The US Coast Guard has long prided itself on accomplishing a vast range of missions on a shoestring budget, but that can-do spirit is under pressure as the service gets busier and budgets fail to keep pace. Stopping drugs and illegal immigrants remain priorities and climate change is making the Arctic navigable. All of this comes as the Coast Guard struggles with aging ships that are breaking down and infrastructure that is literally crumbling. New large cutters and patrol boats are coming online, but not fast enough. Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard's 25th commandant, discussed his new strategy to prioritize its missions.

Q. In the first state of the Coast Guard address, you unveiled a new strategy where you have to make prioritized calls. The spirit of the service has been, no matter what the missions, we are going to execute all of them. What are your priorities and where are you potentially going to have to start saying no to?

A. A lot of times we will put a budget package together and then at the end of the day we look at what is left. We never get the full budget that we ask for and then we decide, what are we going to do with it. Instead we turn that around and we actually put the horse in front of the cart and say, here is our strategic intent.

The Arctic is important to our nation. We have an Arctic national strategy. We chair the Arctic Council over the next two years. Eight of the 10 most violent nations in the world, when we talk about regional stability, are here in the Western Hemisphere that we share. And how did they get that way? It is through illicit drug flow. So you look at drugs and violence, crime, rule of law that is right on our doorstep.

Q. But what are some of the things that you are potentially going to have to say no to? I mean there has been a long debate within the Coast Guard that you have too many missions. Do you think that you are at this point where you need to go to Congress and say, "look, I have too many congressionally mandated missions"?

A. We are the right service for the missions we have been allocated. You can go back, actually, 100 years ago. There was an efficiency and economic study conducted back in 1915 that said we can take these missions and give them to another entity in federal government, which then they have to develop maritime capabilities. At the end of the day, it is even more expensive for those entities to do the missions that we have today. So when it comes to efficiency, the Coast Guard is the right place to do it, we just need to be properly resourced to carry out these missions.

Q. How much more resources do you think that you would need from a resourcing standpoint to be able to be at that position?

A. We have gone through several iterations now of our missions needs statement for a program of record. Eight national security cutters, 25 offshore patrol cutters, which obviously we are still in competition, and then 58 fast response cutters, plus an ISR package that goes with that.

Q. You have one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, that is back in service, a 40-year-old ship. You've said that the service needs three heavy icebreakers, three medium icebreakers. What are the options to get those ships?

A. The three heavy, three light, that goes back to a high latitude study done by an independent research firm back in 2010. Going forward we have several options. One would be to reactivate the Polar Sea, which has been laid up now for over four years. There is money in this year's budget to haul it out of the water and do a full material assessment. Unfortunately, under continuing resolution we can't execute that contract to pull it out of the water. But by next year we need to make a decision. Do we reactivate? Do we even consider leasing or do we recapitalize? Recognizing that reactivation maybe might buy you 10 years, but at some point our nation needs to recapitalize its ice breaking fleet.

Q. What are some of those capabilities that those ships need? As these ships are going to last five decades or more, what are some of the baseline capabilities they are going to need?

A. First of all, it's heavy ice breaking capability. Last year the Polar Star had to rescue a medium ice breaker from China. Just before they arrived, the wind shifted and they were able to get out on their own. Clearly, [that] is no place for a medium ice breaker. It does require heavy ice-breaking capability. It does require a command-and-control suite. It needs to be able to augment a response team especially up in the Arctic where we have no shore infrastructure and any response up there will be coordinated from sea and not from shore. It needs to exert sovereignty. We have an extended continental shelf that other nations right now are doing research in. That ice breaker also needs to be a sentinel of US sovereignty up there as well.

Q. Where is the funding for this going to come from? You have said that the stakeholders should be able to contribute to it. That would be the Navy, National Science Foundation, NOAA and others that are stakeholders in the ice breaker fleet. Do we need to take a more national approach?

A. We have a national strategy for the Arctic region. Within that strategy there is a series of implementation measures that must be taken. This is clearly one of those, but this is clearly at a national level. It is not just a Coast Guard issue, but we have a number of stakeholders as you mention, the National Science Foundation, Arctic Research Council, Department of Commerce, State, Defense, Transportation, we have a lot of equities in the polar regions both north and south, but it really is a national challenge that we have right now.

Q. You have talked about the state of shore infrastructure that the Coast Guard has. You have about $40 million available to solve a $1 billion problem. How are you going to address this problem?

A. With the $1 billion acquisition budget, $40 million is all I can afford, so clearly a $1 billion acquisition budget does not adequately address the $1.4 billion backlog that we have right now.

Q. The Arctic Council is going to meet next month in Washington. You mentioned that your predecessor, Adm. Robert Papp, is going to be involved, and obviously the US representative is the chairman of that. What does the United States hope to accomplish?

A. We want to move the ball forward during this period. I want to create an Arctic Coast Guard Forum that really address the most pressing challenges in the Arctic, environmental, safety of life at sea, the welfare of the native tribes that have lived up there for more than a millennium and not militarize the Arctic, but these are really Coast Guard equities not military equities. And establishing a Coast Guard forum would allow us to right-size what our needs, what our objectives are, in the Arctic region.


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