Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft on Thursday said its time that the Coast Guard begins budgeting for new capitalization projects while continuing the modernization of its seagoing and aircraft platforms.

Zukunft, citing a familiar Coast Guard refrain, pointed out that the service always punches “above our weight class” despite being a “service that is funded in the flyweight class. That is the lowest class by the way.”

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

“Prepare to lace up your gloves and get in that ring as middleweight contenders that define our punching power,” Zukunft said at the annual State of the Coast Guard address. “We no longer live in a world for flyweights.” The Coast Guard is “long overdue to up our weight class to at least the middleweight division,” he said. “Our funding needs to reflect the power of our punch.”

The Coast Guard currently spends more than $1 billion annually on an ongoing recapitalization program, which so far has focused mostly on buying new high-endurance cutters, called the National Security Cutter, new patrol vessels, called the Fast Response cutter, and has begun detailed design efforts and laid the ground work for acquiring new medium-endurance cutters, called the Offshore Patrol Cutter.

This modernization effort demonstrates that “We are moving in the right direction,” Zukunft said. “That’s right. We are bulking up.”

But, Zukunft said, the Coast Guard is overdue for beginning to replace its inland fleet of craft that work the nation’s waterways and rivers and upgrading in other ways too, “critical cogs that must be machined to remain the preeminent Coast Guard.” The U.S. economy benefits from $4.5 trillion annually from activity on its waterways that are maintained by a fleet of 35 cutters, 25 of which are more than 50 years old, he said.

The time to replace this “geriatric class of cutters has arrived, and it arrived a decade ago,” Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard also suffers from an aging shore-based infrastructure, which has a $1.6 billion backlog in repairs and upgrades. Current budgets only cover the interest payments here, Zukunft said.

Zukunft also said that Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department lack the U.S.-based air assets to patrol the seas and oceans to “track and take down” potential threats to the homeland. He said the Coast Guard “absolutely must acquire land-based, unmanned or remotely piloted systems in a meaningful way.”

The Coast Guard’s information technology infrastructure is also wanting, Zukunft said, saying the service is “far from the state-of-the-art” in this regard. He said the Coast Guard needs to migrate its computer software to Microsoft Windows 10 to reduce cyber security vulnerabilities.

Zukunft’s address came the same day that the Trump administration delivered a high-level budget blueprint to Congress that outlines the FY ’18 funding request for federal agencies and departments. The focus in DHS is on border security and immigration enforcement.

Early drafts of the budget request showed that the Coast Guard, including its acquisition account would be a bill payer for funding increases elsewhere in DHS. But the blueprint says the Coast Guard’s funding will be sustained at current levels. The blueprint didn’t provide detailed or high level funding levels for the Coast Guard and its programs.

One of the bill payers was expected to be the ninth NSC that is under contract to shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII]. Zukunft said this vessel is needed to patrol the high seas, noting that last year 580 potential targets for interdiction were left alone because U.S. doesn’t have the assets to chase them.

Zukunft also highlighted the Coast Guard’s program for new heavy polar icbreakers. The service has a requirement for three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers, and in the address he said the goal is to meet this requirement.

The Coast Guard currently operates one heavy polar icebreaker and one medium polar icebreaker.