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Interview With Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft




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.

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 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.

Coast Guard Outlook: So, your “Mid-Term Report” was released on July 1. You’re halfway into your tenure as commandant. Has the overall pace of building the 21st century Coast Guard been as you’d envisioned?

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft: Some people liken this job to a marathon. And I thought: Well, I’m going to try to run a marathon at a 5-minute-mile pace – and maybe halfway into that marathon, I might have to slow it down a little bit.

The strategies we laid out two years ago are just as relevant as they are today. It’s great that we’re modernizing, but – and I’ve said this time and again – what brings all these plans together are the people of the Coast Guard, and we’re not going to continue modernizing if we don’t bring our people along with us.

The fact is, I think we’re running a four-minute-mile pace now. So we finally know the gear, but we’re modernizing the Coast Guard at a pace that’s really happening much faster than I could have envisioned a little over two years ago.

suspected smuggler

A CGC Bertholf boarding team approaches a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel suspected of smuggling 7.5 tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Aug. 31, 2015. The seized contraband was worth an estimated $227 million. In each of the last two years, the Coast Guard and its partners in Joint Interagency Task Force South have made record drug seizures in the transit zone and Eastern Pacific. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The FY 2016 budget was the highest in the Coast Guard’s history. Even so, the program’s top acquisition priority, the offshore patrol cutter (OPC), presents a budgeting challenge. The service’s current capital investment plan estimates the price of a single OPC to be about $421 million.

Well, affordability is going to be the first priority for the OPC program. When you build a lead ship, those tend to be more expensive, but then when you get into full-rate production, you start realizing economies of scale. And it’s our intent to drive that number well below that figure, that $421 million. That’s the challenge we’ve presented to industry as well. The good news is we will down-select for final design about a month from now [September 2016].*

Then we’re looking at just over a decade to build out this program of record, and getting into full-rate production, building two of these a year. Obviously, much of that is dependent upon annualized budgets that don’t have variances, where you’d then have to cut back production rates. We all realize that if you can step up production rates, costs per unit go down as well. But we’re looking at taking delivery of the first round of OPCs in 2021, and then over the course of about the next 12 years, building out this program of record, which right now is 25 offshore patrol cutters.

The proposed 2017 budget accelerates the recapitalization of the service’s fleet of icebreakers. The “High Latitude Study” the Coast Guard submitted to Congress in 2011 estimated that the service would need six icebreakers – three heavy and three medium – to meet its needs in the polar regions. What does the Coast Guard need to do in the polar regions, and how does an icebreaker enable it to do those things?

The Coast Guard undertook the “High Latitude Study” that recommended a minimum of three heavy and three medium icebreakers, in order to sustain our persistent presence in the high latitudes – and the high latitudes are north and south of the equator. Attention is often focused strictly on the Arctic, but we have a very relevant mission in Antarctica. It’s a different operating environment down there: The Arctic is an ocean, and the Antarctic is a continent. There is a treaty process in Antarctica, and each year we send our heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, down there. And new-year ice is upwards of 14 feet thick, which a medium icebreaker cannot break; it can break ice up to 8 feet thick. It’s an enduring mission we’ve had in Antarctica, and it truly does require a heavy icebreaker. The Polar Star has completed that mission over the last three years now, but they’re struggling to keep this aging platform fully mission capable. So we do need to identify a relief and get that on the waterfront as soon as possible.

Did you say “new-year ice”?

Yes. So the Polar Star breaks in a channel every year, and they clear it out. They groom it – like grooming a golf course fairway. In this case, they have to actually break down bus-sized chunks of ice. They use the ship’s propellers to break them down into smaller chunks. The wind blows it all out, and they’ve got an open fairway, and they come through and provide the relief supplies for that scientific mission. Then the ship leaves – and when they come back, that fairway they opened now has upwards of 14 feet of brand new ice in it. So, it’s still a pretty extreme environment down there.

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