Command at Sea –Coast Guard vs Navy

First, let me say, I can not provide exact figures here, but what I do have is, I believe, close enough to be representative.

The opportunities for command afloat are much greater in the Coast Guard, than they are in the Navy, and those opportunities come earlier in an officer’s career. This should not surprise anyone who has considered this, but the degree of difference may be surprising.

The Navy

The Navy is about eight times larger than the Coast Guard in terms of numbers of personnel. The Navy counts its “Battle Force” as 287 ships. That does not include the 13 Cyclone class patrol craft or twelve 84 foot MkVI patrol boats, but it does include over 40 auxiliary ships which are commanded by civilian Mariners and 11 Aircraft Carriers which by law must be commanded by aviators. The total number of ships commanded by Surface Warfare Officers and Submariners is about 260, perhaps a few more, but less than 270. This number should grow as more LCS and the FFG(X)s enter the fleet, but it is not likely to exceed 310 and a bit over 70 of these are submarine commands, so fewer than 240 afloat command for Surface Warfare Officers for the foreseeable future.

Apparently, the only command afloat billets for Surface Warfare Officers O-4 and below are 13 Mine Countermeasures ships, 13 Cyclone class patrol craft, 12 MkVI patrol boats, and four positions in command of three boat MkVI patrol boat sections for a total of 42 billets.

The Coast Guard 

Over and above a large number of craft commanded by senior enlisted and warrant officers, the Coast Guard has about 208 cutters typically commanded by Officers O-2 and above. A few of these may be commanded by Senior enlisted or Warrant Officers, so about 200 billets for Commissioned Cuttermen. Of these, about 40 are exclusively O-5 and above CO billets. This leaves roughly 160 for O-4 and junior commissioned officers.

This means that proportionately, even at the O-5/O-6 level Cuttermen have greater opportunities for command at sea than their Navy counterparts. At lower ranks with about four times as many billets for a population only an eighth as large, the likelihood of being selected for command at sea is probably about 30 times higher in the Coast Guard.


This raises questions for me:

  • Is the Navy’s policy of trying to make every SWO a generalist realistic? Perhaps they should have specialization early on like the British, in Weapons, ASW, Engineers, and Navigators? Maybe after a bit of aptitude testing? They could perhaps broaden experience later in careers. They certainly don’t have sufficient opportunities to even attempt to training every officer as a shiphandler.
  • The Coast Guard will have a number of experienced skippers available for the larger ships. What does that mean for those who never got early command but gained experience as department heads and XOs? Are those that did get early command also getting department head and XO experience before being selected for O-5/O-6 commands?

8 thoughts on “Command at Sea –Coast Guard vs Navy

  1. in my opinion, naval officer should really decide. nav or engineering. I was just a lowly snipe and through various stations I can also nav and play boats. I can and I will drive your boat. I would like if you left me alone in my engine room, do you know what is going on down here? we are not asleep at the switch. you swo types actually do the shit a fireman does.. ooh I got my quals signened. big fucking deal. stand 6 and 6 through most of a med. load litarrry thousands of immigrant on your ship, and try to keep your compassion. I did but some days not easy. I could have gone trumpy. ok I might be a bit grumpy. but if you have not been there stfu.

  2. pick a specialty amd stay there. I can and have driven boats and ships. I would prefer if you would leave alone in snipe spaces.

  3. officers being specialists goes back a long way in the merchant marine. MSC has formalized a lot of the personnel management of its CIVMARs which could be used the the regular Navy?
    With the SWO community adding USCG deck officer certifications, it would be conceivable for a junior officer to take and pass the higher license exams and then be considered for early command billets.

  4. I guess it’s another example of “The Greatest Generation” and its’ legacy fading away. My father was an engineering specialty officer, and maintained his DWO Quals until the day he retired (1969) from the Navy. In fact, he stood Underway OOD Watches on the last oil-burning CV we had! I personally think that specialists (in most cases) need to have a “minor,” in another discipline or field. As a coxswain, I had to know and understand the roles of my crew, including the engineer, boarding officer, gunner and deck ape(s). And, be able to fill any of those roles in a pinch. That may be over-simplification, but I firmly believe that we are better served by “generalists” that have a well rounded background, education, and service record.

    • Note, I see this as a Navy problem, not a Coast Guard one. It is that the Navy has too many JOs chasing too few training opportunities for a qualification program that seems a mile wide and an inch deep.

  5. I agree! At least for the enlisted side. The Navy has many more rates and specialties than does the Coast Guard, and there’s an Officer to supervise every function in the Navy. There is a much deeper pool of Navy JO’s that need to be “kept busy,” which doesn’t always equate to acquiring
    the skills necessary to stand a bridge watch.

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