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Interview: Adm. Paul Zukunft

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard


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 (DHS), composed of approximately 88,000 personnel including active duty, Reserve, civilian, and volunteer auxiliarists.

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 in Alameda, California, 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. 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 Harvards 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.

Coast Guard Outlook: You released your “Mid-Term Report” last summer, so let’s begin with an informal third quarter report: How has the last year moved you closer to achieving some of the goals you outlined in your “Strategic Intent” document?

Adm. Paul Zukunft: Sometimes success breeds success. The regions we’ve emphasized are areas that the other armed services haven’t emphasized. We’ve focused heavily on the Western Hemisphere, where transnational criminal organizations generate violent crime and drug shipments. Nearly 59,000 Americans perished from overdoses last year, and it looks like this year could be worse.

Zephyr Zukunft

The Cyclone-class patrol coastal ship USS Zephyr (PC 8) is docked at U.S. Coast Guard Station San Juan. Zephyr was underway in support of Operation Martillo, a joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard and partner nations, within the 4th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Casey J. Hopkins

So where are we today? Well, one challenge to our work in the Western Hemisphere was that we couldn’t go after most of the shipments, because we didn’t have enough ships. We’ve been trying to call attention to the need to recapitalize our fleet. Last year we completed the contracting to build 58 patrol craft, our fast response cutters. These fast response cutters are 154 feet long and are very capable platforms. We awarded the contract for a light frigate we call our offshore patrol cutter. And in 2017, we’ve received a down payment of $150 million to start building the first of a fleet of heavy icebreakers. What’s important is that we have success recapitalizing, while not cutting force structure. In fact, we’re gradually growing back the number of uniforms in the Coast Guard today. We’re holding onto our civilians. When they retire, we hire replacements. So we’re holding onto our force structure. It’s growing. Yet at the same time, we’re recapitalizing our operating plant. We’re making good progress, but we need to continue that progress for several years.

In the past year, you’ve said several times, in public statements and interviews, that you prefer playing offense when it comes to border security in the Western Hemisphere. Could you elaborate a little on what that means?

A wall is a goal line defense on the border of the United States. We are the offensive part of a broad border strategy. Coast Guard authorities stretch thousands of miles beyond the U.S. and Mexico border. We have permission to go into the waters of 40 other countries, into their territorial seas if there is illicit activity taking place there, to apprehend those individuals and have them prosecuted in the United States.

Last year we removed more than 200 metric tons of cocaine, which is a record, [and] 585 smugglers were extradited back to the United States where the prosecution rate is nearly 100 percent – and we are on pace to break that record this year. These criminal organizations become less organized once people are apprehended, detained, and prosecuted. It’s a team effort – DHS, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense [DOD], everyone pulling together. When these smugglers try to cut a deal with the U.S. attorney, they provide meaningful information that allows us to get closer to the heads of some of these networks that are, quite honestly, operating with impunity downrange.

Since the Navy’s last Perry-class frigate was decommissioned in 2015, you’ve had to get creative with your joint patrols in the transit zone. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments, for example, have been using Navy patrol craft as a platform for interdictions. What ideas do you have for maintaining – and improving – the Coast Guard’s ability to play offense in the Western Hemisphere?

Our national military strategy necessarily pulls our Navy from the Western Hemisphere and pushes them into other regions of the world. I’m looking to backfill not just what the Navy has vacated but also add capacity so that at the end of the day, we have more at-sea interdiction capability.

drug bust-uscg

Boarding officers in an interceptor boat from the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton seize cocaine from suspected smugglers during the boarding of a suspected smuggling vessel in international waters in the drug transit zone of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Feb. 23, 2017. Stratton seized a total of 3,700 pounds of cocaine during its counter-smuggling patrol. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney

I have 11 ships operating down there right now and they work for Southern Command. When they move into a law enforcement phase of an operation, then they report back to the Coast Guard. We have a very symbiotic relationship with the Department of Defense as one of our nation’s five armed services.

So as the Navy is pulled away, we’re looking at where we operate across the world. We know where a lot of these drug shipments are taking place, because the intelligence is good. We can look at that intelligence and try to determine: Where can I take some modicum of risk and put fewer Coast Guard ships in those domains? And I can’t really elaborate on where I am taking those from, obviously. Bear in mind we’re not drawing down our readiness for coastal shore missions, such as search and rescue or port security – and including guarding our commander in chief, President [Donald] Trump. We won’t sacrifice there. But when we look at where we are offshore, some of those assets have been pulled back so we can double down here in the Western Hemisphere.

You’ve made it a point to remind people, several times in the past year, that the Coast Guard is one of the U.S. armed services, and should be treated like a military branch. Why are you finding that reminder to be necessary?

About 4 percent of my budget is funded by defense discretionary funding.* Despite the number of our ships, the number of our people, the number of our aircraft that are really serving under a Department of Defense command and control system, only 4 percent of my budget is categorized as “defense discretionary.” The other 96 percent is nondefense discretionary. So, I have to compete against every other nondefense discretionary account that funds the U.S. government. When we have an executive order that says we need to restore military readiness, let’s not forget about the Coast Guard. We’ve been around since 1790, and we are a military service.

That idea’s been reflected in some of the public discussions about what the Coast Guard’s new icebreaker should look like – you and others have suggested it might carry cruise missiles. This is a historical year for the Coast Guard in the Arctic – the 150th anniversary of the Revenue Cutter Lincoln arriving in the new Alaska territory, and the 60th anniversary of the first deep-draft voyage through the Northwest Passage by the cutters Storis, Spar, and Bramble. How does the Coast Guard of today differ from the Coast Guard of 1957, in terms of fulfilling its missions in the Arctic?

I think we’re seeing an unprecedented pace of change take place in the Arctic. A region that has been covered with ice for millions of years is now opening up to an ocean. We’re seeing Russia begin to militarize part of the Arctic. They plan to take delivery in 2020 of two corvettes – that will carry cruise missiles – with ice breaking capability. So we have to look ahead, to what we’ll need from an icebreaker that will be in service more than three decades from now. What might that world look like, given the pace of change? Russia is declaring a good piece of the Arctic Ocean as theirs through the Law of the Sea Convention. That has not been adjudicated – but we, in the company of Liberia and others, are among those nations who have not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention.

Polar Star Zukunft

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, with 75,000 horsepower and 13,500-ton displacement, is guided by its crew to break through Antarctic ice en route to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Jan. 15, 2017. The ship, which was designed more than 40 years ago, remains the world’s most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

But just ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention would merely give us a piece of paper. What would we have to back it up? You need at-sea capability. And as we look at what an icebreaker needs to do 10 to 15 years from now, or maybe sooner, we think we should be able to retrofit it with an ordnance package. We want to make sure that when we build this out, we reserve space, weight, and power in the event that we actually have to arm these ships.

Breaking ice just gets us to where the mission is. That mission runs the full suite of many of our national security objectives. We have sovereign interests up there. If this part of the world changes and becomes militarized on the surface, this would be the only national asset capable of sustaining our presence.

The rapid pace of change in the Arctic, and the resulting increase in human activity, haven’t been matched by a surge in infrastructure development to accommodate these changes. What can the Coast Guard do to help move things along and build capacity for fulfilling its missions in the region?

You really have to ask: Do we invest in shore infrastructure in the high latitudes? Sea ice retreat is exposing those coastlines to erosion. Storms – which would otherwise be buffered by an ice field – have made nearly 30 villages in Alaska vulnerable to coastal erosion. Several villages are even taking action to perhaps vacate those villages. These are First Nations people, so they would have to re-establish sovereignty – and that gives you this other complicating factor of environmental refugees.

I was in Greenland about a year ago and in Shishmaref, Alaska, with Sen. [Dan] Sullivan just recently. We went out there to look at rising sea levels and learn about some of the causal factors. And really there are two: the melting ice fields in Greenland and the Antarctic. We flew over Greenland and I was struck by the amount of water – I’m talking raging rivers flowing across the ice fields of Greenland into a big sinkhole. And when we went out to Jakobshavn Glacier and met with the Inuit elders, they said that glacier hadn’t moved in the last thousand years – but in the last five years, it had retreated 25 miles.

Melting Sea Ice

Melting sea ice reveals prior control efforts and the advance of erosion toward the seawall being constructed in the Inupiat village of Shishmaref, Alaska, June 2008. In August 2016, the village of about 600 voted to relocate due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. U.S. Government Accountability Office

We’re already seeing standing water in parts of Hampton Roads, Virginia, down to the Florida Keys when we have extreme high tides. We didn’t used to have that. Now there are estimates that sea level could rise as much as 2 meters over the next century. So, you can do one [of] two things: You can hope it never happens, or you can at least plan for the worst case.

If you start to think about building infrastructure in remote parts of Alaska, you have to consider the possible effects of erosion and sea level rise. If you’re building infrastructure for the next hundred years, is that going to be under water? So maybe shore infrastructure isn’t where you invest. Instead you invest in an at-sea presence.

So how do you maintain that investment in an at-sea presence? The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s director of acquisition and sourcing recently testified before Congress that Coast Guard acquisition is underfunded, and that the service doesn’t have a sufficient long-term acquisition plan – specifically, that the service has been in a “reactive mode” because of funding constraints.** What does the service need to become more proactive in designing an acquisition strategy?

We provided the administration a near-term statement of what our unfunded priorities are. We’ve also provided them a five-year look ahead at what we need to acquire: how many ships, planes, and the like. The challenge is when we try to extend out beyond five years. We will put together a 20-year plan, which we will submit this fall, but what we struggle with is the gyrations in our annualized appropriations. We’ve had 16 continuing resolutions [CRs] since 2010 and we spent the front half of this year under a CR. And when you do that, the first thing that stops is new acquisition. I’m happy to put together a long-term plan but it must be matched with a reliable, repeatable funding mechanism, so we could actually execute that plan. It’s unrealistic to criticize the Coast Guard for not projecting out when we can’t even project, one year to the next, what will be in our appropriations.

Zukunft congress

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft appeared before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation to discuss acquisition programs and modernizing the force, July 25, 2017. Zukunft shows Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a section of ice-belt hull plating from Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star before the hearing. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

I try to simplify that for our committees by saying, “I need a floor of $2 billion for all Coast Guard acquisitions.” That’s ships, that’s planes, unmanned aerial systems. It’s cyber. It’s shore infrastructure. As a military service, my net budget – including retirement pay and compensation, all of it – is less than $11 billion a year. We provide a great return on investment.

I’ve doubled down on requiring a third party to audit our books. If you want to grow your funding base, can you account for every dollar you spend? We have four consecutive years of clean financial audit opinions – the only military service to do that – and yet I find myself the only military service funded below the Budget Control Act floor.* My other service chief counterparts lament if they ever see the floor. And I’m looking from the basement up at the floor. It isn’t very pretty down here.

We’ve been a good steward of our appropriation. In our acquisition program, the last five ships have been delivered on time, on budget, with no discrepancies. I would rack and stack that against any of the other services. But we can’t seem to move beyond the impulse, among people who do the budgeting, to see how far they can push the Coast Guard down, rather than lift us up. Bottom line: We need to be funded as a military service.

So what are your leading priorities for the rest of your tenure as commandant?

There are two. It’s great that I’ve got 11 ships downrange right now doing counterdrug operations. The long pole in the tent is our surveillance capability, a combination of assets from Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Office, the DOD, and the Coast Guard. But there’s not enough of that to go around. In fact, when I look at where those assets exist within DOD, there are much higher priorities elsewhere.

So in order to fill that vacuum, I’m going to have to bring some organic capability in the form of unmanned aerial systems that can fly for 18 to 20 hours at a time. I think we’re going to see that technology continue to evolve, but we need to grow with that technology. Now the good news is we’ve got about 15 members of the Coast Guard detailed to Customs and Border Protection, operating their MQ-9 Guardian Predator platform. Yet, the platform is the easy part. What it takes to operate and leverage that capability – the human element – is critical. So the good news is we’re building that competency within the Coast Guard, but we need to advance it further and bring this program to bear as well.

inland construction tenders

Coast Guard air crew members aboard two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and a HC-130 Hercules airplane from Air Station Clearwater, Florida, fly over the Coast Guard Cutter Vice, a 75-foot Class Inland Construction Tender homeported in St. Petersburg, Florida. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse

The other is our inland fleet. On Christmas Day, my wife and I visited one of our Coast Guard cutters that is 72 years old. It wasn’t here in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian – it was on the waterfront down in Fort Macon, North Carolina. It’s a ship that’s still in service today. And it’s one of 35 that maintain our inland waterways. What they do is allow about $4.6 trillion worth of commerce to flow up and down our rivers – much of it downriver and out of ports, a net export commodity. This is a key enabler of our national economic security, maintained by a 72-year-old ship. Now the average age of this fleet is about 52, and when they were built, they were not built with mixed-gender crews in mind. They’re really obsolete. It would be [a] modest investment that enables, on an annual basis, $4.6 trillion of commerce flowing out of our country. So those are two areas, unmanned systems and then our inland fleet, that quite honestly I feel have been neglected on my watch.

Speaking of neglect: The fact that the administration’s initial 2018 budget submission cut the Coast Guard funding by 14 percent might have been an indication that, even at the highest levels of government, some people might be unaware of the significance of the role the service plays in protecting American lives and property. What do you think is the No. 1 thing Americans should know about the men and women of the Coast Guard and the work they do?

In this job, I spend a lot of time working with members of Congress. We answer to 22 committees that own different parts of the Coast Guard. As a result of some of that outreach, there was outrage by many of the members when that reduction was announced. The reaction was visceral. And more than 70 members of Congress sent letters to the highest levels of our government, and immediately that funding was restored.

But the initial announcement of that cut – it wouldn’t have been healthy for any organization. We had one of our canine units here in Washington, D.C., for an event shortly after that proposal was issued, and when I was talking to them, they wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I said: “What’s wrong?” And they said, “Well, commandant, we heard you were going to zero out our program.” I realized that as far as they knew, I was the one making the decision to cut the Coast Guard budget by 13 or 14 percent. And that canine program was held sacrosanct. A cut like that causes anxiety and consternation at the deck plate level. It degrades readiness. It’s not healthy for any armed service.

I’ll say this: In the United States, we have the best military service across the board, far better than any other nation in the world. And in this all-volunteer service – and I would expect the chief of any of the branches to say this about his own – but across all the armed services, the men and women of the Coast Guard are the best. I’m delighted that we enjoy the highest retention rate of any of the armed services. About 40 percent of our enlisted members who come out of basic training will be on active duty 20 years later, and about 60 percent of our officers, upon receiving their commission, will be on active duty 20 years later.

There’s tremendous value in those retention rates. You don’t have to struggle to bring in new people and continue to train journeymen. We really do build these subject-matter experts over time. We’re delighted with where we are, but we want to keep improving the way we recruit, train, and retain – and remain mindful that we need to accommodate not only individuals, but also their families, and demonstrate that they’re valued members of a high-performing organization. We can’t forget that: Our most valued asset is our people.

This interview was first published in Coast Guard Outlook 2017-2018 Edition.

*The provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) distinguish among the status of non-discretionaryfunding (mandatory payments to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicaid); non-defense discretionaryfunding (accounts subject to mandatory caps that have kept their overall funding levels relatively flat over the past seven years); and defense discretionaryfunding (which can circumvent mandatory caps by being classified as part of emergency funding to an Overseas Contingency Operationsaccount, which is exempt from the provisions of the BCA).

**Coast Guard Acquisitions: Limited Strategic Planning Efforts Pose Risk for Future Acquisitions. Statement of Marie A. Mak, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management. U.S. Government Accountability Office. July 25, 2017.




Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...