The History, Role and Mission of the US Coast Guard

Under the direction of the United States Department of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard is the military force responsible for safeguarding the country’s maritime interests at the local, regional, national and international level.

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Often referred to as a “unique instrument of maritime safety, security and environmental stewardship,” the U.S. Coast Guard accomplishes its mission through:

  • Maritime Security Operations
  • Maritime Law Enforcement
  • Maritime Prevention
  • Maritime Response
  • Defense Operations
  • Marine Transportation Management

The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for law enforcement, incident response, homeland security, and disaster management in the maritime environment.

Its workforce total, as of 2012, included 42,190 active military personnel, 7,899 civilian personnel, 8,722 active retired personnel, 6,537 reserve retired, and 32,156 auxiliary personnel. In terms of demographics, men accounted for 85.7 percent of the workforce. The U.S. Coast Guard was instrumental in many large-scale incidents in 2012, including:

  • January 2012: The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a vessel containing approximately 13,000 pounds of cocaine.
  • March 2012: U.S. Coast Guard inspection teams assessed the damage to the West Coast in advance of the Japanese tsunami, while cutters assisted with the recovery of vessels in the aftermath of the tsunami.
  • August 2012: The Coast Guard, along with a number of state and local partners, readied more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 46 ports following Hurricane Irene.

Members of the Coast Guard, whether they are enlisted personnel, officers or reservists, are called upon to be, according to the Coast Guard: police officers; warriors; sailors; humanitarians; regulators; diplomats; guardians of the coast; and stewards of the environment. Thus, the Coast Guard is a multi-faceted agency known for its: military, multi-mission, and maritime.

What is the Coast Guard? The History of the U.S. Coast Guard

To fully understand the role the Coast Guard plays in the nation’s maritime interests, it is important to appreciate its history.

The Coast Guard was formed in 1790 when the First Congress of the United States set its sight on establishing a small, maritime law enforcement agency that would assist in collecting customs duties. The new agency, called the Revenue Marine (soon after called the Revenue Cutter Service), served as the nation’s only naval force and therefore was soon assigned additional military duties.

The Revenue Cutter Service eventually merged with other federal agencies to become what is known as today’s Coast Guard, which is called upon to carry out a number of military and civil responsibilities involving the nation’s maritime interests.

What is the Coast Guard? The Role and Mission of the U.S. Coast Guard

The United States maritime region includes 95,000 miles of shoreline and nearly 3.4 million square miles of the Exclusive Economic Zones. The seas of the world allow our nation to engage in world trade and commerce, project our military power beyond our shores as to protect our interests, and assist allies. Further, the seas have become highways for criminals and terrorists that threaten our national borders.

Therefore, as one of the five military branches that make up our nation’s Armed Forces, the Coast Guard is responsible for defending and preserving the United States and for ensuring the personal safety and security of the nation’s citizens and the protection of our marine transportation system and critical infrastructure, our natural and economic resources, and the territorial integrity of the nation from internal and external threats.

The Coast Guard has three, major roles, which include:

Maritime Safety

The most crucial responsibility of the United States Coast Guard is to safeguard the lives and safety of the citizens within the maritime environment. The Coast Guard accomplishes this through partnerships with federal agencies and state and local governments, as well as marine industries and individual mariners.

The Coast Guard is called upon to improve maritime safety through mishap prevention, search and rescue, and accident investigation. Its preventative measures and programs include the development of standards and practices, including review and compliance inspections and mariner safety programs.

Maritime Security

Maritime law enforcement and border control in the Coast Guard are as old as the agency itself. Maritime law enforcement includes the interdiction of ships at sea, and the enforcement of federal laws and treaties on the waters within the United States’ jurisdiction. The Coast Guard is also the designated lead agency for maritime drug interdiction.

Maritime Stewardship

Because our nation’s waters are crucial to our economy and our country’s well-being, the Coast Guard plays an active role in protecting our marine environment, one of the most valuable natural resources on the planet. As such, the Coast Guard serves as the primary agency for at-sea fisheries enforcement. Partnering with a number of state and federal agencies, the Coast Guard enforces marine resource management as to preserve healthy stocks of fish and other living marine resources.

The Coast Guard’s stewardship role has also expanded to include laws that help protect the environment for the common good. As such, the Coast Guard safeguards sensitive marine habitats, mammals, and endangered species and enforces laws that protect our waters from the discharge of hazardous substances and the introduction of non-indigenous invasive species.

The Coast Guard’s maritime stewardship activities include education and prevention; law enforcement; emergency response and containment; and disaster recovery.

U.S. Coast Guard Support Roles

In addition to protecting and preserving our nation’s maritime interests, the members of the Coast Guard also often serve in vital support roles as to achieve mission success. Support functions within the U.S. Coast Guard include:

  • Intelligence
  • Engineering and Logistics
  • Planning and Policy
  • Command, Control, Communications, Computers and IT
  • Capabilities Development
  • Finance
  • Acquisitions

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