United States Coast Guard

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(PD) Photo: Michael Anderson / USCG
Island class Cutter Chandeleur.

With a substantial claim to being the oldest of the United States' uniformed services, the United States Coast Guard has an exceptionally wide range of civilian missions, with additional wartime responsibilities. At present, it is under the Department of Homeland Security, but, for operations, can be under the United States Navy. It is the smallest armed service of the United States, although there are smaller uniformed services.

Its stated mission is to protect the public, the environment, and the United States economic and security interests in any maritime region in which those interests may be at risk, including international waters and America's coasts, ports, and inland waterways.[1]

The Coast Guard's official motto is Semper Paratus, meaning "Always Ready". Its unofficial motto, from its Lifesaving Service ancestry, is "You have to go out. You don't have to come back.:


Coast Guard functions began with the Revenue Cutter Service, which was founded on August 4, 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. In 1915, the United States Coast Guard was formed from a merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service. In 1939, it also assumed the responsibilities of the Lighthouse Service, and, in the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard.

The legal basis for the Coast Guard is Title 14 of the United States Code, which states: "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 Treasury origin is reflected in the Coast Guard being the only U.S. uniformed service to have general law enforcement authority; it is not subject to the Posse Comitatus Act

Upon the declaration of war or when the President directs, the Coast Guard operates under the authority of the Department of the Navy. The Coast Guard later moved to the Department of Transportation in 1967, and on February 25, 2003 it became part of the Department of Homeland Security.


The Coast Guard has an exceptionally wide range of safety, law enforcement, and national security functions, which fall under the broad categories of:

  • Search and Rescue
  • Law Enforcement
  • Marine Safety & Environmental Protection
  • Polar, Alaska & Other Ice Operations (Including the International Ice Patrol)
  • National Security, Military Preparedness

Search and Rescue

USCG is the lead U.S. agency participating in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention). GMDSS was created by the Safety of Life at Sea convention, under the International Maritime Organization.

Coast Guard SAR communications have been based on a now-outmoded VHF communications ssytem called NDRS. This has no direction finding capabilities, gaps in geographic coverage, and was based on single channels that allowed neither broadcasts nor multiple simultaneous calls.

Rescue 21 encompasses a number of new technologies, many based on GPS. While there is a capability, in the new satellite-based Emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) program, to do direction-finding based on time-of-arrival of signals at multiple satellites, this is not needed if the beacon determines its own position with GPS, and includes that information in its signal.

Digital selective calling and other digital technologies increase system capacity which is being strained by increases in recreational boating and maritime trade. These increases involve the somewhat different requirements of inland, coastal, and deep-water navigation and communications.

Rescue 21 also addresses new homeland security requirements. Cargo ships greater than 300 tons, and all passenger vessels, are required to install the automatic identification system (AIS), which is a continuously operating transponder system much as used in air traffic control. AIS, like another aviation system, also allows vessels to detect potential collisions without intervention by the control system.

A vessel that showed up on radar or other sensors, but was not sending verifiable AIS signals, would be immediate cause for investigation.

Equipment and facilities

The Coast Guard operates permanent stations both along the USA's coasts, and on the USA's internal waterways. The Coast Guard operates a fleet of hundreds of cutters icebreakers, icebreaking tugs, buoy tenders and research vessels, and hundreds of shore based lifeboats and patrol boats. The Coast Guard operates a fleet of helicopters, cargo aircraft and maritime patrol aircraft.


Due to its early roots in the United States Revenue Cutter Service all the Coast Guard's larger vessels are called cutters. The smallest cutters are those in the 87 foot Marine Protector class, staffed by a complement of just ten sailors. The largest cutters displace thousands of tons, are staffed by complements of hundreds, and are capable of missions lasting longer than a month.

The Coast Guard has a history of sending cutters and smaller patrol boats on extraterritorial missions.[2]

Some recent and current Coast Guard cutters
class name number complement tonnage armament operational notes
Point class 1960s -- 1990s
Marine Protector class 69 10 2 x Browning M2 2001-present
  • In spite of their size these vessels can accommodate mixed sex crews.
  • The first USCG vessels to use the innovative stern launching ramp.
Island class 54 18 150 25 mm autocannon 1980s -- present
  • 8 vessels underwent and extensive refit, that was a total failure, and had to be scrapped.
Sentinel class 34 22 350 25 mm autocannon 2012
  • Original hi-tech design was abandoned, and replaced with a proven foreign design.
Wind class various 1940s --
  • Heavily armed icebreakers several of which were originally USN vessels.
  • One vessel was provided to the USSR during World War 2.
  • the HMCS Labrador was provided to the Royal Canadian Navy during World War 2.
  • The original USCGC Mackinaw was a modified Wind class icebreaker.
Polar class 3 unarmed 1970s -- present
  • Large icebreakers, that are used to support polar research.
  • The Polar Star and Polar Sea were built to the same design. The Healy is a more recent design.


The Coast Guard currently possesses just three large icebreakers that are used for polar research, the USCGC Polar Star, USCGC Polar Sea, and the newer USCGC Healy. The Polar Star and Polar Sea are approaching the end of their useful life, and their have been debates as to whether to scrap them, and replace them with newer vessels, at a cost of close to a bilion dollars each, or to spend hundreds of millions to refurbish them.

The Coast Guard launched the USCGC Mackinaw in 2008. The Mackinaw is the second icebreaker of this name, and it replaced its predecessor on the Great Lakes. The Mackinaw uses a new propulsion and icebreaking technique, that both increase its comfort level of its crew, in open water, and increases its ability to break ice. Unlike traditional icebreakers, the vessel has a conventional bow.

The Coast Guard also operates a fleet of icebreaking tugs, which provide lighter icebreaking duties. Some of the Coast Guard's buoy tenders are also called upon to provide light icebreaking in season.


The Coast Guard's Polar class icebreakers and the largest cutters have a rear landing deck, and a hangar for operating light utility helicopters. The Coast Guard operates several classes of shore based helicopters.

Fixed wing aircraft

The Coast Guard operates multiple classes of fixed wing aircraft, including the widely used Hercules aircraft.