National Press Club

Coast Guard Commandant Zukunft seeks bigger budget

August 5, 2015 | By Ken Dalecki |

Admiral Paul Zukunft at an NPC luncheon on Aug. 5, 2015, talks about the future of the U.S. Coast Guard

Admiral Paul Zukunft at an NPC luncheon on Aug. 5, 2015, talks about the future of the U.S. Coast Guard

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, expressed optimism the 225-year-old service is in line for its largest ever acquisition budget boost in response to challenges including Russia's militarization of the Arctic and recent cyber threats.

Speaking at a National Press Club luncheon on Wednesday, Aug. 5, Admiral Zukunft said Coast Guard cyber security personnel have been instrumental in addressing the recent attack targeting some 4,000 military and civilian defense staff who lost access to email accounts. He declined to provide details, but joked that he was spared because the attackers "couldn't spell Zukunft."

The Coast Guard, which claims Aug. 4, 1790, as its birthday, has a relatively small budget of $8.1 billion but a mission that spans the globe.

"You can find the Coast Guard on all seven continents," Zukunft noted. It is the only service that has both a military mission and civilian law enforcement authority.

While the Coast Guard had seven ice breakers when Zukunft entered the service in 1977, today it has two, and only one of them, the 39-year-old Polar Star, is a "heavy" breaker capable of cracking through ice that is 21 feet thick. Russia, which he said is "militarizing the Arctic," has some 20, with more under construction.

The admiral said any new heavy U.S. ice breaker would have to have military capabilities as well as commercial value "to assert U.S. sovereignty."

Describing the Coast Guard as "the little engine that could," Zukunft said the service could do much more with added resources. He said it is capable of acting on only 10 percent of the intelligence it receives on drug smuggling from Central America, noting that one cutter operating out of San Diego seized 32 tons of cocaine during its current four-and-a-half month deployment.

Zukunft said some Coast Guard ships are 50 years old, a tribute to Coast Guard maintenance and an asset in one sense because their systems are so old that equipment is immune to cyber attacks.

Cyber warfare will command increasing attention from the Coast Guard, Zukunft said. He recently warned operators of the soon-to-be-expanded Panama Canal that they must harden their systems against such attacks and noted that an oil rig operator in Nigeria lost millions of dollars in production due to a cyber breach.

Zukunft conceded that the U.S. policy of granting asylum to Cubans who can reach U.S. soil presents the Coast Guard with a "challenge" because some refugees will take extreme measures to escape the island. He cited recent cases of Cubans who mutilated themselves or swallowed bleach to require medical evacuation to the U.S. when interdicted by the Coast Guard.

The commandant said his priority during wide swings in the Coast Guard's budget is to "hold fast" on quality personnel. He noted that spending on hardware has been an issue since the earliest days of the service, including a $1,500 cost overrun on a revenue cutter ordered by Treasury Secretary and Coast Guard "father" Alexander Hamilton. It was supposed to cost $1,000 but the final tab was $2,500.