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15 important and surprising differences between the Navy and Coast Guard

Every Coastie has at least once been called a sailor, asked if they aren't just a part of the Navy, or otherwise been compared to the Navy. Just as siblings don't care to be compared to one another, the Coast Guard works to set itself apart in many ways, from uniforms to missions to rates.


In case you were wondering, here are 15 very important differences between the seaborne branches.

1. They have different bosses

The major difference between the Navy and the Coast Guard comes from the very top of either branch – the Navy is part of the Department of Defense, while the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security. This allows the missions and structure of both branches to best serve the needs the country.

2. Their roster sizes are significantly different

U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Joshua Kitenko, boarding officer from the Coast Guard Cutter Forward, climbs down a ladder to board the cutter's small boat, after a joint U.S. and Sierra Leone law enforcement boarding on a fishing vessel in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Annie R. B. Elis.)

In the battle of Navy vs. Coast Guard, the Navy wins the heavyweight title. The Navy boasts 325,000 active duty and 107,000 reserve sailors, while the Coast Guard has just over 40,000 active duty personnel and 7,600 reservists.

3. Comparatively speaking, it rains money at the Navy Department

The Coast Guard's entire budget for Fiscal Year 2015 was $9.8 billion, while the Navy's was $148 billion.

4. They have different roles in combat

The Coast Guard's role in combat has changed vastly over time. Since the early 1990'a and during the Gulf War, the Coast Guard's combat role evolved to mostly port, maritime, and other asset security, as well as search and rescue. The Navy has a primarily defensive mission, prepared to fight back against a land-based or maritime enemy when called on.

5. The Coast Guard has more ships than you'd think (and more than the Navy)

The Coast Guard has nearly 200 cutters and 1400 small boats, while the Navy has 272 ships.

6. The Coast Guard paints operational aircraft orange

And operators know how to dangle.

The Coast Guard is proud of its more than 200 aircraft, mainly consisting of the iconic orange and white helicopters. The Navy, on the other hand, has a fleet of more than 3,700 aircraft, making it the second largest air force in the world, second only to the US Air Force. (And the only orange Navy airplanes are trainers.)

7. If the Coast Guard's missions make them 'jacks of all trades,' the Navy is a master of one

A U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft prepares to drop supplies aboard the national security cutter USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750) in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 14, 2012, during a patrol in support of Arctic Shield 2012. A(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Public Affairs Specialist 1st Class Timothy Tamargo)

While the Navy serves to "maintain, train, and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas." The Coast Guard, on the other hand, has eleven missions ranging from marine safety to drug and migrant interdiction to icebreaking. Their missions range from saving someone in a sinking boat on the shores of San Diego to defense readiness in Bahrain.

8. USCG Rescue Swimmers are busier

The U.S. Coast Guard demonstrates how they conduct a search and rescue during the 2009 Sea and Sky Spectacular. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sunday Williams)

While both the Coast Guard and Navy have a rate for rescue swimmers, the Coast Guard takes pride in having the unique ability for their Aviation Survival Technicians, also known as rescue swimmers, to save lives on a daily basis. ASTs serve with Coast Guard air stations, deploying with search and rescue operations to recover civilians from dangerous situations.

9. Coasties actually have more uniforms than the Navy

"Between us, we have 500 uniforms."

You can tell the difference just in looking at personnel – the Navy's NWU are often made fun of for blending a sailor into the water, but the Coast Guard's ODUs are no better. The Navy's dress uniforms are also universally known, complete with the "Dixie Cup" cover, but the Coast Guard's are primarily based off of the Air Forces, with a few exceptions including Officer Whites, based on the Navy's. There are even Coast Guard units who wear the Navy's Type IIIs.

10. Coasties are bit more specialized

Every branch has a different names for its occupational specialty – whether MOS, AFSC, or rate. The Coast Guard and Navy both share the name "rating" for their specialities. The Navy has nearly 90 specialized ratings, while the Coast Guard lumps theirs into just 21.

11. Basic Training for the Coast Guard is a lot harder than you think

Company Commander OS1 Tom Carella looks out at new recruits outside of Sexton Hall at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, NJ. (USCG photo by PAC Tom Sperduto)

Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Great Lakes Training Center relies on a process called "Sailorization" to turn civilians into sailors over the course of eight weeks. The Coast Guard's boot camp was based on Marine Corps boot camp, but shortened from twelve to eight weeks. Recruits are purposefully stressed to the maximum they can handle through intense and constant time pressure, sleep deprivation, and physical training. The process allows recruits to learn how to make the best decisions under the most pressure – something necessary when attempting to save a life on a sinking ship in foul weather.

12. The Coast Guard filled in for the Navy after it was disbanded

The history of the branches isn't what it always seems – While the Coast Guard's history occasionally seems to be shrouded in mystery, it was founded as the Revenue Cutter Service on August 4, 1790. It has since been the longest continuous sea service in the United States. "But isn't the Navy's founding in 1775?" you might ask – and you would be correct. But shortly after the Revolutionary War ended, the Navy was disbanded, and was not reestablished until 1799, leaving the USRCS to serve the newly formed nation.

13. The USCG gets passed around a lot

The Navy has also been steadfastly its own branch of the military, as well as under the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, has been under the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Transportation, Department of the Interior, the Department of Homeland Security, and yes, even under the Department of the Navy – five times.

14. Everyone has a chance to go to the Coast Guard Academy

Shown is an aerial view of the Coast Guard Academy with Hamilton Hall in center. (USCG photo by PA1 David Santos)

To apply to the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as the other service academies, a prospective student must be appointed by a member of the US Congress in addition to applying to USNA. The Coast Guard Academy, on the other hand, does not require congressional nomination, instead opening the applications to anyone and letting applicants be admitted solely on their own merit – both personal and academic.

15. Navy ships keep a supply of Coasties to maintain civil law and order

Members of a Coast Guard Maritime Search and Rescue Team prepare to depart USNS Sisler via Coast Guard Seahawk after storming the ship as part of maritime security exercise Frontier Sentinel (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

On many Navy ships throughout the world, a small Coast Guard contingent is placed with the crew to do maritime law enforcement. Because of the Posse Comitatus Act, the Department of Defense may not do any kind of civilian law enforcement. The Coast Guard, thanks to the 1790 Tariff Act and the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2006, may conduct boardings of vessels both foreign and domestic without a warrant. On Navy ships stationed in waters where illegal drugs and migrants are common, the Coast Guard serves to assist the Navy where it cannot serve.