When the White House proposed a $1 billion cut to the Coast Guard's budget in a March budget outline, response was swift. The outcry from advocates and lawmakers led President Donald Trump's budget chief to back pedal, and in the end the fiscal 2018 budget proposal was flat for the service. 

But what emerged since is an interesting and perhaps long overdue dialogue about the needs of the Coast Guard, both in terms of budget and acknowledgement as a key player in national security. Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, sat down with Defense News Executive Editor Jill Aitoro to offer his candid thoughts on the matter.

Admiral, you have said that the Coast Guard's identity as an armed service is forgotten. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

I see it first forgotten, Jill, when I look at our appropriations. We are a military service. There are five. But about 4 percent of our budget is funded through DoD. We do a lot of work with the Department of Defense, yet a very small portion of our budget falls under defense discretionary budget funding. Ninety-six percent of that is considered non-defense discretionary. That's where we found ourselves sometimes forgotten.

Is a flat budget a victory to you?

The reaction immediately when the Coast Guard was going to be defunded over a billion dollars, I would categorize it as organ rejection. We are a military service, and just as the other services are challenged with readiness, we are no different. In fact, we're operating a very, very old fleet today and one of our biggest challenges is modernizing the fleet to bring it up to 21st century standards.

Walk through the system modernization requirements.

What's changed in the last six or seven years is that the world has not become more tranquil. We've seen the largest flow of refugees since World War II. Unprecedented flows of cocaine destined for the United States coming out of Columbia. An ocean has opened up in the Arctic as well. We have even greater challenges as North Korea strives to be a nuclear nation targeting the United States. There's a nine-dash line that's now being contested in the east South China Sea. Then we still have all our legacy programs that we had in addition to that. So, many more challenges. I think we have more challenges awaiting us. We want to be ready for those.

Can you talk a bit about the mission of the Coast Guard from a national security perspective?

I sit with all the other service chiefs and we frame a national military strategy that focuses on North Korea, Russia, China, Iran, violent extremism. But are there other threats in the world where our defense enterprise is stretched so far and wide that yes, there are threats we don't have the resources to attend to? Look at the Arctic. The Coast Guard has a strategy for the Arctic. We created an Arctic Coast Guard forum — as this sea opens, what fills that vacuum strategically? There's an opportunity to fill that with the Coast Guard. As we look at unprecedented flows of migrants destined for our southwest border — why are they leaving in the first place? They're leaving homes, countries that are rife with violent crime. 

Some of the worst violent crime in the world is just south of our border here today. Why are they violent? Drugs arrive there in bulk. They're broken down in retail and they're then brought across our border for consumption in the United States. But they're all interrelated. Where they're most vulnerable is at sea. Most people don't realize that here on our ports, our waterways, the Coast Guard enables over $4.5 trillion of commerce every year. This is a virtue of our geography, our waterways. We're a key enabler there for the secure movement of that cargo. We maintain that with a fleet of 35 ships. 

If you can imagine you maintain your entire system with 35 construction crews, well, that's what we have. The challenge is that their average age is about 52 years old. We do need to recapitalize that. We're very involved in cyber. We operate on the Department of Defense Information Network. But many of our stakeholders are in the .gov or in the .com domain as well that we need to have access with and to. We want to make sure that we're not reaching out to partners that may have malware on their systems that we now introduce into the DOD Information Network. We have a strategy for that as well. 

Is there enough communication between the services and the Coast Guard?

Absolutely. We have Coast Guard plugged into every combatant commander. We have a three-star officer who is the J6 on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, we have very good what I would call cross-pollenization of Coast Guard with all the arm services and with all the combatant commands.

The final piece in all this, Jill, is our people. It's very intriguing to stay focused on hardware, your capital plan, but we rolled out a strategy about a year and a half ago that focuses on how you recruit. How do you train, and more importantly how do you retain a workforce in this 21st century? Because if we don't get that right, all our recapitalization efforts will go for naught if we don't pay attention to our people.

You have said in the past that the Coast Guard needs 5,000 additional personnel, 1,100 additional reservists to accomplish the primary mission. Where is the gap right now?

It is across the board right now, Jill. We are trained and equipped, and by equipped I would say manned for a status quo environment. As we look at violent extremism breaking out, if we have a violent event, a terrorist event here in the homeland, we would be very challenged to sustain a heightened level of protection for any period with the manning levels that we have right now. We've been funded below the Budget Control Act floor for five years running now when it comes to our annualized operating expenses which includes salaries. 

So when you're funded below that level, we've made some difficult choices in the past. We trimmed 1,100 billets out of our reserve component, which right now is the smallest it has been since before the Korean War. That is not a good place for us to be. We made difficult choices in offset active duty personnel under the same mantra as well. We're growing a cyber team. We don't have enough. As we build out new fleets we need to man those fleets and we need to look at how do we maintain those fleets as well. 

Then when I look at our civil servants, we need each one of those. I cannot afford to have a civilian retire and then go into a hiring freeze approach and not bring someone on board to take their place. Something as straightforward as our pay, most of that is done by civilians. 

You cannot look at a civilian anywhere in our Coast Guard and not assign value to what they contribute to all our missions.

In the case of incidents domestically, violent extremism for example, how would the Coast Guard respond?

I'll take you back seven years ago when we had the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I was the federal on-scene coordinator for that. As you may recall, just before that we have the earthquake in Haiti. You had all the triggering mechanisms in place for a mass migration out of Haiti. Now you've got the worst oil spill in history coinciding with hurricane season. Meanwhile, out in the Pacific Northwest we have what's called the Cascadia subduction zone. There's lot of pressure on that tectonic plate, and if it releases, within 10 minutes that first tsunami comes ashore. Roadways are ruined and it becomes a maritime response. Today, the Coast Guard can respond to maybe one of those but not all three. Now you throw a terrorist event on top of that. We can just do that and not the other three. 

If you have a terrorist event and it affects maritime — 95 percent of our trade right now moves by water. It would devastate our economy; it would devastate our manufacturing. If we just shut down the ports and allow nothing to come in or out, the Coast Guard would have to screen with our inner agency partners everything coming in and out of the port. But we would at least triple down what we do today in that contingency. That's why you need to grow the service, but you cannot assume that you only have one and only one in a given year. We don't get a choice in that. 

There's a lot of talk of building up the Navy, the other services. What is it the Coast Guard asking for?

Well, certainly I'm not in competition with the Navy. We have the world's best Navy. It's often not recognized; we also have the world's best Coast Guard as well. This was validated at the International Sea Power Symposium where I spoke last September. Many maritime nations, they can't afford a Navy. Many of the threats they see are very Coast Guard-like. In fact, they want to be like the United States Coast Guard. We have over 26 students at our Coast Guard Academy today that will go back to their countries and probably in the future be military leaders in their countries because they want to be like the United States Coast Guard. 

We cannot be more relevant than we are now. But what we need is predictable funding. We have been in over 16 continuing resolutions since 2010. I need stable and repeatable funding. An acquisition budget with a floor of $2 billion. Our operating expenses as I said, they've been funded below the Budget Control Act floor for the past five years. I need 5 percent annualized growth over the next five years and beyond to start growing some of this capability back. 

But more importantly, we [need] more predictable, more reliable funding so we can execute what we need to do to carry out the business of the world's best Coast Guard.

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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