U.S. Coast Guard: Priorities for the Future–CSIS/USNI

The video above records an recent event, a “Maritime Security dialogue” presented by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the United States Naval Institute (USNI) featuring Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, for a discussion on the “U.S. Coast Guard’s future priorities.”

Despite the title, don’t expect a recitation of Coast Guard priorities. Most of the material is familiar, but there were a few interesting comments, including some that might be surprising. A number of things the Commandant said here made news.

  • That the NSCs could be made into frigates.
  • That the Polar Icebreaker would cost less than $1B
  • His support of transgender CG personnel.

I’ll give a quick outline of what was talked about. At the end I will rant a bit about some of my pet peeves.

The Commandant’s prepared statement is relatively short beginning at time 2m45s and ending about 11m.

6m00 In our listing of missions, the Commandant said Defense Operations should be listed first. He noted that there are 20 ships chopped to Combatant Commanders including eleven  ships operating under SOUTHCOM.

Q&A begins at 11:00.

16m20s The Commandant noted there is a Chinese ship rider on a USCG cutter off Japan and that Coast Guard aircraft are flying out of Japan.

17m30s Boarder protection/drug interdiction

20m Called the OPCs “light frigates”

22m As for priorities the Commandant noted a need to invest in ISR and Cyber

23m Cyber threat.

24m Expect return to sea duty because of length of training.

26m30s “Demise of the cutterman”/Human Capital Plan–fewer moves–removed the stigma of geographic stability

29m25s Highest percentage of retention of all services–40% of enlisted and 50% of officers will still be in the service after 20 years

30m Law of the Sea. Extended continental shelf in the Arctic.

32m30s Need for presence in the Arctic.

36m ISR, 38m15s Firescout. An interesting side note was that the Commandant seemed to quash any possibility of using the MQ-8 Firescout. He noted when they deployed on a cutter 20 people came with the system.  He called it unoccupied but not unmanned.

40m Icebreakers

43m30s Comments on transgender members

45m15s Icebreakers–will drive the price down below $1B.

47m NSC as frigate–no conversations with the Navy about this. Performance of Hamilton.

49m50s Count the NSCs toward the 355 ship Navy.

50m30s Illegal migration and virulent infectious disease

53m35s CG training teams in the Philippines and Vietnam to provide competency to operate platforms to be provided by Japan. Two patrol boats going to Costa Rica. Other efforts to build capacity.

56m DHS is the right place for the CG.

The Commandant touched on a couple of my pet peeves, specifically

  • He called the OPCs “Light Frigates,” so why aren’t they designated that way? WMSM and WMSL are just wrong in too many ways.  Give our ships a designation our partners and politicians can understand. A WLB is a cutter and also a buoy tender. The OPC can be both a cutter and a light frigate. I have suggested WPF. Maybe WFF for the Bertholfs and WFL for the Offshore Patrol Cutters. If we want to be thought of as a military service, we need to start using designations that will be seen and understood as military.
  • He mentioned the possibility of including the Bertholfs in the 355 ship fleet total. Coast Guard combatants should be included when the country counts its fleet. No, the cutters are not aircraft carriers or destroyers, but the current fleet of about 275 ships includes about 70 ships that have no weapons larger than a .50 cal. These include eleven MCM ships and about 60 ships manned by civilian crews such as tugs, high speed transports, salvage ships, underway replenishment ships, and surveillance ships. Counting the Cutters as part of the National Fleet would raise  our profile as a military service. The Navy might not like it, but it does give a better idea of our actually available assets for wartime, which is the point of such a listing.



Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Coast Guard Sea, Land, and Air Capabilities–House Subcommittee Hearing


The hearing recorded above was held 7 June. The original video was found here. That page also provides the chairman’s opening statement and links to the witnesses’ written statements that are also provided immediately below. The video does not actually start until time 4:30.

Below, you will find my outline of the highlights.

Witness List:

  • Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray, Deputy Commandant for Operations, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Vice Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director, Acquisition Sourcing & Management Team, Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony
  • Mr. John Acton, Chairman, Coast Guard Affairs Committee, Navy League of the United States | Written Testimony

The GAO’s written testimony is particularly comprehensive. They report that new assets (NSCs and FRCs) are not meeting planned availability. There have been an unexpected number of engine replacements. In the case of the National Security cutters it appears to me the down time was predictable, a normal part of introducing new ships and availability should return to planned levels as more ships join the fleet. The known defect, that when operating in waters 74 degrees or warmer, the NSCs cannot maintain maximum speed has apparently not been corrected. Max speed must be reduced two to four knots to allow adequate cooling.

Planning Documents:  The Congressional Representatives repeatedly complained that they were not getting an unsensored statement of the Coast Guard’s needs. It appears the Coast Guard is not being allowed provide this information. Rather it appears the GAO is telling the Coast Guard how much they will be getting and told to submit a budget that fits the predetermined amounts. Reportedly the Unfunded priorities list will be provided by the end of June. They also asked for the 5 year and 20 year plan (1h04:30). Coast Guard representatives were repeatedly told the Coast Guard does not say what they really need, that information provided by the Coast Guard is inadequate for the sub-committee to make decisions (1h48m).

It appears that the GAO continues to ask the Coast Guard to plan procurements based on historically low AC&I appropriations that were adequate for a time because of the sporadic character of Coast Guard ship building. They acknowledge that the current budget is not realistic. (43:45)

The Coast Guard is now consistent in requesting $2B in the AC&I annually and a 5% annual increase in its operating budget and that we need 5,000 additional active duty billets and 1,100 addtional reservists. There was a statement from one of the Representatives to the effect, We need you to fight for yourselves (1h50:30). The representatives were informed that the 5 year, 20 year plans and unfunded will be delivered together (1:56)

My opinion: we need a regularly revised Fleet Mix Study. That in turn should feed directly into a 30 year ship and aircraft procurement plan

Webber Class WPCs: The Coast Guard is reportedly pushing WPCs operations down as far as the coast of South America. (50:00) This confirms my earlier speculation that these ships would be operated in what had been WMEC roles. Six cutters for CENTCOM The representative confirmed that they had approved procurement of six Webber class requested by CENTCOM. Apparently their approval was in the form of the Coast Guard reauthorization bill which has still not been made law. Adm. Ray stated that these would be in addition to the 58 currently planned (9:30) and it is not clear how or when they would be funded. Adm Stosz indicated it was not certain six Webber class would be the Coast Guard’s choice in how to fill this requirement and the question required more study. (1h11)(1h41m).

Shore Facilities: Reportedly there is a $1.6B shore construction backlog. $700M shore facilities maintenance backlog. Some infrastructure improvements that directly support new operational platforms.are being accomplished under the platform programs (55:00) The representatives asked, why we have asked for only $10M if the total shore facilities backlog is $2.3B?(1h35)

Icebreakers: The possibility of leasing the commercial icebreaker Aiviq is still being considered. (1h27) The owners have offered a plan for Ice trials and the Coast Guard has said it would be interested in observing. (1h29:50)

Great Lakes Icebreaker: Rep. Lewis brought up icebreaker for Great Lakes.Adm Ray says for now we will address with the existing fleet. (1h00:30) Priority is still Polar Ice Breakers.

eLoran: There seems to be considerable interest in eLoran to deal with GPS vulnerabilities. (1:22) The Navy League representative supported the need. The Re-Authorization Bill directs Secretary of Transportation to initiate E-Loran testing. There was a clear anticipation that the Coast Guard would support implementation.

Coast Guard Health Care: Looks like the Coast Guard heath care records system which reverted to paper now may be able to piggy back on the VA’s conversion to the DOD system. (1h25)/(1h32:30) There is currently a major gap in funding for medical care of CG retirees

A Better Armed Coast Guard: Not that the Representatives were specific, but there was a statement, “We want to weaponize you.” (5:55) I think I heard essentially a second time as well. I’m not sure what that means.

Rising Sea Levels: There was concern expressed regarding rising sea level and how they might impact shore facilities (1h12:20)

WMEC Service Life Extension: The Coast Guard was given money several years ago to plan a service life extension program for 270. The Congress has not seen or heard any result and they questioned, why delay? (1:09) See fig. 4 on page 17 of the GAO’s written testimony

Operating Expenses: Replacement ships are costing more.(26:25)(50:55). This is becoming problematic without an increase in operating budget.

Changing the way we buy ships: Included in the Reauthorization Bill are changes in the way the Coast Guard can fund its shipbuilding, putting us on par with the Navy (5:50)

Cyber: Budget includes 70 additional billets. (19:45)  What are we doing for the ports? (1h13:45)

Inland Tender Fleet: Budget includes $!M to investigate alternatives. (52:30) (1h19)

It is remarkable that there seemed to be no sentiment that the Coast Guard budget should be cut, while there was considerable evidence the Representatives believe the Coast Guard is underfunded.

Interview: Adm. Paul Zukunft demands Coast Guard respect–Defense News

DefenseNews had an interview with the Commandant. You can read it here. I will not repeat the Commandant’s responses here, but I will repeat one of the questions and add my own thoughts.

Admiral, you have said that the Coast Guard’s identity as an armed service is forgotten. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

The Commandant talks here about budget, but I think this starts with self image. We do SAR. We rescue sea turtles. Armed services are first and foremost ARMED. We are by law a military service, but we are currently inadequately armed for even our peacetime counter terrorism, DHS mission. We are less capable of forcibly stopping a ship than we were 90 years ago.

Do our people know what their role will be if there is a major conflict with the Chinese or Russians? You can bet Navy and Marine Personnel have a pretty good idea of their roles.

We have had a quarter century hiatus in a mono-polar world where no one could challenge American seapower. That is changing rapidly and it is time for the Coast Guard to see itself in a new light. Just as the nation has benefited from having two land forces (Army and Marines), it can benefit from having two sea forces. The Coast Guard is a substantial naval force. Certainly we will not replace the Navy’s sophisticated systems, but there is a need for a high low mix and the marginal cost of adding capability to Coast Guard vessels that are going to be built anyway is very small.

We are currently in an unrecognized naval arms race with China. It is time to give the Coast Guard back the ASW and ASuW capabilities it was building before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When I reported to the academy in 1965, it had a gun lab, and we were taught ASW (badly) during swab summer. The Coast Guard had 36 ships equipped with sonar, ASW torpedoes and 5″ guns. The ships were old (not as old as now), but we were building a new fleet of 36 Hamilton Class WHECs equipped with a better sonar in addition to torpedoes and a 5″ gun. Being armed did not stop us from doing SAR, fisheries, or aids to navigation.

At that time (1965) in terms of personnel, the US Navy was about 25 times larger than the Coast Guard and had 287 cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Now it is only eight times as large as the Coast Guard and has only 85 ASW equipped surface ships. We also had a powerful naval ally in Europe in the form of the Royal Navy. Now the Coast Guard is supplying personnel to the Royal Navy and in terms of personnel the Coast Guard is larger than the Royal Navy or the French Navy. Equipping our planned 33 to 35 large cutters as true surface combattants could make a real difference.

Even if we never go to war, preparation can make us better at our peacetime roles. Drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, and even SAR benefit from military grade ISR and C4I. Recognition of naval capabilities in the Coast Guard may justify additional resorces that have dual use for peacetime missions. Its a win-win.


FY2018 Budget Request

The Homeland Security “FY2018 Budget in Brief” has been published. You can see it in pdf form here.

The Coast Guard portion is on pages 44-48. The breakdown of the elements of the Coast Guard budget request are on page 47.

The total DHS budget request is $70,692,491,000. Of that, the Coast Guard portion is 15.1%. The DHS request is 7.1% greater than the FY2017 annualized continuing resolution. By comparison, the Coast Guard request is down 2.4%.

Highlights of the Coast Guard budget request noted include:

(“FTE refers to personnel changes. They are “Full Time Equivilents”)

  • Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) ……………………………………. $500.0M, 0 FTE Provides funding to begin construction of the first OPC, which is scheduled for delivery in 2021. The OPC will replace the Medium Endurance Cutter classes that conduct missions on the high seas and coastal approaches;
  • Fast Response Cutter (FRC)……………………………………….$240.0M, 0 FTE Funds procurement of four FRCs. These assets replace the less capable 110-foot patrol boats, enhancing the Coast Guard’s coastal capability to conduct Search and Rescue operations, enforce border security, interdict drugs, uphold immigration laws, prevent terrorism, and enhance resiliency to disasters;
  • Polar Icebreaker ……………………………………………………. $19.0M, 0 FTE Continues efforts toward awarding a contract for detail design and construction in 2019. This acquisition is recapitalizing the Coast Guard’s heavy polar icebreaker fleet;
  • Inland River and Western Rivers Tender ……………………….. $1.1M, 0 FTE Supports exploratory activities to analyze potential options to replace the capabilities provided by an obsolete fleet of inland tenders and barges commissioned between 1944 and 1990;
  • C-27J ………………………………………………………………… $52.0M, 0 FTE Funds support continued activities of the C-27J Asset Project Office (APO), which organizes logistics, training development, maintenance support, and ensures that these newly acquired aircraft are ready for induction into the operational fleet. Continues funding for initial spares and logistics, training, and mission system development;
  • Pay and Allowances……………………………………………….$109.8M, 0 FTE Maintains parity with DOD for military pay, allowances, and health care, and for civilian pay raise and retirement contributions, including providing a 2.1 percent military and 1.9 percent civilian pay raise in FY 2018. As a branch of the Armed Forces of the United States, the Coast Guard is subject to the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which include pay and personnel benefits for the military workforce;
  • Operating and Maintenance of New Assets……………………$98.6M, 233 FTE Increases funding for operations and maintenance of shore facilities and provides sustainment funding for new cutters, boats, aircraft, and associated C4ISR subsystems delivered through acquisition efforts;
  • Mission Essential Systems and Cyber Security …………… ……$26.2M, 2 FTE Funds sustainment of critical Coast Guard network infrastructure and pays DOD working capital fund increases necessary to comply with DOD information network and cybersecurity requirements; and
  • Workforce Support Improvements ………………………………….$9.1M, 34 FTE Provides funding and personnel to manage the new Blended Retirement System, increase the frequency of Personnel Security suitability background investigations, and enhance capabilities to handle sexual assault allegations.

FY 2018 Major Decreases:

  • Decommissioning of Legacy Assets…………………………. ($14.1M) (129 FTE) Decommissions one 378-foot high endurance cutter, three 110-foot patrol boats, and one HC-130H aircraft in line with the Coast Guard decommissioning plan; and
  • Management and Support Efficiencies ………………………. ($13.9M) (13 FTE) Reflects savings generated from an enterprisewide efficiency review that can be taken with no direct operational impacts and a minimal loss of current service delivery

This is neither the disastrous cuts that were talked about earlier, nor is it a substantial boost. While less than the FY2017 budget as ultimately funded, it compares favorably to the initial FY2017 request. If the Congress does what it has done in the past, and adds some to the AC&I budget, we may feel this is a better than workable budget.

Compared to the enacted FY2017 budget, Operating Expenses are up $333,772,000 while AC&I is down $720,382,000. Hopefully the Congress will bump this up to nearer what we need annually, about $2B. I would be very surprised if the Congress does not increase the Fast Response Cutter buy from four to six, and NSC#10 and another C-130J are possibilities.

Hearing: Coast Guard Requirements, Priorities, and Future Acquisition Plans (FY-2018)


May 18, the Commandant, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, addressed the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. The recorded testimony is above. It is fairly long (1h40m). The Commandant’s initial statement, following the introductions, begins at 8m40s and ends approximately minute 14.

The administration’s FY 2018 budget request was not available, but the Commandant was there to discuss future priorities, requirements, and programs. The Department Secretary, General Kelly, is expected to address the Subcommittee on May 24 at 3PM Eastern.

I will just mention a few of the items I thought significant.

Admiral Zukunft noted that Huntington Ingalls has begun cutting steel for NSC #9. Questioned about NSC#10, he said, if it were funded, the Coast Guard would of course use it, but that the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) is the Coast Guard’s #1 priority. His response, that another NSC would have an effect on long-range operating cost, seemed to suggest anticipated significantly lower operating costs for the OPC. Significantly, there has been no mention of reducing the OPC program by one ship to offset the addition of NSC #9. (There is already a strong push to build more NSCs, a bill to authorized a multi-year buy of three more.)

He contended that the Coast Guard has taken a harder hit, due to budget restrictions, than other armed services and would need 5% annual growth and at least $2B annually for Acquisitions, Construction, and Improvements (AC&I). Later he stated that this annual AC&I appropriation would included about $300M annually for shore facilities. He pointed to a need to restore 1100 Reserve Billets and add 5,000 active duty military billets while retaining current levels of Civilian staff.

Apparently the FY2918 budget will begin a program to replace 35 Inland tenders at an estimated cost of approximately $25M each ($875M total). (Even if, in the unlikely event, this program were funded in only five years, that would only average $175M/year, so it is not a big program, but one that should have begun at least a decade ago.)

Cyber security for ports was discussed. The Commandant sees the Coast Guard role as decimating best practices, rather than imposing regulation. We now have a cyber program of record–still very small, two CG Academy graduates going directly into the program. The fact that two billets is worth mentioning, is probably the best indication of how really small the program is. A much smaller pre-World War II Coast Guard probably had more people working on breaking German and Japanese codes. 

Marine Inspection was addressed. The Commandant noted the increased demand for Inspections because 6,000 tugs have been added to inspection program. He noted a need for more stringent oversight of 3rd party inspectors, who in some cases have not been as meticulous as they should have been. He also noted that the US flag merchant fleet, notably the MSC’s Afloat Prepositioning Fleet, will need replacement, which will also raise demand for marine inspectors.

The Commandant also voiced his support for the Jones Act. He noted, we only have three shipyards building Jones Act ships in the US, and their loss would be short-sighted.

There was much discussion about the Arctic and the Icebreaker Fleet. Looks like follow-on funding for icebreaker program (at least after the first) will have to come from CG AC&I rather than the Navy budget. This may be difficult, but it is the way it should be. The chair of committee expressed his reservations about attempting to fund such big-ticket items through the DHS budget. The Commandant stated that the Coast Guard is still considering the acquisition of the commercial Icebreaker Aiviq (but apparently they are doing it very slowly–the chairman of the committee seemed a bit irritated about this).

The committee members seemed to latch onto the idea that the USCG, rather than the Navy, would be responsible for enforcing US sovereignty in the Arctic (which by US definition includes the Aleutians), and seemed to be asking if the Coast Guard was prepared to fight the Russians and/or Chinese in the Arctic. The Commandant suggested instead, that our role was to provide presence in the pre-conflict phase in order assert US sovereignty. He acknowledged that the National Security Cutters are only armed defensively and are not suitable for conventional naval warfare against an enemy combatant.

The Commandant acknowledged that, at some point it may be desirable to arm Polar Icebreakers, meaning they should be built with space, weight, and power reservations for additional weapons.

(I am all for keeping open the option of arming our icebreakers, so that they can defend themselves and do their part, if there is a conflict in a polar region, but there did not seem to be recognition among the Congression Representatives, that an Arctic conflict is most likely to be determined by submarines and aircraft. The icebreakers’ role is likely to be primarily logistical.)

The Commandant apparently does expect that there may be disagreements with regard to the extent of the US authority over certain areas of the Arctic.

In discussing the need for land based Unmanned Air Systems, there was a curious note at minute 40 about go-fast boats going south. Where are they going?

Alien Migrant Interdiction (AMIO). We have gone for seven weeks without a single Cuban Migrant being interdicted. This is because of the end of Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy. This has allowed reallocation of resources to drug interdiction South of Cuba and human trafficking from the Bahamas

A Congressional Representative, from Texas pointed out there is no CG presence on the Rio Grande River, in spite of it being an international waterway. There was no mention of it, but perhaps he was thinking of the Falcon Lake incident in 2010 when an American was allegedly shot in the head by Mexican drug runners. Maybe something we should reconsider.

The Commandant promised the CG would have an unfunded priority list for FY2018.

Breaking Defense Interviews the Commandant

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft (right) meets with then-Southern Command chief Gen. John Kelly, now Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft (right) meets with then-Southern Command chief Gen. John Kelly, now Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security.

Breaking Defense’s Robbin Laird has an Interview with the Commandant and speculates on the prospects for the Coast Guard under the new administration and DHS selectee General John Kelly.

Trump, Kelly, & The Coast Guard: Exclusive Interview With Adm. Zukunft

Its a good one, and even the comments are worth reading. There is much of the same we have heard before. The Commandant has a clear and consistant message and agenda, but there is more detail about a possible role in the far Western Pacific.

“I have discussed with the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, the senior officer in the Navy) the concept that we would create a permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas,” Zukunft said. “This would allow us to expand our working relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. We can spearhead work with allies on freedom of navigation exercises as well.”

This is the first time I have seen the phrase “permanent USCG presence in the South China Sea and related areas.” Does that mean we will have a CG patrol squadron working out of Sinagpore or Okinawa (or Cam Ranh Bay), like the one in Bahrain? Or are we just looking at the Webber class WPCs we already know are going to Guam? (Must be more to it than that.) I do think we should put some OPCs in Guam, if only to patrol the EEZ in the Western Pacific.

Until recently we might have considered the possibility of basing in the Philippines, but that no longer looks like a possibility.

What ever you may think of the incoming administration, for the Coast Guard at least, it looks promising.

Thanks to Luke for bringing this to my attention.