Zukunft: Coast Guard Continues to ‘Punch Above its Weight’
By DAISY R. KHALIFA, Seapower Special Correspondent
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — After outlining a range of Coast Guard priorities and challenges in the near and long term, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, capped his Sea Services Luncheon keynote address by reflecting on the enduring spirit and unwavering dedication of the men and women who serve in the smallest of the nation’s five military agencies.
“We’ve been saying for some time now that we pride ourselves as a service that punches above our weight class,” Zukunft told an audience of hundreds from government, military and industry at the 2017 Sea-Air-Space Exposition. “You heard me say that we were funded below $11 billion. That is everything. That is retirement, that is medical, that is acquisition, operations, maintenance. That is fly weight funding, and we deliver a middle weight punch.”
Zukunft discussed the successes and grave challenges across its mission set, areas in which the Coast Guard is highly, if not the most, visible as a mitigating agent. From Central America drug crimes, and waterway and port maintenance, to the Arctic and cyber domain awareness, the Coast Guard, Zukunft said, is at the forefront of operations and management of many of the nation’s highest-priority maritime security matters.
In the context of ongoing or potential global military conflicts in North Korea or the Middle East, Zukunft posited the question, “Where is the (U.S.) Navy not operating today, and so, I look to our hemisphere, our Western Hemisphere … and I look at what has happened over the last several years,” Zukunft said. “We have seen violent crime spike in Central America.”
Zukunft said Central American crime has become intensely violent because of the flow of illicit goods leaving Colombia, and being trafficked through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“[Colombia is] the No. 1 producer of cocaine destined for the No. 1 consumer of cocaine, and that is the United States of America,” Zukunft said. “When it is trafficked through Central America, violent crime goes up, rule of law goes down. Those who can afford a human trafficker will take their life savings and put their child in the hands of a human trafficker to find safe refuge in the United States. The irony of that is, it was our consumption that created that condition for these countries to begin with.”
He said that in the past year, the Coast Guard has tripled its presence in the transit zones, and has seen record removals of more than 200 metric tons of cocaine as well as the extradition of more than 585 smugglers, many of them members of transnational criminal organizations. Zukunft credits the agency’s effort in putting up “sea shields,” or Coast Guard platforms, off the coast of Honduras, with helping the nation see a significant decline in drug interdictions, while prompting land-based cartels there to move out of the country.
“Interdiction, security and economic development all go hand in hand, and it is really based on our authorities,” said Zukunft about Central America. “We have 60 bilateral agreements, which makes us unique as a military service. The demand signal is pretty high just in this hemisphere alone.”
In the Arctic, Zukunft said the agency created an Arctic Coast Guard Forum and has mapped an area of nearly 346,000 square miles. He said Russia has 40 icebreakers, while the Coast Guard has two. By 2020, Russia plans to launch two icebreaking corvettes, which are warships that can do naval gunfire support and carry a missile package as well.
“We need to pay attention to this part of the world,” Zukunft said. “As the sea opens up, we are seeing more and more human activity up there. Is it strictly a military problem set, or is it primarily a Coast Guard problem set?”
Zukunft discussed the “latticework” of waterways within the U.S. that all connect to a deepwater port. The maintenance and dredging of U.S. waterways, he said, is critical to U.S. economic security and just as much as it is to the nation’s national security.
“What this equates to is $4.5 trillion of economic prosperity that flows through our waterways and through our ports every year,” he said. “This entire latticework of inland highways is maintained by a fleet of 35 cutters. The average age of this fleet of 35 is 52 years old.”
An ongoing mission for the Coast Guard has been cyber domain awareness, an area that brings with it evolving challenges because of enhanced automation in container shipping operations, coupled with staggering volumes of consumer goods being shipped daily to major U.S. ports. Automated systems, he said, are more susceptible to malware and cyber attack.
“If you look at the rust belt, they are not investing in warehouses, because their warehouse is on a box on a ship that will get there just in time — in a ‘just-in-time inventoried economy’ that we enjoy today. Now we are fully automated, but what if malware gets in there?” said Zukunft, who said the Coast Guard has pushed out a cyber strategy that looks at how to defend the U.S. cyber domain.
“We are [part of] the Department of Defense information network and we want to be a responsible servant on that network,” he said.