Zukunft: Operations and Maintenance Shortfalls ‘Not Sustainable for the Long Term’
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard has suffered through five years of reduced funding for its operations and maintenance (O&M) budget, forcing it to defer needed maintenance and curtail at-sea operations, the Coast Guard commandant said April 12.
“It’s not sustainable for the long term,” Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
Due to a shortage of deployed assets, the Coast Guard cannot keep up with “record high levels of cocaine shipments coming out of Colombia,” and has been unable to respond to intelligence on suspected illicit drug shipments, Zukunft told a Defense Writers breakfast.
Being closely connected to the national intelligence network “really has enhanced our ability to know where all this movement is,” he said. “But last year, with all that awareness, there were 580 events that we had at least one level of information on, that we just did not have enough ships, or enough assets to track that down.”
But even with that, Zukunft said, the Coast Guard seized 260 metric tons of cocaine last year, a record level of interdictions, and brought 585 suspected drug smugglers back to the United States for prosecution.
While the four other armed services benefited from congressional agreements that funded defense above the Budget Control Act (BCA) caps, the Coast Guard has had virtually no annual increase in its O&M funding since 2012 because it gets 96 percent of its funding through the non-defense discretionary budget, which was held to the BCA limits, he explained.
The effort to stop the growing flow of cocaine through the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean into the United State also has been hindered because the Navy’s fleet has been struggling to meet the demands for ships elsewhere in the world, Zukunft said.
“As the other services are devoted to other regions, the Southern Theater, maritime-wise, is primarily a Coast Guard theater. You will not see many Navy ships there because they have been pulled elsewhere.”
They are getting some air coverage from Navy P-3Cs or an occasional P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, and since the retirement of the Perry-class frigates, they also are seeing “a couple of” the smaller patrol coastal (PC) craft down there, he said.
“The only down side of the PCs, they don’t have the endurance” that the frigates had, he said.
The “good news” on his budget situation, Zukunft said, was his shipbuilding account, which has increased enough to support three classes of cutters and the start of a program to build a new heavy icebreaker. But the shipbuilding funding is shrouded with uncertainty due to the restrictions of the continuing resolution (CR) for fiscal 2017 and the draft “skinny budget” for 2018.
To support his shipbuilding program, the admiral said, “I need a baseline $2 billion acquisition budget.” He also needs a 5 percent yearly growth for operations and maintenance, he added.
In addition to modernizing the aged Coast Guard fleet, Zukunft said, “we project we need 5,000 more [in the] active duty force” and to bring back 1,100 Reservists who were cut under the reduced budgets. The Reservists are “the only force in garrison I have if we have another Deepwater Horizon,” he said, referring to the 2010 offshore oil well explosion and massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The current Reserve level of 7,000 is “the smallest we’ve been since the Korean War,” he said.
Zukunft said his “greatest concern now would be another CR. If we don’t have an appropriations in 2017, I will have to shut down operations, defer a pay raise” and slow the modernization.
The admiral noted there has been a sharp reduction in the flow of illegal immigrants by sea since former President Barack Obama ended the policy that gave Cubans legal residency if they achieved “feet dry” on any part of U.S. territory.
But, he warned, “if the nation builds a terrestrial wall,” he likely would see a jump in “the maritime flow” of illegal migrants.