Coast Guard Chief Calls for Convention Ratification to Counter Chinese Aggression

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Adm. Paul Zukunft

Photo: Coast Guard

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, prepares to retire, he renewed calls for the United States to increase its presence in the Arctic and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We have not ratified the law of the sea and we are now in the same club with three other nations that have not ratified the law of the sea convention — namely Iran, Libya and North Korea,” he said April 10 during remarks at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “I have a problem with that optic.”

The law of the sea — which has also been referred to as the “Constitution for the Oceans” — provides guidelines for countries to abide by in the maritime domain.

“If we are going to be a global leader in the maritime domain we’ve got to sign on to the governance model, which is the law of the sea convention,” said Zukunft, who is expected to retire within the next month. Vice Adm. Karl Schultz has been nominated to replace Zukunft.

Ratifying the agreement is particularly critical in the Arctic region, where countries such as China and Russia are continuing to exert their influence and claim territories, he said.

For instance, Zukunft shared a photo of China’s Xuelong icebreaker that he said was taken within the United States’ extended continental shelf — an area the size of Texas that is rich in resources including oil, natural gas and minerals. While the United States could claim this region, the fact that it has not ratified the law of the sea convention complicates the effort, he said.

“We’re trying to exert sovereignty with reports and paper,” he said.

There is a crucial need to boost U.S. presence in the Arctic region, Zukunft said. China will soon take delivery of a second icebreaker and Russia has 40 such vessels.

Russia has claimed territory “all the way to the North Pole,” Zukunft said. “As the Arctic has opened, they have claimed most of it.”

The Coast Guard is currently embarking on an effort to eventually procure six new icebreakers that will give the United States that presence, he said.

For years the service has been pushing for funding to procure a new class of vessels as its legacy fleet ages. Its current line of operational ships includes the USCGC Polar Star, a heavy-duty icebreaker, and the USCGC Healy, a medium-duty vessel used primarily for research purposes. The Polar Sea, a heavy-duty model, is mothballed.

The current plan is to procure six new ships — three heavy and three medium variants. The lead vessel is slated to be fielded by 2023 and is expected to cost under $1 billion, Zukunft has said in the past.

The Coast Guard requested $750 million for the icebreaker effort in the president’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget.

“We can now write the check to pay for it and another to come after, … but we need a fleet of six of these,” he said. “More importantly, we need to make the investment in our military industrial complex, build these in the United States with U.S. steel, with U.S. workers.”

The Coast Guard hopes to choose a builder by fiscal year 2019. Five companies are expected to compete for the contract, including: Bollinger Shipyards, Fincantieri Marine Group, General Dynamics and National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., Huntington Ingalls Industries and VT Halter Marine.

Zukunft said he is working with his acquisition team to see if there are ways to accelerate the timeline of the delivery but did not elaborate on specific ways.

Topics: Maritime Security, Shipbuilding

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