What is the Difference Between Navy vs. Marines?

By Danielle DeSimone

The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps: the two branches are incredibly unique, each with their own history, culture and roles within the U.S. Armed Forces. However, the two branches are also intricately linked, with the Marines operating under the Navy. So, how does it all work? What is the difference between Navy vs. Marines and how does each branch operate? Here are a few ways the two branches differ:

1. The Marine Corps is an Independent Branch, But Serves Under the Navy

Although both the Navy and the Marine Corps are regarded as separate branches of the military, the Marine Corps is technically a part of the U.S. Navy, ever since Congress placed the Marines under the Navy in 1834. That means that while the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps reports to the secretary of the Navy, the Navy is its own entity, so the secretary of the Navy reports directly up the chain to the secretary of defense.

2. The Navy and the Marine Corps Are Organized Differently

Although the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy, it is actually structured more similarly to the U.S. Army, with teams, squadrons, platoons and battalions, all of which fall under three basic categories: basic units, expeditionary forces and aircraft units.

Photo credit DoD/Cpl. Tiana Boyd

A Navy sailor and a Marine salute the Statue of Liberty as the USS New York transits the Hudson River in New York City in 2019.

The Navy’s structure, on the other hand, is far more complicated. Within the Navy, there are operational combatant commands and various administrative commands; under each of these are even more commands, each of which has a particular mission. For example, the Indo-Pacific Command is responsible for one of the largest geographic combatant commands in the world, ensuring freedom of the seas and protecting U.S. allies and interests with several bases and an expanding presence into the Pacific region. Within these commands are further levels of organization, such as fleets, squadrons and so on.

3. The Navy vs. Marines in Areas of Responsibility

The Navy’s mission is, essentially, to protect the United States at sea, defending allies, economic prosperity, travel and freedom of the seas. As one of the largest and most powerful navies in the world, this involves the movement of fleets – a large formation of warships, often including ships such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, destroyers, dock landing ships and more – throughout the globe, transporting both personnel and aircraft wherever their mission takes them.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Seaman Oswald Felix

The guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey operates alongside the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier (not pictured) in the Arabian Sea in June 2021.

The Marine Corps, however, often operates as a quick reaction force, outfitted with units ready to be the first boots-on-the-ground of a conflict. Although the Navy does have its SEALs, an elite, maritime special operations force, the majority of naval operations do not focus on hand-to-hand combat.

Photo credit DoD/Staff Sgt. Dengrier Baez

Marines run to firing positions during live-fire training as part of an exercise in Jordan in 2018.

Conversely, the Marines place a definite emphasis on combat operations; in fact, the Marine Corps is the only branch with a program dedicated to martial arts. This is why the Marines are often called the “tip of the spear” of the U.S. Armed Forces, as their combat-ready units typically spearhead conflict operations, both on land and at sea.

4. The Navy and Marines Go Through Different Training

Navy and Marine Corps recruits go through different and unique basic training. Firstly, Navy bootcamp is typically eight weeks long, whereas Marine Corps bootcamp is approximately 12-13 weeks long. While Marine Corps recruits train on the coast in Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina or Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, Navy recruits actually train inland (but still near a large body of water) at Recruit Training Command (RTC) Great Lakes, Illinois.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Scott A. Thornbloom

Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) midshipman candidates fight a fire in a simulated shipboard compartment in the USS Chief Recruit Fire Fighter Trainer at Recruit Training Command (RTC).

While at RTC, Navy recruits will learn everything from firearms and physical fitness to shipboard emergency and firefighting training. Most of this training focuses on shipborne activities.

Photo credit DoD/Sgt. Dana Beesley

Marine Corps recruits move as a team through “The Crucible” – the final challenge of Marine Corps recruit training – at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina.

Marine recruits go through a different process. When asking “What is the hardest military training?” many would answer “Marine Corps bootcamp.” During those 12-13 weeks, recruits learn firearms, hand-to-hand combat, basic battlefield tactics and combat first aid. Marine bootcamp ends with the infamous final test: the Crucible. This 54-hour test requires hiking with 50 pounds of gear, operating off little to no sleep and working through obstacle courses and hand-to-hand combat.

5. The Navy is Older Than the Marines

In October 1775, the Continental Congress – then fighting for independence against the British in the American Revolutionary War – voted and approved the establishment of a Continental Navy to intercept British ships transporting supplies and ammunition to American shores. At its start, the Navy only had two ships to its name; by the end of the war, the Navy had 50 armed vessels at sea, which claimed approximately 200 British vessels as prizes, demoralizing the British and forcing them to divert their warships to protect convoys and trade routes.

Photo credit U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

In this painting by W. Nowland Van Powell, Lieutenant John Paul Jones is depicted raising the Grand Union flag – considered to be the first national flag of the United States – as the Continental Navy ship Alfred was placed in commission in Philadelphia in December 1775, just two months after the founding of the Continental Navy.

Almost one month later, the Continental Congress voted again, this time for “two Battalions of Marines be raised” to serve with the naval fleet, whose members could fight both on land and at sea – officially establishing the Marine Corps. These units served in a number of operations throughout the war, including their first amphibious raid into the Bahamas in March 1776.

Photo credit U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

V. Zveg’s painting depicts the Continental Marines’ landing on New Providence Island, Bahamas, on March 3, 1776. This is considered to be the Marine Corps’ first amphibious assault as a U.S. military branch.

Following the Revolutionary War, both the Navy and the Marines were disbanded. Then later, as the United States navigated its first years as a country, conflict ensued and there was a need for a permanent, standing Navy and Marine Corps. The U.S. Navy was officially re-established in 1794; the U.S. Marine Corps was re-established in 1798. In both their original iterations and their re-establishments, the Navy was founded first, with the Marine Corps following soon behind.

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