State of the Coast Guard with Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a maritime security dialogue event to highlight the challenges facing the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard from national level maritime policy to naval concept development and program design.

Adm. Paul Zukunft, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant, said his service uses strategy to drive its budget and uses intelligence to drive its operations and manage risk.  Globally, maritime nations have focused more on intrinsic threats, which means increased reliance on their national coast guard services, he added.

In addition to the Arctic, Adm. Zukunft’s presentation covered:

  • USCG regional and functional strategies over the next five years.
  • USCG efforts to address illegal immigration and drug trafficking in the western hemisphere.
  • Cyber and maritime transportation domains.
  • The energy sector.
  • The USCG’s Cascadia Rising drill, conducted last week to test plans and procedures for responding to a Pacific Northwest natural disaster.

Addressing the Arctic, Adm. Zukunft said activity has increased 300 percent in the region’s opening waterways.  He also noted:

  • Low oil prices make oil and gas operations in the Arctic uneconomical, but existing hydro-carbon resources can be viewed as a U.S. strategic reserve.
  • The U.S. has engaged in extensive mapping beyond its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
  • The U.S. failure to date to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) remains a detriment to Arctic operations.

Discussing the cruise ship Crystal Serenity—which will travel through Arctic waters this summer—Adm. Zukunft said cruise ship operations in general in the Arctic are bound to be an attractive business venture given the prices for tickets for such trips.  He recalled that the role of the International Ice Patrol (IIP), which was incorporated into USCG’s mission, was to monitor iceberg danger in the aftermath of the 1912 Titanic disaster.

Describing the previous week’s Arctic Coast Guard Forum in Boston, Adm. Zukunft said the meeting focused on reframing the Arctic’s strategic environment.  Russia, with its extensive fleet, still doesn’t have the capacity to address oil spills or other major emergencies.  A communications protocol clearly is needed to share domain awareness among the Arctic coast guards, and the operating guidelines for this will be finalized in March 2017.

Discussing recent appropriations hearings, with an emphasis on affordability, Adm. Zukunft said USCG’s proposed budget highlighted modernization, readiness, and force structure.  While Coast Guard modernization is positive, operations and maintenance also need to be considered.  Sustainability also is a challenge.  Current proposed appropriations will fund:

  • The Fast Response Cutters (FRC) second phase.
  • A ninth National Security Cutter.
  • Heavy icebreaker investment.

Regarding icebreakers, Adm. Zukunft said USCG has met with all the interested agencies to ensure that the new ships meet the needs of the entire government.  Proposals have recently been submitted to the Office of Policy Management (OPM).

During the question and answer period, moderator Kathleen Hicks asked about the evolving situation in the Arctic.

Adm. Zukunft replied that climate change has changed the Arctic landscape, and indigenous people witnessed this first.  For example, sea ice barriers would have protected Arctic coastal communities from category one hurricanes, but now the barriers are gone for most of the year.  He added that the melting of the largest glacier in Greenland would raise the sea level worldwide by 21 feet.  Keep in mind the potential implications of climate change and sea level rise when considering infrastructure and investment, he said.

Asked about working with Russia, Adm. Zukunft replied that Russia’s Federal Border Service is the agency that is involved with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.  By compartmentalizing Russia’s international actions, the Border Service is able to discuss the Arctic holistically.

Asked about the construction of a new Russian icebreaker, Adm. Zukunft responded that the Arctic nations, from the coast guard forum’s perspective, are considering how to effectively leverage all Arctic capacity.

He mentioned that heat maps—generated from ship Automatic Identification Systems—show where the most ship traffic is concentrated and will be used by the forum in planning its drill exercises.  A Koztebue and Nome drill is planned for August.  A tabletop exercise will be held later this year.  A full scale tabletop exercise is set for next year.

Adm. Zukunft was asked if USCG—with the current acquisitions and rehabilitation program—still had the strength for the Great Lakes domestic ice mission.

He answered that a relatively light ice season granted USCG a reprieve this year, which allowed the service to move ahead with icebreaker maintenance, before recapitalization.  A new Great Lakes icebreaker won’t fit into today’s acquisition budget.  USCG’s immediate need is for a heavy icebreaker, and a new Great Lake icebreaker would require a topline request.

Adm. Zukunft added that he will visit Ottawa in July to assess Canada’s Great Lakes resources, and to find out how much the U.S. could potentially rely on Canadian icebreaking capacity.

He noted how Arctic weather patterns affect the Great Lakes.  The jet stream has deviated from a straight line path to a meandering path, bringing polar vortexes across the Great Lakes and resulting in severe winters with heavier ice like 2014 and 2015..  Great Lakes icebreaking needs are not likely to disappear.

Asked if the interest that China and other non-Arctic nations have in the Arctic is a cause for concern, Adm. Zukunft said that his issue with China—and its launch of a second medium icebreaker—is transparency.  If China is conducting research in the Arctic, there isn’t a problem.  But, if a mobile offshore drilling unit is brought into the Arctic, that’s a problem.  He said he is not sure of China’s long term strategy beyond the global commons and if it would infringe on U.S. sovereign interests.