A year after facing the threat of across-the-board budget cuts, the Coast Guard has earned “trust” from the Trump administration and Congress, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said in his annual state of the Coast Guard address.
“The Coast Guard brand is way up,” said Zukunft, who credited his service members’ performance in 2017 hurricane responses, high seas drug interdictions and its on-time, on-budget new cutter construction.
“We are building out the Coast Guard of the future,” Zukunft said in his address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
To that end, the commandant staked out what he said should be the minimum annual Coast Guard budget need: a floor of $2 billion for acquisition, and 5% annual increases in operations and maintenance.
As the smallest branch of the U.S. military “that consistently punches above its weight … it’s high time we were budgeted accordingly,” said Zukunft.
Now in his fourth and final year commanding the 42,000-member branch, Zukunft said he has been fighting to end what he called “the do-or-die, suicide stretch” pattern of the Coast Guard battling to carry out its missions with inadequate funding.
That threat appeared to mushroom in the early weeks of the Trump administration, when word leaked of a potential 14% slash in the Coast Guard budget being considered at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Bipartisan supporters in Congress quickly rallied, and beat down any possibility that lawmakers would entertain Coast Guard cuts in the administration’s first budget proposal. Then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly weighed in, assuring Congress that the Coast Guard would get what it needs.
On Thursday Zukunft said the icebreaker program is moving, with an imminent request for proposal coming as early as Friday for “the first that will rebuild our nation’s fleet of icebreakers … yes, the Coast Guard is back.”
The recent track record for delivering other new classes such as the fast response cutters, coming in on time and on budget with few faults has contributed to the Coast Guard’s credibility in Washington, said Zukunft. So too has the performance of new cutters and crews in interdicting drug smugglers and helping civilian law enforcement and allied nations to counter transnational criminal networks, he said.
Coast Guard crews shone in their response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, with thousands of active saves and follow-up support for relief efforts, Zukunft said.
This year the Coast Guard is “on the cusp of making a major dent in our infrastructure backlog” for repairs and updates of shoreside facilities, said Zukunft. With new cutters and now the icebreaker program under way, the service is next looking to a class of “waterway commerce cutters” to replace its aging inland fleet, where some buoy tenders and other stalwarts of the brownwater fleet are approaching 70 years of age.