What Does the Coast Guard Do? (With Key Duties and FAQ)

Updated February 27, 2023

The Coast Guard is a part of the United States military that plays an important role in maintaining safety on and off the U.S. shorelines. Individuals in this branch of the military handle a variety of tasks regarding marine safety, search and rescue and port security. Understanding various aspects of their responsibilities can help you determine whether a career in the Coast Guard may be right for you.

In this article, we outline what the Coast Guard is, discuss what individuals in this role do and answer frequently asked questions about this branch of the military.

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What is the Coast Guard?

The U.S. Coast Guard is a branch of the military responsible for different marine and rescue-related duties. Established in 1790, it's one of the nation's oldest seagoing services, helping protect the environment and the safety of national coastlines. members of the Coast Guard serve inland waterways as well and may participate in international operations, depending on the military's requirements.

Related: Military Careers: A Definitive Guide

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What does the Coast Guard do?

The Coast Guard maintains the safety of U.S. residents by protecting national ports, conducting rescue missions and exercising sea border control. During times of war, or by direct order from the president, the Coast Guard can deploy as an active section of the U.S. Navy. Overall, the Coast Guard's mission divides into six different areas of operation:

  • First response

  • Law enforcement

  • Environmental protection

  • Transportation management

  • Defense operations

  • Security operations

Within the six areas of operations, the Coast Guard performs a variety of missions, including:

Waterway and port security

Waterway security is one of the Coast Guard's primary security missions. The Coast Guard ensures the safety of marine trade and residents who live near coastal areas. By protecting U.S. waterways, the Coast Guard also can help prevent acts of terrorism and prepare for potential attacks. This military branch maintains law enforcement standards to serve as a resource for anti-terrorism efforts. Teams within the Coast Guard undergo training to both discover and stop terrorist activity before an event occurs. Members can often detect weapons, install security zones and evaluate shoreline security.

Related: 17 Jobs in the Coast Guard Reserve

Drug interdiction

The Coast Guard functions as a primary line of defense against illegal drug transportation in the U.S. Communicating closely with other federal bureaus and nations, the Coast Guard patrols an area called the transit zone, which covers the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Their evaluation efforts help halt drug trafficking activities that can occur in this zone.

Related: FAQ: What Are the U.S. Military Branches?

Search and rescue

Besides waterway security, search and rescue (SAR) operations remain one of the Coast Guard's primary responsibilities. Members handle missions such as helping boats in distress, preventing property damage and searching for missing persons. SAR response teams use tools such as various aircraft, mission stations and specialized boats to communicate with officials and conduct efficient rescue operations. The Coast Guard maintains SAR facilities in the following locations:

  • Alaska

  • Guam

  • Hawaii

  • Puerto Rico

  • The Great Lakes

  • East and West coasts

  • Gulf Coast

  • Inland waterways

Related: How To Become a Marine Pilot

Navigation aid

The Coast Guard provides key navigation assistance for all U.S. marine vessels. They maintain signs, buoys, symbols, markers and lighthouses to ensure these tools function according to regulation standards. By maintaining these navigation aids, both commercial and recreational boaters can travel across waters safely and follow routes accurately.

Related: How To Become Third Mate

Marine safety

The Coast Guard helps promote safe boating practices by managing various mariner responsibilities. For instance, they may license mariners, track various ships and create safety programs. The Coast Guard also investigates any marine-related accidents by evaluating marine facilities, merchant vessels or drilling units. Volunteer members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary help teach recreational boat safety and perform various boat inspections.

Related: General Orders in the United States Military

Migrant interdiction

Since the Coast Guard is the primary law enforcement agency for the U.S. coasts, they help enforce immigration laws at sea. By conducting patrols, the Coast Guard works to stop human trafficking operations. The Coast Guard works with various federal agencies and the governments of other countries to prevent immigrants who don't have legal authorization from entering the U.S. through marine routes.

Defense readiness

As an extension of the military, the Coast Guard serves to protect the U.S. from threats such as terrorism or environmental hazards. The Coast Guard has four general defense objectives, including:

  • Marine interception operations

  • Port defense operations

  • Environmental defense operations

  • Peacetime engagement

Marine protection

The Coast Guard communicates with various organizations to protect endangered marine wildlife. With assistance from the Marine Environmental Protection program, the Coast Guard both creates and enforces regulations to help prevent invasive species from altering the marine environment. The Coast Guard also helps prevent ocean waste dumping, and chemical and oil spills.

Ice operations

Below-zero temperatures can be dangerous for marine operations. To help promote marine safety in the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard undergoes ice-breaking operations. The Coast Guard also helps in ice-breaking operations surrounding the North and South Poles.

Related: 25 Unique Jobs in the Military (With Salaries)

Frequently asked questions

Is the Coast Guard part of the military?

The Coast Guard is a part of the U.S. military but isn't a part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Instead, the Coast Guard is a military branch within the Department of Homeland Security. In the past, the Coast Guard was a part of the Department of Transportation and the Department of the Treasury.

Related: Which U.S. Military Branch Pays the Most?

How many people are in the Coast Guard?

The Coast Guard is the smallest military branch in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 41,000 full-time active duty members work in the Coast Guard, with nearly 26,000 volunteers for the Coast Guard's Auxiliary division. There are also nearly 10,000 civilians authorized to work for this military branch, including individuals in administrative and technical roles.

Related: Joining the Military With a GED: Requirements for Each Branch

What's the difference between the Coast Guard and the Navy?

There are many differences between the Coast Guard and the Navy, including:

  • Size of the organization: The Navy has approximately 500,000 active-duty members, making it much larger than the Coast Guard.

  • Operation locations: The Navy operates internationally, while the Coast Guard mainly operates within the U.S.' waterways and along the country's coasts.

  • Overall purpose: The Navy maintains a war-ready fleet to secure the freedom of international waters, while the Coast Guard typically emphasizes marine law enforcement and protection within U.S. waters.

Related: Navy Officer Jobs Explained

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