What’s the Difference Between the Navy & the Coast Guard?

*I cannot speak for every navy or coast guard in the world, so this is largely from the perspective of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.

Throughout the centuries there has been a need to maintain good order at sea. More than just a physical environment, the oceans serve as an economic resource, medium of transportation, and an area of sovereignty for many nations. Thus, there are national interests to be had at sea. Broadly speaking, the need to maintain good order at sea would mean engaging in constabulary duties. Such duties could constitute activities such as customs inspections, port and waterways security, anti-smuggling/piracy/terrorism, search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection, etc. The question then becomes, are the naval forces of a country capable of carrying out those duties in addition to maintaining their war fighting capabilities?

Enter the potential for a coast guard.

It’s difficult to make a generalization about the differences between a navy and a coast guard because they vary widely depending on the country. Just as not all navies are the same, neither are coast guards. However, Geoffrey Till (2014) notes that coast guards and civilian agencies tend to focus on public safety and law enforcement duties, whereas navies tend to focus on issues related to national security. However, there is overlap in their responsibilities. The authority and responsibilities of a coast guard depend heavily on what country we’re talking about. The U.S. Coast Guard is unique in that it is a separate military service, but also has law enforcement powers. In other countries, like Britain or Australia, the various agencies are coordinated and networked together. In countries such as Chile or Norway, the coast guard is a part of that country’s navy, but semi-autonomous. Even at that, some countries do not have the resources for both and use their navies as coast guards (p. 314-345).

The point here is that there’s overlap in both structure, composition, and mission alignment between a navy and a coast guard.

Assets – Budgets – People

Given that both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard dwarf all other navies and coast guards in the world, they are perhaps not the most representative of examples. However, let’s compare the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.

In all areas, when compared to the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy stands as a massive entity. Obviously, due to its larger size, the Navy has a substantially greater number of assets, budget, and people in its organization. However, the differences in the numbers are telling.

Assets

By the end of FY2019 the U.S. Navy planned to have a deployable battle force of 299 ships which consists of 11 aircraft carriers; 123 surface combatants (cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, etc.); 33 amphibious ships (amphibious assault, transport dock, dock landing); 70 submarines (fast attack, ballistic missile, guided missile); 29 combat logistics ships; and 33 support ships (USN FY2019 budget, 2018, p. 34). Additionally, by FY2019 the Navy and Marine Corps planned to have 4,094 aircraft in their active inventory (USN FY2019 budget, 2018, p. 38).

The U.S. Coast Guard currently has 243 cutters; 1,650 boats; and 201 aircraft of various types and classes (USCG Operational Assets, n.d.).

Budgets

The FY2019 requested budget for the Department of the Navy (including the Marine Corps) was $194.1 billion (USN FY2019 budget, 2018, p. 10). In comparison, the FY2019 requested budget for the U.S. Coast Guard was $11.65 billion, including $9.7 billion for discretionary funding (USCG FY2019 Budget, 2018).

People

Current numbers put the Navy at 338,114 active duty; 103,705 ready reserve; 3,054 mobilized reserves; and 274,300 civilians for a total of 719,173 personnel (USN Status, 2020).

Current numbers put the Coast Guard at 40,992 active duty; 7,000 reservists; 8,577 civilians; and 30,000 Auxiliarists for a total of 86,569 personnel (USCG workforce, n.d.). In other words, the number of active duty Navy personnel is more than 4 times larger than all of the Coast Guard personnel combined.

Different Missions

How do the missions of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard compare?

The mission of the U.S. Navy is “to recruit, train, equip, and organize to deliver combat ready Naval forces to win conflicts and wars while maintaining security and deterrence through sustained forward presence” (Navy Recruiting Command, n.d.).

The accomplish this, the U.S. Navy stresses six core capabilities:

  • Forward presence
  • Deterrence
  • Sea control
  • Power projection
  • Maritime security
  • Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

(Speller, 2014, p. 32)

In comparison, the mission of the U.S. Coast Guard “is to ensure our Nation’s maritime safety, security and stewardship.” To accomplish these three things, the Coast Guard has 11 defined statutory missions:

  • Ports, waterways and coastal security
  • Drug interdiction
  • Migrant interdiction
  • Maritime law enforcement
  • Defense readiness
  • Search and rescue
  • Aids to navigation
  • Marine safety
  • Marine environmental protection
  • Living marine resources
  • Ice operations

(United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office, n.d.)

There are many reasons for this distinction in missions between the Navy and the Coast Guard. To be sure, the Navy can perform the missions of the Coast Guard, but one of the reasons for the separation is due to the fact that the Navy has a different focus on national security and power projection. Indeed, prior to WWI there were arguments for absorbing the Revenue Cutter Service (the predecessor of the Coast Guard) into the Navy, and parceling out its non-military duties to other civilian agencies. However, then Commandant, Commodore Ellsworth Bertholf, and U.S. Life-Saving Service superintendent, Sumner Kimball, drafted up a plan to merge the two services. They were successful and the Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service both survived near extinction to continue on and officially form the modern U.S Coast Guard which was created on 29 January 1915 (Thiesen, 2018, para. 8). Further acquisitions would also see the U.S. Lighthouse Service absorbed into the Coast Guard.

Thus, in the modern era the Navy doesn’t really want the same responsibilities that the Coast Guard assumes because those missions would detract from its focus on national security and would also be redundant or extraneous. Similarly, the Coast Guard, being an armed sea service, has a variety of naval capabilities, but it’s definitely not the Navy. In times of war, the entire U.S. Coast Guard can be transferred and operated as a part of the U.S. Navy, but to my knowledge, this has only happened twice, during WWI and WWII. However, there have been many times when smaller U.S. Coast Guard assets (cutters, boats, aircraft, personnel, etc.) have been placed under the command of the U.S. Navy to accomplish certain missions, provide expertise, or augment naval forces. Throughout its history, the Coast Guard has participated in every major U.S. conflict, either as a part of the Navy, or as a separate service.

As Explained to a Teenager

To be blunt, a teenager’s understanding of the military is mostly based off of movies and video games; a pretty poor foundation to be sure. Their perception mostly revolves around the infantry, special operations, tanks, fighter jets, and the mistaken belief that the Navy still has battleships. Everyone in the military is some super patriotic, gung-ho, master tactician, ripped, badass who gets into multiple firefights throughout the day. Everyone in the Army/Marines is infantry (or special ops), everyone in the Air Force is a fighter pilot, and everyone in the Navy is a SEAL. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who has a parent/sibling/relative in the service, and even more rarely, a student who studies military history from actual books. Like much of the general public, they literally have forgotten about existence of the Coast Guard, much less what it actually does.

One day, a student (and probably the only one) asked about the difference between the Navy and the Coast Guard. A fellow teacher (and Navy veteran) summed it up as such:

The Coast Guard is the Navy without the missiles.

I later added:

The Coast Guard is like the Navy, but they paint their ships white.

Yeah, we obviously didn’t want to burden them with too much information. Obviously we both could have gone into hours of detail, but it’s hard to distill the difference down into a 280 character social media blurb that keeps the 15-second attention span of a 16 year-old. If they really wanna know, then they can go talk to a recruiter.

Overly simplistic analyses and evaluations tend to favor the “might makes right” line of thinking where more weight is given to offensive capabilities. However, even in the modern day, the Navy finds maritime security operations in the littorals a particularly unique task that its assets are not designed for. The Coast Guard is ideally suited for such operations. Generally speaking, there’s enough “cultural similarity” between the two services to make them both respect each other. Regardless of country or service, a sailor is a sailor and the sea treats everyone the same. I like to think that if you put a Navy sailor and a Coast Guard sailor in the same room, present them with the same problem, and let them work at it, then they’ll eventually come to similar solutions, but in a slightly different way.

Essentially, they’re both sea services, they both have sailors, and in the spirit of friendly service rivalry, they both would claim to be better than the other. The reality is that neither is better than the other. They each have a different set of missions and responsibilities that occasionally overlap. The Navy has a larger focus on offensive capabilities and expertise in naval warfare, whereas the Coast Guard has a larger focus on defensive capabilities and expertise in maritime security.

Not the Lifeguards at your Pool

The purpose of a navy is fairly straightforward; it defends national interests, carries out national policy, and projects power at or from the sea. The waters become more murky when it comes to the Coast Guard due to it’s small size and wide-assortment of missions. I occasionally meet people who are shocked that the U.S. Coast Guard is armed. Here’s some of the more funny misconceptions I often hear:

  • “They only rescue people! Why do they have guns?”
  • “Isn’t the Coast Guard a part of the National Guard or Navy?”
  • “Doesn’t the Coast Guard just work on the weekends? I mean, they don’t do actual work because they’re all volunteers, right?”
  • “At least the Coast Guard is a safe service to be in. They don’t go to war.”
  • “The Coast Guard is just a bunch of lifeguards. It’s an easy job. They’re not really military.”

Umm…no. This isn’t Baywatch or your local swimming pool. Even rescue swimmers (Aviation Survival Technicians) account for less than 1% of the Coast Guard. What starts as a simple search-and-rescue case can go very bad, very fast. I could probably spend hours going into all of the misconceptions about the U.S. Coast Guard I’ve heard over the years. Officially, as per Title 10 and 14 of the U.S. Code, the U.S. Coast Guard is both a military service and a federal law enforcement agency. This makes it unique in that it can enforce U.S. laws (other military services can’t due to the Posse Comitatus Act). There are various other acts and legislation from which the Coast Guard derives its authority from, but we won’t go into them here.

In short, the U.S. Coast Guard is far more than merely a search-and-rescue agency, and sometimes it encounters people who are less than cordial and are not going to be persuaded by mere words. These people are usually smugglers, pirates, terrorists, and idiots who have a problem with authority or law enforcement, just to name a few. There’s a notion that the Coast Guard is something of a “jack-of-all trades service”. Some days they’re the cops and some days they’re the firefighters. Most boaters and mariners prefer the latter over the former. Nobody likes getting stopped and boarded just as nobody likes getting pulled over on the freeway.

Even within the U.S. defense establishment, the Coast Guard is treated as something of a joke. Derisive monikers such as “Puddle Pirates” or “Shallow Water Sailors” are frequently brought up. A lot of this boils down to the perception that the Coast Guard is not seen as a particularly “gung-ho” service. As with many sub-cultures, action and combat is viewed as glamorous, whereas the equally vital support roles are looked down upon as boring. It’s similar to the classic grunts vs. POGs (Persons Other than Grunts) rivalry in the Army or Marines. You’re either a tough, motherf*ckin’ infantryman, or you ain’t sh*t! Since the Coast Guard is not outwardly viewed as combat-oriented like the Navy, it often falls victim to the stereotype of somehow being less capable or irrelevant. Media depictions of the Coast Guard overwhelmingly focus on its humanitarian and search-and-rescue duties with rare examples showing the more “high speed” aspects like drug interdiction.

Now, there is some truth to this stereotype. True, a Legend-class Coast Guard cutter doesn’t have the same offensive capabilities as say, a Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, but it’s not designed with that purpose in mind. Similarly, neither of those ships is a battleship. All are different vessels with different purposes in mind.

In reality, though Coast Guard cutters may not be designed for the high-threat environments that the Navy prepares for, they have more than enough capabilities to deal with any threat that could reasonably come their way in the course of their day-to-day duties. Recall the differing set of missions between the Navy and Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard may be small and have a more “family friendly” image, woe to the idiot who thinks that because the Coast Guard is largely constabulary, that they are somehow pushovers. Many a smuggler, poacher, and pirate has learned this lesson the hard way.

Even the North Koreans got a lesson in the coast guard application of force in December 2001. In what became known as the Battle of Amami-Oshima, a North Korean “fishing trawler” found itself in a gun battle with a Japan Coast Guard ship. It lost. Bear in mind that this “fishing trawler” could make 33 knots, had an aft hatch for the deployment of speed boats, and was armed with machine guns, an anti-aircraft gun, and rocket-propelled grenades. You know…because “fishing trawlers” need those kinds of capabilities. In reality it was a spy ship camouflaged as a fishing boat. Anyway, the North Korean spy ship (err…fishing boat) was sunk (and later raised) by the Japan Coast Guard.

The real value of the (U.S.) Coast Guard, in my opinion, is reflected in a combination of its ethos and its myriad assortment of duties.

I’ll never forget something that a Coast Guard buddy told me:

The Coast Guard is a life-saving organization.

What he’s getting at is a distinct mindset. Ask any Coast Guardsman with prior service in the Navy, and they’ll tell you that there’s a difference in the services’ ethos. The Coast Guard is small, and subsequently, it usually benefits from having high esprit de corps. One way that the Coast Guard builds ethos and esprit de corps is by inculcating the notion that what they do is a high and noble calling. It’s not about how many lives you take, but rather, how many lives you save.

Your daily dose of recruiting slogans. Levels of personal conviction may vary.

You may be asking, “So what? The Coast Guard does a lot of different things, most of which I never see. They’re lifeguards, cops, and janitors.” However, when you send off a mayday call while your boat is being battered by waves and you’re facing the prospect of a slow and cold death in the ocean, you’ll be eternally grateful when you see a Coast Guard cutter, boat, or aircraft come over the horizon. Nobody appreciates the Coast Guard until they’re needed.

Economic Benefits

While the Navy may get to play with the fancy aircraft carriers, fighter jets, destroyers, cruisers, submarines, and missiles, let us focus on the more mundane subject of economics and numbers. I don’t mean to imply that the Navy provides no economic benefits; on the contrary, they have some of the best lift capacity in the whole U.S. military. However, for this section, we’ll focus more on the Coast Guard’s roles. More prosaically, bear in mind that over 95% of all world trade is carried aboard ships and the U.S. is the world’s largest importer and exporter with some $3,247 billion in merchandise in 2011 (Speller, 2014, p. 19). According to NOAA (2018), the U.S. has over 95,000 miles of coastline, including the Great Lakes and U.S. territories. As per their defined missions, the Coast Guard is responsible for defending that coastline and ensuring the security and flow of traffic into U.S. ports. Aids-to-navigation need to be maintained, vessels boarded and inspected, and the environment protected.

For some statistics (among many), in FY2018, the U.S. Coast Guard did over 5,500 security inspections at maritime transportation facilities, visited over 150 ports in 50 foreign countries, and conducted more than 9,400 foreign vessel exams. In addition, they conducted over 19,000 inspections on U.S. flagged commercial vessels, conducted more than 16,000 inspections at facilities handling regulated cargoes, and inspected over 23,000 containers for structural and hazardous materials compliance (USCG Annual FY2018, 2019, p. 4). Even at that, there are far more ships and cargo containers which come into the U.S. daily that the Coast Guard cannot possibly inspect them all. One of the enduring issues that the Coast Guard faces is a lack of coverage and associated manpower. Hence, it must prioritize what gets checked and what doesn’t.

Vessel collisions, terrorist attacks, or even chemical spills at major U.S. ports could have serious consequences. Consider that everything from computers and gaming consoles to the clothes on your back probably entered the U.S. in a shipping container. Even if you don’t care or think about what goes in and out of the U.S., chaos in a major cargo terminal would, at the bare minimum, make the prices on those items far higher than what you paid for them. Similarly, arms/human/narcotics trafficking possess a maritime element that the Coast Guard has jurisdiction over. It’s estimated that 80% of the cocaine headed for the U.S. from Latin America travels by sea for at least part of its journey, and narcotics kill more people annually than terrorism (Speller, 2014, p. 159). Since the U.S. Navy has no law enforcement powers, naval warships transiting through known drug trafficking waters can also embark U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) to make arrests.

Essentially, the efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard save countless lives in more ways than simply pulling distressed mariners out of the water. As much as the rescue swimmer who jumps out of helicopters into the raging sea, the support personnel who “make the machine run” deserve as much credit for their efforts. Put another way, my Coast Guard buddy, who works in one of those boring support roles, said, “there’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that you were a part of helping to save lives.”

Cooperation as a Way Forward

The risks and threats to maritime security are both large and small. Combined with the fact that we don’t have massive shipbuilding programs like we did in WWII, the broad extent of these risks and threats ensures that no single force or agency can do everything and handle all of the problems on their own. The overlapping responsibilities of both coast guards and navies means that cooperation is essential for efficiency. Additionally, other governmental agencies are also playing a role. In the U.S., the Navy and Coast Guard cooperate with other federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Office of Hazardous Material Safety, and the National Marine Fisheries Service in order to accomplish their missions (Till, 2013, p. 314). To expect any one of these agencies to be able to handle all aspects of maritime security on its own would be unreasonable.

Till (2013) also notes that the American method of coordination is merely one way of doing things and that the coordination of navies, coast guards, and other agencies depends on the geography, social and political culture, and resources that a country possesses (p. 315). International cooperation between navies and coast guards creates what might be termed as a “global fleet” to combat current and emerging threats at sea. Navies and coast guards often conduct international exercises to foster cooperation and learn from each other. One such exercise is the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) conducted by the Pacific Fleet and Southeast Asian navies and coast guards. Similarly, international naval task forces and governmental reforms have had successes in countering piracy in hot spots such as off the coast of Somalia.

In an increasingly connected world, the clear lines of distinction are becoming more and more blurry. Coast guards and navies are finding themselves taking on more of each others’ duties. This is not to say that there’s no need for a separation between navies and coast guards in terms of their responsibilities, but rather an understanding of what each is truly capable of and a willingness to use them as efficiently as possible.

References

Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d.). America’s Navy. Retrieved from https://www.navy.com/.

NOAA. (2018, June 25). How Long is the U.S. Shoreline?. Retrieved from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/shorelength.html.

Speller, I. (2014). Understanding Naval Warfare. New York, NY: Routledge.

Till, G. (2013). Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Thiesen, W.H. (2018, April 5). The Long Blue Line: Bertholf – second founder of the Coast Guard. Retrieved from https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2018/04/the-long-blue-line-bertholf-second-founder-of-the-coast-guard/.

United States Coast Guard. (n.d.). Operational Assets. Retrieved from https://www.work.uscg.mil/Assets/

United States Coast Guard. (n.d.). Workforce. Retrieved from https://www.work.uscg.mil/Workforce/

United States Coast Guard. (2019). United States Coast Guard Annual Performance Report Fiscal Year 2018. Retrieved from https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/FY%202018%20USCG%20APR%20Signed%206-12-19.pdf

United States Coast Guard. (2018, February 12). U.S. Coast Guard Fact Sheet Fiscal Year 2019 President’s Budget. Retrieved from https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/FY%202019%20Budget%20Fact%20Sheet_FINAL.pdf

United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office. (n.d.). Missions. Retrieved from https://www.history.uscg.mil/Home/Missions/.

United States Navy. (2018). Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY2019 Budget. Retrieved from https://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/19pres/Highlights_book.pdf

United States Navy. (2020, January 31). Status of the Navy. Retrieved from https://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146

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