Adm. Paul Zukunft assumed the duties of the 25th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard on May 30, 2014. He leads the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security, composed of 88,000 personnel including active duty, Reserve, civilian, and volunteer auxiliarists.
We set out three very fundamental priorities. One is we’re all about service to nation. The other is duty to people. And then how we serve is commitment to excellence.
Prior to this, Zukunft served as commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area, where he was operational commander for all U.S. Coast Guard missions in an area encompassing more than 74 million square miles and provided mission support to the Department of Defense and combatant commanders. Other flag assignments include commander of the 11th Coast Guard District and director, Joint Interagency Task Force West, where he served as executive agent to U.S. Pacific Command for combating Transnational Criminal Organizations in the Asia-Pacific Region.
In 2010, Zukunft served as the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon Spill of National Significance, where he directed more than 47,000 responders, 6,500 vessels, and 120 aircraft during the largest oil spill in U.S. history. His senior staff assignments included chief of operations, Coast Guard Pacific Area, and chief of operations oversight, Coast Guard Atlantic Area, where he directly supervised all major cutter operations in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He also served as chief of staff at the 14th Coast Guard District in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Zukunft has commanded six units and served extensively in the cutter fleet, where he commanded the cutters Cape Upright, Harriet Lane, and Rush.
A native of North Branford, Connecticut, Zukunft graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science degree in government; from Webster University in 1988 with a Master of Arts degree in management; and from the U.S. Naval War College in 1997 with a Master of Arts degree in national security and strategic studies. He is a graduate of the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies Executive Seminar and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government National Preparedness Leadership Initiative course.
His personal awards include the Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medals, Defense Superior Service Medal, three Legions of Merit, and five Meritorious Service Medals with “O”device, among others.
What are your most important priorities as commandant?
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft:I had a lot of time to think about this before I stepped into this job. The first thing I did was I looked back at the previous eight commandants under whom I have served. All of them had great ideas. But what I noticed is that much like a sailboat, you don’t want a starboard tack and then have the next commandant go on a port tack and so forth. So the first thing we decided is, let’s sail in a straight line. We came in with what we call the “continuity team” – but at a point in time where a fairly new department understood the Coast Guard. So it wasn’t a good time to reinvent the Coast Guard and then have a department that no longer understood us. We set out three very fundamental priorities. One is we’re all about service to nation. The other is duty to people. And then how we serve is commitment to excellence. With each one of these there was a subcategory of priorities. I can provide a little more detail on that if you would like?
OK, yes sir.
We recently rolled out a glossy commandant’s direction. Oftentimes this might take six or seven months, but I’m only in the job four years. So I wanted to be able to get [the “Commandant’s Direction 2014”] out to our workforce my first day in office. We were able to do that thanks to a great supporting cast here. Service to nation, the first piece, is to align ourselves with the Department of Homeland Security [DHS]. It’s the third-largest federal agency. And as a service, we consume about 25 percent of the department’s budget. There are 22 components within DHS, so we better find ourselves aligned. And the good news is we are, especially under the leadership of Secretary [Jeh Charles] Johnson.
The next piece of [service to nation] is investing in the 21st century. Most people immediately think, OK you’re going to go out and you’re going to buy new ships. And yes, that’s part of it. But, we also need to invest in our human resource capital. Sometimes we take a very platform-centered approach to our investments. But if you’re not investing in your workforce, training them and giving them the specialty skills that they need for the 21st century, you may find a shiny white ship without a crew that can exploit the full range of capability of that platform, and to be able to support it and maintain it. That cuts across our mission set, not just in the cutter domain, but also prevention, response, intel, and acquisitions.
The third part of service to nation is about partnerships. When I look at the challenges we face and the resource constraints we have, we can’t do it alone. We have over 40 bilateral agreements just on counter-drug, where many nations look to the Coast Guard to be their coast guard to enforce laws in their territorial sea, which is clearly in our best interest. It would be great if we could build up some of the capability of these partner nations so we don’t do it alone. This speaks across the whole interagency process and especially with my fellow service chiefs. We enjoy a tremendous working relationship with the Department of Defense.
Lastly, we stood up and became members of the national intelligence community about 12 or 13 years ago. And it stood on its own. We’re really at a point now where we need to have intelligence drive operations. So we’ve integrated those two elements within the Coast Guard. We no longer go out and do random patrols. We go out to where we know the highest-threat areas exist to have the best return on investment, especially in a resource-constrained environment. To give perspective on that, on the counter-drug front alone, we now have awareness of about 80 percent of the events. This is in the transit zones, South and Central America, for contraband that’s eventually destined for the United States. It’s great that we have 80 percent awareness. Unfortunately we can only act on about 20 percent of that because of the resource constraints we have. When we have intelligence, I can fly an airplane on it and if I have a ship there, we have [a] 100 percent success rate. I used to do these operations, and we would randomly patrol, burn a lot of fuel, and more often than not we would miss rather than hit. Now we’re very effective with intel driving operations.
The next part is duty to people. Women serve in every capacity in the Coast Guard. Since 1978, there are no restrictions of where women serve. But they do represent the majority of victims of sexual assault in the service. And, we do have male victims as well. I want to rid this scourge of sexual assault from the United States Coast Guard. When I talk about duty to people, the first part requires all hands on deck to rid this behavior from the Coast Guard. And quite honestly it will require a change in culture. So that’s very high on my list of what we must do during the next four years.
Another part is we still don’t reflect the society that we serve in terms of our diversity. Gender diversity, we’re doing OK. Ethnic diversity, we still continue to struggle, especially when I look at the representation at every pay grade across the service. Unfortunately, this is the first time in 16 years that I do not have an African-American flag officer serving in the Coast Guard. Part of that is we haven’t done an adequate job to mentor and reach out to provide good career guidance so they can stay competitive in an ultra-competitive promotion system. The good news is at our accession points, our Coast Guard Academy is the most diverse it has been in its history. Nearly 40 percent of the cadets are women. This past year about a third of the cadets that entered the academy were under-represented minorities. And from 2013 to 2014, we went from three African-Americans to 32, a substantial increase. So we’re doing better.
We also need to do a better job in retention, because it really comes down to: I want to build a very inclusive Coast Guard where every member who serves feels like they’re welcome and they belong. My limited experience of what it feels like to be non-included really dates back to when I was serving in Hawaii. I was coaching a Little League baseball team. And the parents would grumble afterwards. And I’d hear them talking about the “Haole” coach. What do they mean Haole coach? And then I realized they were talking about me in a somewhat disparaging way. I got over it. But I would not want anybody in my Coast Guard to feel like there were people talking behind their backs and they’re not welcome members of this team.