Commandant Sees Bright Future for Coast Guard Acquisition Programs
Attitudes on Capitol Hill have changed when it comes to the service, Adm. Paul Zukunft said Aug. 5 in a speech at the National Press Club.
“We are seeing a shift in direction. Where the value proposition of the Coast Guard … is fully being appreciated. A number of members, both sides of the aisle, both chambers are saying, ‘We need to invest in the Coast Guard,’" he said.
The Coast Guard, which sails ships that are more than 50 years old, has always been down in the national security funding list. It has a wide variety of missions, but its $10 billion per year budget is small compared to the other services. It is considered a military service but it falls under the Department of Homeland Security.
The Coast Guard has seen less than 2 percent growth across its entire acquisition portfolio over the past few years. “What we haven’t had over the last several years is a reliable and repeatable acquisition budget. We’ve seen swings as wide as nearly 40 percent,” he said.
The service has a sustainable program of record to recapitalize its ships and aircraft, it just hasn’t had enough funding. “It’s like saying your mortgage is not affordable when someone just took 50 percent of your disposable income away from you,” he said.
Nevertheless, Zukunft said there has been a sea change in attitudes on Capitol Hill. “I am very optimistic, with the markups we’ve seen so far … it may very well bring the largest acquisition budget for the Coast Guard in Coast Guard history. I’m pretty excited about that.” He declined to be specific on the plus-ups.
The service may also soon see an end to the funding conundrum that has prevented it from acquiring new polar icebreakers, he said.
When he entered the service, the Coast Guard, which is the only agency charged with maintaining icebreakers in the federal government, had seven such ships. It’s now down to two, one large 40-year-old ship the Polar Star, and a medium-sized ship, the Healy, which is used for scientific research.
“This is drawing a lot of attention. I have been working very close with the national security staff, both House and Senate, authorizers and appropriators,” he said.
There has been a three-fold increase in human activity in the Arctic in recent years. Sea lanes are opening as the ice retreats. Next year, a cruise ship company intends to traverse the sea from Alaska to Greenland with 1,000 passengers aboard. But very little of the region has been charted, he said.
“What happens if one of those cruise ships were to find a pinnacle in 39 degree water temperature? We know what happened to the Titanic 103 years ago,” he said.
“When you look at an icebreaker, it’s a national asset. It’s not just a Coast Guard asset and it serves multiple stakeholders’ interests,” he said. The Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, Arctic Research Council and Department of Interior all require icebreakers, but have no obligation to fund them. “It’s not like passing the hat or passing the plate at church,” Zukunft said.
“How do you fund it? That is really the billion-dollar question right now,” he said, referring to current estimated prices to build one heavy icebreaker.
“This is generating a lot of interest and I’m very optimistic that on my watch we will see — no fooling — forward progress as we look at building a national fleet of icebreakers,” he said.