard personnel have also deployed to assist in
patrolling the waters of Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Coast Guard supports the national defense by providing
personnel for maritime intercept operations, security and defense port
operations, peacekeeping and environmental defense operations.
Maritime Security and Law Enforcement
The Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing federal
laws and laws of the sea, including narcotics enforcement, migrant interdiction,
vessel safety regulations and fisheries conservation laws. The service
has created Maritime Safety and Security Teams to assume domestic port
security, harbor defense and shore security roles.
The service’s Port Security Units are responsible
for these missions, as well as force-protection, overseas. In addition,
the Coast Guard has a number of law enforcement detachments and units
charged with enforcement. In fiscal 2005, the Coast Guard seized 318,139
pounds of cocaine valued at $9.6 billion.
The service attributes its recent successes to improved
intelligence collection, analysis and cooperation among the intelligence
community and foreign countries.
In addition, the Coast Guard ensures that the nation’s
110,000 commercial fishing vessels abide by U.S. regulations. The service
anticipates that as the world’s fish stocks decline, its role in
fisheries law enforcement will grow, placing more responsibility on the
service as an international peacekeeper and enforcer.
The Coast Guard also is the lead agency for the enforcement
of U.S. immigration laws at sea.
With 13 million American citizens employed in domestic
shipping-related activities and the country’s marine transportation
system contributing $740 billion to America’s economy, the Coast
Guard must ensure the safety of that trade, overseeing ports and maintaining
navigable waterways and harbors. Critical to marine traffic, the service’s
aids to navigation program and vessel traffic services guide the safe
movement of all vessels.
Each year, more than 8,000 foreign-flag vessels call
at U.S. ports. Twenty-five percent of U.S. domestic trade is moved by
water and more than 134 million passengers transit U.S. waters on ferries,
cruise ships and floating casinos. There also are more than 16 million
recreational watercraft in the U.S.
Given the amount of traffic operating in U.S. waterways,
the importance of maintaining maritime traffic signs and signals is clear.
Coast Guard officials believe that in the next 25 years, greater numbers
of ultra-large, deep-draft ships and mammoth cruise ships, carrying 6,000
or more people, will be on the water. The projected increase demands
continued effective control over the ship traffic.
In 2002, more than 150 countries agreed to develop a
strategy for increasing the security of the maritime transportation system,
and on July 1, 2004, these requirements took effect. The International
Ship and Port Facility Security Code requires vessels and port facilities
to conduct security assessments, develop security plans and hire security
Through the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA)
of 2002, U.S. vessels and port facilities also are required to implement
security plans. Implementation of the MTSA is overseen by the Coast Guard.
Marine Environmental Protection
The Coast Guard protects the nation’s natural
marine resources, enforcing fisheries and poaching laws. It also oversees
maritime pollution cleanup, responding to an emergency first, identifying
the responsible parties and aggressively pursuing reimbursement costs.
The service’s Research and Development Center has developed a technique
to “fingerprint” oil, allowing the service to identify the
source of a spill.
The Coast Guard also maintains an emergency response
force, called the National Strike Force, that responds to environmental
disasters and hazardous materials cases. It also is trained to handle
biological, chemical and nuclear emergencies.