Although the other military branches have between four and 12 of these topmost officers, the Coast Guard has only one: the commandant of the Coast Guard. This individual, appointed by the president to fill a four-year term of office, must be confirmed by the Senate. Although the Coast Guard commandant and Marine Corps commandant have similar titles, their chains of command differ. The Marine Corps commandant is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while the Coast Guard commandant reports to the president through the Department of Homeland Security, which annexed the Coast Guard in the wake of the Sept. 11. Before the DHS was created in 2003, the Coast Guard commandant’s chain of command included the secretary of transportation.
The Coast Guard is a unique service in several respects, primarily due to its duties as both a military force and a peacetime law enforcement and maritime protection organization. Although the Coast Guard is considered a branch of the armed services, its peacetime missions are under the DHS umbrella. In wartime, Coast Guard ships may operate under the command of the Department of the Navy. Another unique aspect of the Coast Guard is that all of its officers are considered unrestricted line officers, which means they can serve in any capacity; in the other branches, officers’ duties are more rigidly defined.
Coast Guard commissioned officers are paid based on a scale that runs from O-1 for the lowest-ranked individuals to O-10 for the rank of admiral. Officers of at least O-7 are considered “flag officers.” Less than 1 percent of career officers are promoted to flag rank, which in the Coast Guard comprise the upper half and lower half rear admirals, the vice admirals and the admiral. Anyone eligible for the rank of full admiral must have at least 20 years in the service.
The Coast Guard's promotion system is based on the strength of one’s service record, but it’s also vacancy-driven and for flag officers is a highly political process. Each year, promotion planners anticipate the need for officers in each grade based on quotas established by Congress. This selections board then recommends officers to the president, who will choose from this list whenever a vacancy occurs in the appropriate rank either due to promotion or retirement. The president makes this decision with input from the secretaries of the Navy and the Department of Defense and in consultation with the Coast Guard commandant. The Senate must then confirm the president’s pick.
Per the O-10 pay scale, admirals with 20 years invested earn $13,659 per month, while those with more than 38 years in service are paid $16,795 per month.