What Does the Coast Guard Do: Roles & Missions

The primary purpose of the U.S. Coast Guard is to ensure the safety and security of maritime activities in U.S. and international waters.

As of 2024, the U.S. Coast Guard operates six major and fundamental operational mission programs. These are further subdivided into 11 specific missions outlined in the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

Additionally, these 11 specific missions are categorized into two types: those related to ‘homeland security’ and those considered ‘non-homeland security’ missions.

On a typical day, the Coast Guard accomplishes several critical tasks: they save 15 lives, conduct 90 search and rescue operations, inspect 122 vessels, and seize $21 million worth of illegal drugs. So, joining the USCG means committing your life to maintaining the nation’s maritime safety and security.

Key Takeaways

  • The Coast Guard operates through six major operational mission programs, which are further divided into 11 specific missions.
  • The Coast Guard’s specific missions are categorized as either homeland security or non-homeland security missions.
  • The Coast Guard is best known for missions such as Search and Rescue (SAR), Marine Safety, Maritime Response, Maritime Law Enforcement, and Drug Interdiction.
  • While the Coast Guard functions as part of the U.S. Navy during wartime, it is not a permanent part of the Navy.

Coast Guard Six Major Operational Mission Programs

what does the coast guard do

Maritime Law Enforcement

coast guard maritime law enforcement

The Maritime Law Enforcement mission of the U.S. Coast Guard focuses on enforcing maritime laws to protect America’s waters and borders.

This program involves patrolling, inspecting vessels, and preventing illegal activities like drug trafficking and unauthorized fishing.

Also, it ensures maritime safety, upholds sovereignty, and safeguards the marine environment.

The Maritime Law Enforcement mission operates its operation by specific missions like Drug Interdiction, Migrant Interdiction, Other Law Enforcement, and Living Marine Resources to combat illegal activities at sea.

Maritime Response

coast guard maritime response

The Maritime Response mission focuses on responding swiftly and effectively to marine emergencies. As the nation’s primary maritime first responder, this mission is centered on reducing the impact of marine accidents and disasters.

In one year, the Coast Guard responded to 19,790 search and rescue cases, saved 3,560 lives, and more than $77 million in property.

The Maritime Response mission is designed for rapid mobilization and coordinates with various agencies, including federal, state, local, and tribal, as well as private sector partners, to ensure a thorough and effective response to maritime incidents.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Response mission program conducts operations primarily through its Search and Rescue (SAR) and Marine Environmental Protection (MEP) specific missions.

Maritime Prevention

coast guard maritime prevention

The Maritime Prevention mission is dedicated to avoiding marine accidents and safeguarding both property and the environment.

The Maritime Prevention mission includes Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security; Marine Safety; and Marine Environmental Protection specific missions to protect the nation’s maritime infrastructure from security threats.

This mission program involves developing and enforcing federal regulations, thorough safety and security inspections of vessels, and comprehensive risk assessments of port security.

Additionally, this program regularly checks how well foreign ports are doing with their antiterrorism measures. It assesses their compliance with the International Maritime Organization’s security rules. If a port doesn’t meet these standards, ships coming to the U.S. from there must follow extra security steps.

Marine Transportation System Management

coast guard marine transportation system management

The Marine Transportation System Management mission prioritizes maintaining safe, secure, and environmentally responsible waterways.

The U.S. Coast Guard collaborates with various agencies and maritime organizations to ensure smooth and efficient movement of goods valued at $5.4 trillion through the nation’s ports and waterways.

This major mission program includes Aids to Navigation and Ice Operations specific missions to ensure safe and efficient maritime navigation and to keep vital waterways open and navigable in various conditions.

Maritime Security Operations

coast guard maritime security operations

The Maritime Security Operations mission aims to secure the nation’s maritime domain from terrorist threats and criminal activities.

This mission involves proactive measures to detect, deter, and disrupt potential sea threats. It includes executing antiterrorism strategies, responding to security incidents, and conducting recovery operations when necessary.

This mission is a key part of the Coast Guard’s overall security work, improving the safety of ports, waterways, and coastal areas, and it supports the goals of both the Maritime Response and Prevention initiatives.

Defense Operations

coast guard defense operations

The Defense Operations mission involves utilizing the Coast Guard’s unique capabilities to support the National Defense Strategy.

Under this mission program, the Coast Guard personnel are deployed globally, working alongside Combatant Commanders to ensure the security of the nation, even if they are far from U.S. shores.

This mission underscores the Coast Guard’s commitment to protecting national interests in an international context. So, under this mission program, the Coast Guard deployed to protect national interests.

Also, the Defense Operations mission includes the specific mission of Defense Readiness to ensure the Coast Guard is prepared to support national defense needs and respond effectively to global military and security challenges.

Coast Guard 11 Specific Missions 

The Coast Guard’s 11 specific missions come from the six major operational mission programs. These missions are divided into two categories: “homeland security,” focusing on protecting the nation, and “non-homeland security” missions, which cover other essential maritime responsibilities.

Homeland Security Missions:

  • Drug Interdiction: The Coast Guard’s Drug Interdiction mission aims to stop illegal drugs and fight organized crime. They work closely with other U.S. agencies and partners across a vast area. In January 2024, the Coast Guard Cutter Margaret Norvell’s crew seized over 2,450 pounds of cocaine in the Caribbean that was worth about $32.2 million. A year before that, they captured almost $500 million worth of drugs near Miami.
  • Migrant Interdiction: Migrant interdiction missions involve finding and stopping undocumented migrants and smugglers before they reach U.S. borders. From 1981 to 2003, they stopped 186,568 undocumented migrants trying to enter the U.S. by sea.
  • Other Law Enforcement: Other law enforcement missions of the Coast Guard include deterrence, detection, and interdiction of any illegal foreign fishing vessel making incursions into U.S. waters, especially in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). They protect this zone, which extends 200 miles from the U.S. coastline and covers over 4.5 million square miles, ensuring no foreign fishing boats illegally use its resources.
  • Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security: The PWCS mission involves protecting the U.S. Maritime Domain and Marine Transportation System (MTS), preventing and disrupting terrorist acts, and responding to such incidents. The key activities under PWCS include awareness initiatives, counterterrorism, antiterrorism, and establishing maritime security regimes.
  • Defense Readiness: The Defense Readiness mission ensures the Coast Guard’s people, ships, and planes are ready to support the Department of Defense (DOD). They help with national military strategies, secure Washington, DC’s airspace, intercept operations, and protect the environment and ports during military activities. Between 2011 and 2020, about 5% of the Coast Guard’s ship and plane missions were for Defense Readiness. This mission used up around 7% of their operating budget, which is less than what they spent on seven of their other 11 missions.

Non-Homeland Security Missions:

  • Living Marine Resources: The Living Marine Resources (LMR) mission, along with Other Law Enforcement, is one of the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions. Its goal is to uphold U.S. and international laws to protect marine life and their habitats, including endangered species and important natural areas.
  • Search and Rescue: Search and Rescue (SAR) is one of the Coast Guard’s oldest and most important roles. They focus on saving lives and helping those in trouble at sea, using a network of stations, ships, aircraft, and boats. Their expertise in this area is renowned worldwide. During the hurricane, the Coast Guard operated the SAR mission to save people from rooftops, flooded houses, transporting patients, evacuating buildings and houses. Last year, the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue (SAR) operations included 14,008 cases. They saved 5,532 lives and protected property worth $134.6 million.
  • Marine Environmental Protection: Marine Environmental Protection involves making and enforcing rules to protect sea life. This includes preventing the spread of invasive species, managing oil spills and harmful substances, and stopping illegal dumping in the ocean.
  • Marine Safety: The Marine Safety mission encompasses a range of critical activities aimed at ensuring the safety and security of marine transportation and infrastructure. The marine safety mission includes inspecting commercial vessels, responding to pollution incidents, investigating marine casualties and merchant mariner issues, managing waterways, and licensing merchant mariners. It also includes drafting recommendations for the transit of hazardous cargo like liquid natural gas.
  • Aids to Navigation: Aids to Navigation (ATONs) involve marking waterways and ports across the country to help with marine transportation. The Coast Guard maintains 50,000 markers, like buoys and lights, and manages marine traffic to keep sailors and boaters safe. These aids help mariners know where they are and navigate safely. The Coast Guard also allows private groups and individuals to set up their own markers, but they need approval and must keep them well-maintained.
  • Ice Operations: Ice Operations involve breaking ice in key areas like the Great Lakes and Northeast for safe commerce and emergency aid. They support Antarctic research at McMurdo Station and keep polar regions accessible with icebreakers. Key missions include coordinating Polar ice-breaking activities, monitoring iceberg threats through the International Ice Patrol, and performing Domestic Ice-breaking to ensure navigable waterways in winter.

What Does the Coast Guard Do During War?

During a war, the United States Coast Guard operates as a part of the U.S. Navy and follows the president’s orders. Mainly, they assist in various missions, including port security, patrolling, and search and rescue, along with their regular duties of maintaining waterway safety and communication.

However, don’t assume the Coast Guard is part of the Navy; it operates under the Navy only during wartime.

As one of the nation’s six armed forces and military branches, the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime.

Throughout history, especially in World War II, their contributions have been significant and varied. They were involved in combat and rescue missions, notably saving over 400 men on D-Day and even rescuing 126 men in a single day with the “Homing Pigeon.”

They significantly contributed to anti-submarine warfare, sinking 11 enemy submarines, including actions by cutters like the USCGC Icarus.

Additionally, the Coast Guard conducted vital weather patrols and intelligence gathering, which were essential for military operations like D-Day.

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