Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp retires on May 30. (Mike Morones / staff)
Over the past four years, US Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp fought to keep his major programs on track despite budget cuts. He managed to win back funding for all eight of his big national security cutters, but rebuilding the icebreaker force and buying new offshore patrol cutters remain at risk.
Papp retires on May 30 after 40 years on active duty and will be replaced by Adm. Paul Zukunft.
Q. How will climate change affect the Coast Guard and national security?
A. Part of our maritime governance is to make sure that ships and cargo get safely in and out of our ports. So if the water rises, how does that affect our aid navigation system? How does that affect dredging with the Army Corps of Engineers? These are marine safety type issues.
I am not a scientist. I can read what scientists say, but I’m in the world of consequence management. My first turn in Alaska was 39 years ago, and during the summertime we had to break ice to get up to the Bering Strait and to get to Kotzebue. Thirty-five years later, going up there as commandant, we flew into Kotzebue at the same time of year; I could not see ice anywhere. So it is clear to me there are changes happening, but I have to deal with the consequences of that.
Q. And that includes disaster relief and how you deploy your ships?
A. Oh, absolutely. We have had Hurricane Katrina, we have had Superstorm Sandy; all of these have an impact not just on how we deploy, but we are generally in the path of the storm as well. When [Sandy] hit the New York area, all my Coast Guardsmen there were devastated by the storm as well, but they had to keep on working and they had to get the port flowing again.
Q. As parts of the Arctic become more navigable, do you have to increase your investment in icebreakers? Has anybody calculated what the total cost of adapting to climate change is going to be? To raise piers, for example, as water levels rise.
A. Not to my knowledge. Part of my job as commandant is to look out 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, particularly as it relates to shipbuilding, but we should be thinking about those other things as well. But we get so consumed with the annual budget cycle in this city, so much energy is devoted to that — it really makes it difficult to think strategically and to plan decades ahead for those things you are going to need.
Q. There is a perception that the impact of the sequestration and training cuts have been worse for the military services; the thinking goes the Coast Guard does its job every day.
A. We do our job every day, but for instance, we send out helicopters in the middle of the night in some of the worst weather to deploy rescue swimmers to rescue citizens. That does not happen just by going out there and doing it; a third of the flight hours are spent training to make sure our people are proficient to be able to go out there.
My No. 1 priority [is] sustained mission excellence. Proficiency is a part of that, and you need to train to do those jobs that we make look so easy and are very difficult, complicated, complex, and happen at rapid rates of speed. So as sequestration hit, one of the things that really bothered me was the loss of flight hours, boat hours and ship hours to keep our people proficient.
Q. There has been a lot of debate about rebuilding the icebreaker fleet. Where does that stand, and how do you end up paying for these ships?
A. Well, four years ago, I set the goals to get the operating money back in the Coast Guard’s budget. You’d think that is a no-brainer, but we had transferred the money to the National Science Foundation and they were leasing icebreakers, therefore, our icebreakers deteriorated. When I came into this position, our two polar breakers were laid up in Seattle. I set as a goal to get the money back in our budget, which we did. I set another goal to restore [the heavy icebreaker] Polar Sea to full operation. We did; it just came back from Antarctica. And my third goal was to get money in the budget to build a new Arctic breaker. My acquisition budget is under immense pressure. I do not see a way to fit a brand-new polar breaker in the budget without displacing other things which are higher priorities for me, like the offshore patrol cutter.
Q. What is the case you are making about why the offshore patrol cutters are integral to the Coast Guard?
A. You have to look at in the total package, the entire system. And I thank the administration and the Congress for seeing this through. We have the money in the FY15 budget to build the eighth national security cutter. There were a lot of people that were betting we would not get all eight, so I am very pleased with that.
But the next step is our medium endurance cutters, which are woefully obsolete and need to be replaced soon, particularly our 210-foot medium endurance cutters, which are 50 years old. When you replace the entire fleet with the eight national security cutters replacing 12 and 25 [offshore patrol cutters] replacing 33, that is going to give you a fleet of 44 going down to 33. We have to have more capable ships, modern ships, because we are not going to have the numbers. So it is vitally important that we get all 25 of those.
Q. The Navy has been ordered to review its plans for the littoral combat ship. One alternative they are looking at is adopting the national security cutter, a Coast Guard design which the Coast Guard originally proposed to the Navy to be that lower-end frigate replacement combatant. What data are you giving the Navy to help them make that decision?
A. Well, I think we have always worked together with the Navy to have compatible systems. That is why we have the gun mount that we have and the sensors on the national security cutter.
I certainly as the commandant of the Coast Guard would like to see us cooperate even more. I think it would be great if we shared ship types, because when you buy them in quantities, like anything else, it helps the price. I have to tell you, the national security cutter is the finest ship I have seen all around. Its propulsion system, its sea-keeping capabilities, launching and recovering aircraft and boats — it is just an outstanding ship.
Q. Does the Coast Guard need to do some sort of fundamental for structuring missions review to reassess and better match ways and means?
A. We are doing a mission needs statement right now in part to justify our fleet. That may play into that and people are asking those questions, but I cannot think or identify any mission that is unnecessary for the United States of America. All the things we do come under the broad title that I use, maritime governance. If you want to have a prosperous maritime country that depends upon trade for 90 percent of the goods brought in, you have got to provide for the safety and security of that trade, and that is what the Coast Guard does. So what I am forced to do, with the budget squeeze, is we determine [the] level of effort within each one of those mission areas. And I think for right now, at least for the next couple of years, we can deal with the level of effort, but at some point we may have to look at trimming back missions.
Q. A number of states are considering legalizing marijuana or have already legalized it. How does that change the drug interdiction mission?
A. I think it sends terrible signals to partners particularly in South and Central America, who have in some cases paid with blood in trying to help us with this battle. Between the Navy moving to the Pacific and fewer resources being given to [US Southern Command], I think some of our partner countries are starting to question our commitment to this.
Internally, domestically, I see now that we are sending signals of legalization of marijuana, not surprisingly heroin [use] is going up. It’s returning, and we are suffering hundreds of deaths in this country due to heroin abuse, and I think anytime you signal that drugs are OK, people are going to start looking for the next drug.
Q. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is doing a leadership review following a series of high-profile discipline incidents, sexual assault, malfeasance and misbehavior by senior officers. What sort of input are you having, given that your service has significantly fewer per-capita such incidents?
A. Well, they’ve got a lot of smart people over there, and Secretary Hagel has included me with the Joint Chiefs in the discussions. I am focused, of course, on the Coast Guard, and I think it takes a lot of personal involvement. Now I have a slight advantage there: I have a total of 40 flag officers, and I take a personal interest, and I can, in each and every one of them. I write their fitness reports. I show their fitness reports to them. I counsel each of them every year, which is something that was never done before by a commandant, because I know that preparing future leadership to take over the service is one of the most important things that I do.
Q. What is the decision you are most proud of, and what is one decision that you regret?
A. Well, I think the decision to stay with the program of record for recapitalizing our fleet is probably the most important for the Coast Guard, and because of my consistent message, I think that is why we are at eight national security cutters now and on the verge of awarding a contract for the offshore patrol cutter. We desperately need those ships, and if I had been willing to compromise and back off I do not think we would be where we are today.
If I have any regrets at all, I wish we had set some of our goals a little bit higher. We set what we thought were reasonable goals to achieve in four years, and by golly, we have made most of them. ■