Washington – The US Coast Guard seems to have survived attempts by the Trump administration to reduce its budget thanks, in large part, to an "avalanche" of support from Congress, the service's top officer said Thursday.
"Everything that was released was pre-decisional," said Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, referring to media reports that the 2018 budget would cut 14 percent of the service's budget, from $9.1 billion to $7.8 billion – cuts that would include the ninth National Security Cutter.
"Normally that [debate] doesn't hit the public domain, but it did. When it did there was an avalanche of support for the Coast Guard. Bipartisan support," Zukunft told reporters.
"Clearly my service secretary, [Homeland Security secretary] John Kelly, immediately went to bat for the Coast Guard," Zukunft continued. "I would have been concerned if it was crickets. Saying you're going to cut the Coast Guard 14 percent and people saying they don't know who the Coast Guard is."
Rather than the sound of crickets, it was a storm of bipartisan protest from Capitol Hill that arose, including a letter signed by 23 senators protesting any cuts.
"I would compare this to the movie, 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " Zukunft said, referring to the classic film's climax when an entire town comes to the financial aid of a businessman.
"We've done something similar with the 115th Congress," Zukunft noted. "I'm George Bailey. That movie had a happy ending as well. They've all come to answer the needs of the Coast Guard."
On Wednesday, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that reports that a National Security Cutter would be cut from the Coast Guard budget were not accurate. While not providing additional details, Mulvaney noted that the "skinny budget" – an outline released Thursday morning for the upcoming 2018 budget the administration expects to send to Congress in May – includes a six percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Coast Guard.
Asked if the Coast Guard budget would be reduced, Mulvaney would only say that "Secretary Kelly will have the discretion as to how he wants to allocate" DHS funds.
Zukunft referred to the fact that new administrations are often unfamiliar with the variety of roles played by the Coast Guard.
"We've been through this drill repeatedly," he said. "We went back through the last four changes in administration, and with a new administration it's testing the waters. So we've seen this movie before, and we know how it ends, and each time it's had a happy ending. So we didn't go into shock and awe and panic."
Zukunft spoke to reporters just after giving his annual State of the Coast Guard address. Referencing the need to highlight the service's importance, he observed that, "the Coast Guard often finds itself serving in the shadows, and we need to put ourselves in the limelight."
He repeatedly stressed that the Coast Guard, despite not being headquartered in the Pentagon, is part of the national defense establishment.
"We are first and foremost an armed service," Zukunft declared. He took aim at how the service's funding is categorized, as "non-defense discretionary funding," a term he said left the service out of the current effort to dramatically increase defense spending.
"Everything other than the four other armed services falls out of that defense discretion," Zukunft told reporters. "But we are an armed service -- and so we've been left out of that dialogue.
"We're deployed all over the world," Zukunft added. "We've been deployed to the North Arabian Gulf for going over 13 years now. We are where our Department of Defense is. We are an armed service. So we're working on getting our funding categorized appropriately, because we directly support national security objectives."
The commandant described his service as "an additive, not separate from our Navy counterparts. We have big ships doing big naval exercises – Rim of the Pacific and the like. And you might say you could be included in what is the ship count of our Navy, and let's not exclude some of these very capable ships from that inventory."
Rather that reduce funding, the Coast Guard needs more investment in ships, manned and unmanned aircraft, computer networks, infrastructure and people, Zukunft said. In particular, he singled out the need to restore 1,100 reserve billets cut by sequestration and budget reductions, make sure the service's civil workforce is retained, and add 5,000 active-duty personnel over the next five years.
"The time is long overdue to move up our funding from flyweight to as least the middleweight division," he said, using a boxing metaphor. "Our funding needs to reflect the power of our punch.
"We are in the business of national security. At home and abroad our service must be categorized and funded accordingly."