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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Zukunft to Lawmakers: ‘Imperative for Polar Icebreakers Goes Well Beyond Breaking Ice’

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told House lawmakers that multiple homeland security concerns justify a nearly $1 billion increase over last year’s budget, noting drug and human trafficking are at an all-time high and Russia and China are becoming more assertive in the Arctic.

At a Tuesday hearing on U.S. Coast Guard’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget request, Zukunft also stressed to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that the service will need congressional approval to buy new and improve existing vessels.

Zukunft said the Coast Guard is catching about 25 percent of waterway drug traffickers. An estimated 70 percent of cocaine consumed in U.S. comes through the Eastern Pacific, and the Coast Guard confiscated 223 metric tons of cocaine in 2017, versus the 32 metric tons interdicted at U.S. border crossings in 2017.

“They’re trying to do a big flanking movement around the United States Coast Guard so they can land these drugs in Central America and southwest Mexico, where it goes from 85 bails of cocaine down to grams, which is commingled with illicit commerce and finds its way into the United States,” he said.

“Right now we’re getting about maybe 25 percent of the flow. Gone are the days where we sweep the ocean like a lawnmower hoping that we will stumble on something. These are all intelligence-driven, vectored in aircraft, helicopters that are armed, ships like the National Security Cutter. But there are so many we can’t target them all. We know that when we bring them into custody we ask a smuggler, ‘How many runs have you been on before we caught you?’ Four, maybe five, and then we caught you.”

The subcommittee members expressed appreciation for Zukunft, who has served in the post for four years and will retire June 1 after a 41-year career. It was his last appearance before the committee as commandant, and his wife Fran DeNinno also attended the meeting.

Zukunft addressed the question of President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, noting that “drivers for illegal migration are going to be with us for quite some time to come, and if you can’t make it across the border, you go around the border.”

“Building a physical barrier is going to stem the flow of illegal migrants trying to enter the country. What it will not do is get to the drivers of why do people leave their country to begin with,” the commandant said. “Over the last four years, I have made multiple trips to meet with the presidents of the tri-border region in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and they will say they are a victim of geography, just north of the largest drug-producing country in the world: Colombia. And then they live just south of the largest drug-consuming country in the world: the United States.”

Subcommittee Chairman John Carter (R-Texas) thanked Zukunft for his service and said that his testimony would help the committee in making some tough decisions. He said it will be a challenge sustaining five major acquisition programs, including the recapitalization of the icebreaker fleet, Inland Waterways Cutter and new long-range reconnaissance aircraft.

“The FY 19 budget addresses many important Coast Guard requirements. The physical reality is that every agency must operate in a constrained resource environment, but few can match the Coast Guard’s consistently excellent performance, maintaining a quality force, sustaining operations with aging assets and recapitalizing for the future and taking care of the Coast Guard families,” Carter said. “The Coast Guard’s mission is both wide-ranging and unique. It’s a military force that protects us not only in the waters of the continental United States, but also in the Arctic and southwest Asia. It is a federal law enforcement agency fighting transnational crime here and abroad, it is a regulatory agency ensuring the safety and security of our nation’s ports and waterways, facilitating over $4 trillion in trade and commerce.”

Committee Ranking Member Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Ccalif.) thanked Zukunft for his service and commended the Coast Guard for saving 12,000 lives during last year’s hurricane season. She also said that the hearing served as a way for the committee to support the service with its budget request.

“The Coast Guard’s critical set of missions makes it essential that we properly support it,” she said. “That is why I was pleased that in the 2018 omnibus we were able to provide funding above the fiscal 2017 level, including $1.4 billion above the enacted level for the acquisition, construction and improvements account, which funds the recapitalization of Coast Guard air and marine assets, and $294 million above the fiscal year 2017 level for operating expenses.”

Zukunft commended Trump’s budget request, which includes $750 million to recapitalize the Polar Icebreaker fleet, which he called a vital national asset. He thanked Congress for their continued support of future fleets, to continue funding for the Offshore Patrol Cutter, which he called “the backbone of the Coast Guard’s strategy to protect and maintain offshore presence and establish sovereignty for decades to come.”

The U.S. is also facing mounting threats to national security in the Arctic, Zukunft said.

“The imperative for polar icebreakers goes well beyond simply breaking ice. It is about exerting U.S. sovereignty at a time when Russia, and now China, are becoming increasingly assertive in the polar regions,” he said. “…Our request for proposals were released in March, almost a month earlier than planned, and it has energized the U.S. industrial base and keeps us on track for delivery of the first heavy icebreaker in 2023.”

“We are as close as we have ever been, in over 40 years, to recapitalizing our polar icebreaking fleet, and I thank you for all you are doing to keep the momentum going for this vital national asset.”

James Cullum
Multimedia journalist James Cullum has reported for over a decade to newspapers, magazines and websites in the D.C. metro area. He excels at finding order in chaotic environments, from slave liberations in South Sudan to the halls of the power in Washington, D.C.

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