Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told Congress on Wednesday that he’s concerned about lawmakers gravitating toward flat budgets when the USCG needs money to grow, especially plowing forward with the critical icebreaker program.
At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing on the fiscal year ’19 budget, Zukunft said the USCG is “working with the administration to finalize our long-term major acquisition project,” capital investment plan and unfunded priorities list.
“Many of these were submitted months ago. We continue work with our department, and with the administration. We know you need those so you can help us in your endeavors to support the United States Coast Guard,” he said.
Conducting one of its “largest responses ever” after a string of devastating hurricanes last year, the Coast Guard rescued nearly 12,000 people, Zukunft said, but this “all-hands-on-deck campaign… came at a cost.”
“And I thank you and this Congress for the $835 million to address Coast Guard response costs, and rebuild damaged infrastructure to modern standards,” he said. “And while so many endured these natural disasters, transnational criminal organizations continue to raise havoc in the Western hemisphere.”
Zukunft said that “given our important work in the high latitudes, coupled with an ever-increasing assertive Russia and China,” he’s “very pleased” that President Trump’s budget wish list “includes $750 million for the Polar Ice Breaker Program, as well.”
“Our request for proposals, released just two weeks ago, has energized the U.S. industrial base, and keeps us on track. We’re as close as we have ever been in over 40 years to recapitalize our nation’s polar icebreaking fleet, and we must keep this momentum going,” the commandant argued.
While progress has been “meaningful and very encouraging,” it is “simply not enough.”
“We need to continue building tomorrow’s Coast Guard. Years of fiscal constraint under Budget Control Act caps have forced funding offsets, and reduced our force structure. Going forward, we require five percent annualized growth in our operations and maintenance account, and a minimum of $2 billion in our acquisition account,” the commandant said, touting the “small ask for a service that provides great return on investment.”
Coast Guard Master Chief Steve Cantrell said that “many of our Coast Guard men and women continue to serve in cutters and at stations that are older and less capable” as “members and their families continue to face quality-of-life challenges.”
“The sacrifices our members and their families make throughout a typical career are virtually impossible to quantify and we simply cannot afford not to invest in them and their future,” Cantrell told lawmakers.
Plus, while “our recruiting efforts continue to be stronger than any time in the last decade and we’re meeting our goals, I reiterate that we must continue to invest smartly if we want to retain the talent that’s lining up at our recruiting offices,” he said.
Zunkunft underscored that as the USCG has been modernizing, “we’ve not been doing it at the expense of force structure — we’re growing the force and we’re growing the fleet.”
Rep. Garrett Graves (R-La.) quipped of the Polar Star that the USCG had “done a phenomenal job with duct tape and bubble gum, keeping that thing rolling or floating.”
“The service life on it is somewhat tenuous, I think it’s safe to say. Yet, as I recall, the Coast Guard has indicated that a $2 billion annual investment … is really what we need to get us to the place we need to be to have the capabilities we need and also to have a seamless transition from the Star into a new heavy,” Graves said. “I think it’s fantastic that the budget request does have — was it $725 million in there for a heavy for FY19. Can you just comment on sort of how those things transition, because if the $2 billion figure was our target, if the service life is — what is it, 2023, I think, on the Star, it seems like we’re going to have a problem if we’re not fully investing in the program annually.”
Zukunft replied that he’s “concerned” when he’s asking for a five-year, $2 billion floor “and we’re seeing our acquisition budget continue to be funded below that floor — and icebreaking is clearly the biggest risk.”
“There’s a $15 million annualized appropriation to keep the Polar Star in service so there is a smooth handoff between the Polar Star and the next heavy icebreaker. That gets us right back to the status quo, though,” he said. “And we’re still only a nation of one heavy icebreaker, which means we need to continue to build out that program of record. We need to provide predictability for our shipbuilders, as well.”
The icebreaker program constitutes “an investment in our industrial base,” too, the commandant noted, “built in the United States and with United States steel.”
“So of all our appropriations, this is one at greatest risk and it does concern me. And there is going to be tension as we look at how do we fund other priorities within the Department of Homeland Security, and a concern that I will pass on to my relief is you may enter another cycle of flatline budgets at a point in time where our needs are continuing to grow, particularly in this domain,” Zukunft continued.
“2023 is when we anticipate taking delivery of the first heavy icebreaker. We want to sustain the Polar Star for two years beyond that to make sure as we go through sea trials that we’re fully mission ready.”