Adm. Zukunft: Treat the Coast Guard Like a Military Branch
By SARA FUENTES, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, made an impassioned argument during his State of the Coast Guard address March 16 for treating the service as the military branch it is and changing its funding category to defense spending instead of non-defense discretionary.
Before an audience of international diplomats, members of congressional staff and representatives from multiple government agencies, he made repeated efforts to stress that the Coast Guard is a military branch — and the only one with clean financial audits from 2013-2016. This difference in categories, he pointed out, means that the Coast Guard will not benefit from increases to defense spending.
As part of the Department of Homeland Security budget, the Coast Guard is considered non-defense discretionary spending and will not been the recipient of any defense plus-ups the military-focused Trump administration considers under the Budget Control Act. “And on the topic of fiscal challenges, some may believe, well those woes are behind you, as increases in military spending grow ever more promising,” Zukunft said. “But there’s a single phrase that has boxed in the Coast Guard, that has attributed to our annualized operating and maintenance appropriation being funded well below the Budget Control Act floor for each of the past five years … non-defense discretionary spending. …
“The Coast Guard is an armed service, yet we are not postured to benefit from national security investments because our funding is categorized incorrectly. Our men and women are military members that operate on the front lines to secure our nation and our borders. … Yes, we are in the business of national security … our service must be categorized and funded appropriately.” He wryly observed their highest budget requests are “rounding errors” in other areas of the federal government.
He stated the current environment demonstrates a need for greater investments in the service, including the largest flow of refugees and migrants since World War II; maritime security for commerce; illegal fishing; trafficking of drugs and weapons; expanding navigable waters due to Arctic ice melt; and the more than $4.5 trillion of economic activity that occurs on waterways each year.
A new area of focus in the annual address was the inland waterways maritime transportation system. He noted that maritime highways can help ease congestion on road highways. As one tank barge takes the equivalent 144 trucks off the road and a tow removes 2,000 trucks, overall, millions of highway trucks could be removed from the roadways. He called inland waterways “our maritime highway.” The commandant sees this fleet as the next in need of recapitalization, as some of these ships are 70 years old. The fleet is not prepared for today’s environment, including lacking facilities for mixed-gender crews and the need to investigate for the suspected presence of lead and asbestos.
Zunkuft articulated the need to invest in shore infrastructure. With an infrastructure backlog that exceeds $1.6 billion, the commandant stated the Coast Guard is making essentially “the interest payment” on these needs, sharing stories of Coastguardsmen fixing leaky roofs and utilities, diverting them from operational concerns to take care of these basic needs.
Other priorities, he said, included a surveillance shortage, where multiple government agencies “collectively lack enough eyes in the sky.” He pointed out the need for more land-based, remotely piloted or unmanned surveillance platforms. Other areas to be addressed are an IT backlog and increasing the size of the auxiliary, the civilian workforce and active-duty force.
When summarizing the previous year’s accomplishments, traditionally released with the budget request, Zunkunft discussed the service’s successes, including contract awards for the Fast Response Cutter, the Offshore Patrol Cutter, long-lead materials for the ninth National Security Cutter (NSC) and steps towards the acquisition of three heavy and three medium icebreakers.
In 2016, the Coast Guard intercepted a record-setting 201 metric tons of cocaine and brought 585 transnational criminal smugglers to trial in the United States via extradition. The fourth NSC, the cutter Hamilton, on its maiden voyage last year interdicted more than 26 metric tons of cocaine, valued at over $767 million — the only asset in the entire U.S. inventory, Zunkuft said, that pays for itself in less than 100 days. He heaped praise on the helicopter interdiction squadron, which played a crucial role in these operations and spoke to the union between surface assets, air assets and joint intelligence.
In addition to highlighting successes, the Commandant pointed out there were 580 events last year wherein the service had the intelligence to act, but did not have the capacity — a lack of aircraft or ships. It was not an issue of readiness, but of ship numbers, he said, making the case for the ninth NSC, which could be on the chopping block in the fiscal 2018 budget request not yet released by the Office of Management and Budget.
Amid rumors of cuts up to 14 percent for this Coast Guard, the commandant said, “After 226 years of service, the time is long overdue … our funding needs to reflect the power of our punch.” Zukunft made repeated references to the praise the service received from Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who called the men and women of the fifth military branch “phenomenal” and noted the service’s “very scarce resources.”