Zukunft Lauds Coast Guard’s Return on Investment, Role in Distributed Lethality
By AMY L. WITTMAN, Editor in Chief
ARLINGTON, Va. — By being places where the Department of Defense is not and because of its unique law enforcement authorities, the Coast Guard has its place in the U.S. Navy’s strategy of distributed lethality — the dispersing of naval forces to assure sea control.
“When I think about distributed lethality, I think of the low-end spectrum of lethality,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft told an audience Jan. 11 at the Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium. “And when I think about distributed, you’re also talking about building partnerships and building coalitions, because we recognize that as mighty as the United States Navy is, with the whole spectrum of threats that are out there today, our Navy can’t do it alone.”
Warming to the theme of this year’s symposium — “Distributed Lethality: Enabling Sea Control” — Zukunft said Coast Guard vessels can go places Navy ships cannot. The service also has bilateral agreements with 61 nations “that allow the Coast Guard to go into their waters to execute law enforcement operations as a military force, using up to and including deadly force against what we call asymmetrical threats.
“We actually understand what distributed lethality is,” he said. “But with distributed lethality comes distributed authorities. We have great autonomy on the high seas and, yes, in the territorial seas and these other waters. What we also have is diverse capabilities.”
As important as partnerships are, being a good steward of taxpayer dollars and getting a good return on investment is critical, the commandant said.
“At the end of the day, we have got to demonstrate value. What do authorities, what do capabilities mean on the high seas and in the maritime domain if you cannot demonstrate value?” he said. “It’s great that we have aspirations of growth opportunity, but if we do nothing different with our federal budget right now, and if we continue on the course that we are on, in 2026 we will be paying more to service our nation’s debt than the annual appropriation to the Department of Defense. So if we do not fix entitlement spending, we can have huge aspirations but we have got to demonstrate return on investment.”
To illustrate that, he pointed to the newest National Security Cutter (NSC) commissioned, USCGC Hamilton, the fourth of nine being built by the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. In the early days of its maiden voyage, Hamilton responded to Hurricane Matthew in Haiti and interdicted Cuban migrants, and over the course of the next several months removed 52,000 pounds of cocaine and almost as many detainees on the interdicted ship as Hamilton had crew. Zukunft said the net value of the seized narcotics exceeded the initial acquisition cost of the first NSC.
So on its maiden voyage, “a ship that’s going to be in service 30-35 years from now, it’s paid for itself and checked the box in four to five key mission areas. For a maiden voyage, I would chalk that up as a success,” he said. In the last year, three other NSCs each interdicted more than $1 billion worth of cocaine.
Under his predecessor, retired Adm. Robert Papp, and now himself, Zukunft said the Coast Guard has had four consecutive years of clean financial audit opinions, “delivering on time, on budget, no discrepancies platforms that will serve this nation for the next 30-35 years. A good return on investment.”
The service also enables $4.5 trillion worth of commerce on an annual basis on waterways and in ports. For an annual Coast Guard budget of around $10.5 billion, “you get $4.5 trillion, our authorities, our port security operations, all of that.” Again, a good return on investment, he said.
Acquisition priorities continue to be completing the nine-ship NSC program, the 58-ship Fast Response Cutter program being executed by Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La., and the recently signed contract with Eastern Shipbuilding, Panama City, Fla., for 20 Offshore Patrol Cutters.
A Coast Guard analysis has shown the need for six icebreakers — three heavy and three medium. “This last year, Russia has delivered more icebreakers than the United States delivered in the last 40 years,” he said.
Zukunft also said the nation must reinvest in the Coast Guard’s inland fleet, where ships are up to 72 years old. It’s a $20 million to $25 million investment that is “long overdue,” he said.
Also necessary are small unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
“That is the crown jewel and there is not enough to go around,” he said. “What we really need is wide-spectrum ISR.
Addressing the battle against illegal immigration, which he said is at an all-time high, the commandant said partners and coalitions are necessary.
“I’ve met with the presidents of every nation in Central America and a number of those in South America in my role as chairman of the Interdiction Committee, and to a person they say, ‘We need help from the United States.’ It’s not just checks. They need maritime enforcement.”
Last year was a record year around the world in terms of migrant flow.
“We are going to be a country of destination for illegal migrant flow,” Zukunft said. “To think that we can just do nothing about it, or build a wall, it’s going to take leadership on a global scale to be able to address that.
“It really is a network operation. … We can’t do it alone. The good news is we’re bringing partners along with us as well. It’s great when we get a DDG [U.S. Navy destroyer] down there. I would invite an LCS [littoral combat ship] to come join us as well. I guarantee you a success story, and I don’t think that would be a bad thing for the LCS.”
Vice Adm. Thomas S. Rowdan, commander, Naval Surface Forces, referring to adaptive force packages and possible tools to be brought to bear, asked if Zukunft would embrace the opportunity to have a cutter as part of that package, along with the special authorities the Coast Guard has. The commandant responded with an emphatic, “yes, absolutely.” He noted the NSC is particularly suited for that.