USCG Adm. Zukunft: The Man, His Mission

By Greg Trauthwein, Editor

Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the 25th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard has a full plate. Driving sexual assault out of the Coast Guard; Preparing the fleet for operations through the year 2061; Coordinating intel and assets to stem the flow of illegal drugs ... they are all on the short list. From his Washington, DC, HQ he shares his vision and mission with Maritime Reporter.

You are almost a year in this position as the Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. Looking back, critique year one.

    When we (started) we stood up a “continuity team.”  Oftentimes we call it a transition team, but words matter, (and we called it continuity) because what we didn’t want to do is turn the Coast Guard on its side, especially among our workforce.  We set out some very clear objectives and shared them with our field units, and said, “Here’s my Commandant’s direction.  Does everybody understand where the Coast Guard needs to go?”  I would liken it to the old NASA model, where if you asked a janitor, “What do you do at NASA?” he would say, “Well, I’m going put a man on the moon.”  (I wanted people to feel) connected to the mission that had three straightforward goals.  We have already checked a number of these goals off:
•    We had a clean financial audit, which was one of my immediate objectives. If you want to grow your budget you want to make sure that you’re a good steward of it.
•    We wanted to make sure that we’re in complete alignment with the Department of Homeland Security, and I would say we’ve checked that block off, as well. So I’m delighted with where we’ve gone in the first 12 months, but through 2018, I will own the ’16, ’17, ’18, and ’19 budgets. So that’s the big challenge going forward as we look at the demand for our services, (and determine how to best) sustain our great record of performance.

So coming into the job in May of 2014, what were your top three goals and what progress has been made in achieving these goals to date?

    Our first goal was “service to nation.” What does that mean?  First, we better be aligned with the Department of Homeland Security. It combines Coast Guard, CBP, and Immigrations & Customs Enforcement, looking at all things maritime. Within “service to nation” was also “having intelligence drive our operations.” One of the first things I did was I moved our Intelligence Directorate into Operations, and so we clearly have intelligence driving operations today to the point where in the drug threat transit zones, we have about 80% awareness, at least one layer of intelligence of all the drug flow. But out of all the great intel we have, 60% of the intel we can’t take action upon because we don’t have the resources to do so. But intel clearly is driving our operations.

So what is the second goal?   

    The second goal is “duty to people.”  And the one that’s going to be a work in progress is driving sexual assault out of the Coast Guard. We had 254 reports last year.  Some of these reports go back several years, so one positive aspect is those who have been victimized are more forthcoming for a crime that is probably the most under-reported crime in our country.  For me it’s (about) changing the culture.
Another aspect of duty to people is diversity.  For the longest time, the Coast Guard has not reflected the society we serve, and this year our Coast Guard Academy in New London is probably one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse military service academy in terms of gender and ethnicity.
The other duty to people piece is how and why we assign people.  Just recently we extended tour links for more than 2,000 people in the Coast Guard, recognizing there’s a long learning curve, and right when they get proficient at what they do, maybe we move them into a different occupation field and start that learning curve all over again.  it erodes our proficiency; it’s hard on our families.  And then there’s a real cost savings if you don’t move people as often, so if I’m dealing with a flat line budget or less, and I need to manage my human resource capital better.

What is the key to being more proficient with the human assets under your command?

    That’s the other part, more specialization within the Coast Guard. Take aviators for example.  If you are a qualified pilot, we send you to flight school, you become a pilot in training, eventually you become an aircraft commander and an instructor pilot.  We don’t pull those people out of a cockpit and say, well, okay, now you are going to go drive ships, or something completely different. But we do that in some of the other fields within the Coast Guard and we need to look at having that more of a closed-loop community, as well, especially our marine inspection program. The industry we regulate has also become much more complex with dynamic positioning systems, alternative fuels, for example, and simply many more ships in our inventory, driven by  the “oil renaissance.” 

And the third goal?

    The third one is what I call “commitment to excellence,” which is sustaining our record of outstanding performance.  One area that’s been a challenge for us is how we manage our financial management system.  It’s very labor-intensive, as we have nearly 20,000 people in the Coast Guard that have access and require access to our financial data. 
We need to squeeze that down. We are generating a new financial management system so that we can better track what’s in our checkbook.  And then we need to look at efficiencies.  We have Rescue 21, we’ve got more capable aircraft and boats, yet we still operate in many of our locations as we did when we used to have to roll out to rescue people before we had power-driven vessels. 

So in looking at all of your responsibilities, do you have one that stands above and beyond all else?

    Every Commandant has a defining moment, and for me it’s going to be the offshore patrol cutter (OPC).  This will be the largest investment in our acquisition history, and 40 years from now this cutter will still be in service.  I can’t predict what the year 2060 has in store for us, but the first ship will be delivered around 2021.  So that means in 2060, this ship will still be operating, and the people operating that ship should be able to look back and say, “Thank God they got this one right.” 
We designed a ship that can operate in all domains.  Right now our medium endurance cutter fleet can’t operate in heavy sea states.  I was the commanding officer of a 270-ft., medium endurance cutter, and my orders were to take the ship to the Bering Sea, and instead of evading storms, steam into them so we could assess the ship’s seakeeping capability.  When we came back and they ran all the modeling, they said, “We cannot have these ships operating in the Bering Sea. We will lose ships and we will lose people.”  But that’s an area of operations where the Coast Guard has been operating, and will need to operate well into the 21st century. So we need to make sure that we design a ship that can safely operate in the most harsh environments.

Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in the offshore patrol cutter. So where exactly are we at with the OPC?

    We are down to three bidders and we will down-select to one in the fourth quarter of 2016.  We have built in affordability as an underlying criteria in the design of this ship, but not at the expense of some of the key operating requirements. It’s not a race to the bottom.  We have a really great track record with our national security cutter and our fast response cutter programs where once these roll out, we don’t redesign it after the fact.  There are huge cost penalties incurred when you change your requirements midstream.
(OPC must meet) the sea-keeping needs and the cruising range that that platform will require well into the 21st century.  Our acquisition program has done a tremendous job, line item by line item, to validate each and every one of those requirements.  As a two-star, I actually wrote the operating requirement document for this class of cutter, so it is one that I’m quite familiar with.  I am confident that industry is going to provide us an affordable model.

With all of the variables in designing and building a platform that will operate to 2061, what do you count as the greatest challenge?

    (In regards to) acquisition, ‘don’t go it alone.’  Look for commonality in systems, take advantage of economy of scales. We know in 2061 we will still be interoperable with the United States Navy, so we’ve got to have compatible systems. We have that right now on our aging fleet, but those are systems that the Navy is phasing out.  Technology evolves faster than we can produce ships.  Oftentimes, if you’re buying something today, by the time it’s fielded, you’re already in the 2nd or 3rd spiral development of the technology that’s being put on that ship.  So you probably want to reserve space, weight, and power for whatever the new technology is going to bring on board.  But in all likelihood, it will be smaller, it will probably be more capable, but at the end of the day it is going to require more bandwidth. 

Most everyone who reads our pages are keenly interested in what the Coast Guard is thinking.  Looking on the big ship side, one of the biggest concerns is regarding USCG approval of Ballast Water Management Systems. What is your take on this on this specific program, and where are we at as far as getting approved systems?

    We have two regulatory projects on the table right now:  Ballast Water Technology is one and Subchapter M, uninspected towing vessels, is the other.  With ballast water we have been working with independent labs to make sure that, first of all, the technology exists to meet some of the stringent standards that have been proposed, because quite honestly, the technology hasn’t quite caught up to where some of these standards are.
So where we’re at right now is making sure that we have the technology that can meet the requirements.  Once we get that technology box checked, we can move forward pretty briskly in putting forward a final rule. This has been a concerted effort for the Coast Guard: to make sure that the technology exists through an independent lab where we can finalize this rule-making product.

In the interview with Adm. Zukunft for the March 2015 edition, it was stated that the Coast Guard was in the process of implementing a final rule on ballast water technology.  In fact, the Coast Guard published its ballast water discharge standard regulation in March 2012.  At that time, the Coast Guard anticipated that implementation of a U.S. type approval process would take at least three years.  In July 2012, the Coast Guard assessed and accepted an independent laboratory to carry-out the type approval testing of ballast water management systems designed to meet the ballast water discharge standard.  A second independent laboratory was accepted in 2013.  In 2014, several manufacturers began testing their ballast water management systems at these independent laboratories.  The Coast Guard anticipates receiving type approval applications from those manufacturers in 2015.  Once a manufacturer completes the test evaluation of its ballast water management system with an accepted independent laboratory, the Coast Guard will review the results.  If all requirements are met, Coast Guard type approval will be granted.

The Arctic presents many opportunities and many challenges. Can you give your overview of the current Coast Guard position on the Arctic, and moving forward, do you have the assets that you need to operate there effectively? 

    First and foremost, we don’t have the capacity we need to operate in the Arctic.  We are an Arctic nation, and for the next two years we chair the Arctic Council.  This year, there is a cruise ship that’s scheduled to transit the Northwest Passage, while (only about) five percent of the Arctic is charted to “modern day standards.”
Today we continue to fly the “International Ice Patrol,” a mission that the Coast Guard took on after the Titanic’s sinking.  We can’t afford to wait for a catastrophe (again) to finally invest in what our nation needs to be a viable Arctic nation.  Russia has about one eighth of our GDP, and they have a fleet of 27 ice breakers.  They clearly see an imperative to be an Arctic nation, and they have made that investment.  The one area I lose sleep over is the fact that the Polar Star is down in McMurdo, Antarctica. It is a 39-year-old ice breaker, and God forbid they suffer a major engineering casualty (causing it to become) set in ice because the United States doesn’t have another ice breaker that can go into a heavy ice environment (for the) rescue.
Further north as we look at more human activity in that area, there’s little to no shore infrastructure.  So your “command and control,” is at sea.  And so for the Coast Guard, and the United States, if we are going to exert influence, in all likelihood you are going to have to do that from ships.  We’ve done independent studies called a “high latitude study,” and out of that a determination was made that the United States requires 3 heavy and 3 medium ice breakers.  Today we have one heavy and one medium.  So it’s an investment that needs to be made.

So what is the realistic prospect of expanding the ice breaking fleet while you sit in this seat?

    It’s my job to sell it. There are some that would say “Let’s just zero out all your other major acquisitions and then repurpose that and just build ice-breakers.”  But we have 50-year-old ships that will be 55 years old before the first offshore patrol cutter takes their place.  We do a pretty good job taking care of the ships that we have, but they have lead dust, they’ve got asbestos.  So they’re not just old, but now they do pose a hazard to our folks operating them.  So I need to continue that program of record in that I need the top line relief in our budget to take on board another major acquisition, specifically for a heavy ice breaker.

What is the potential for collaboration, with the Navy for example, to jointly build and operate icebreakers?

    We work very closely with the Navy and the Navy has a road map for the Arctic, but when you look at their military equities in the Arctic, there’s not an emerging cause for action when you look at all the other competing demands that the Navy has; the biggest one being recapitalization of the Ohio class submarines, a huge investment. It really comes down to an issue of political will to make that level of an appropriation to fund. They are U.S. assets, so it really is whole of government; there are a number of entities that have a stake in the Arctic domain.

You covered it a bit when we discussed the OPC previously, but acquisition and recapitalization would seem to be one of your ongoing missions for the financial responsibility.  Looking at the job you’re doing today with your acquisition program and your recapitalization program, how would you term the job being done? What work still needs to be done?

    On a positive note, our acquisition directorate received five of roughly eight awards last year among all entities for best acquisition practices.  We were criticized a number of years ago for not having our acquisition house in order.  I’m here to say that today, that house is built on a very solid foundation.  The challenge is that our acquisition budget over the last four years has dropped nearly 40 percent.  Yes, we need new ships. Yes, we purchased 174 response boat mediums, capable boats operating somewhat near shore. Our fast response cutter, we just took delivery of 12 and we’re on a good timeline right now to build out all 58.  And our national security cutter, we’ll finish contracting out the final (eighth) of those. 
In addition I have an $850 million backlog in shore infrastructure: old buildings, old piers, leaking roofs.  I can’t vector where hurricanes go, but right now my best recapitalization effort for shore infrastructure is through disaster relief funding. If you’re at the Coast Guard Academy today, it’s almost like being at a shipyard with all the scaffolding.  But we would not have been able to do some of that work had it not been for a hurricane that that got to the point where it really started to compromise habitability.  But I can only allocate about $40 million a year towards an $850 million backlog. 

I guess that’s the key question … how do you do it?  What’s the trick? That may sound a little flip, but what’s the secret to making it all work?

    We’ve done our part, and maybe we need to take more credit for what we’ve done. By that, I mean for the second consecutive year the Coast Guard has a clean, financial audit opinion:  the only armed service that could make that statement.  The fact that we’re running ships, you know, 50 plus years old: when you make that investment you are going to take good care of it.  We’re taking good care of the dollars we’re trusted with, as well as the capital plan.   So in terms of our stewardship of capital – whether it’s fiscal or real property – our record is on solid ground, yet there has been this reluctance to make that added investment as we look at the challenges that are, literally, right out our window.

Twenty years from now what is the Coast Guard fleet going to look like, and what are some of the big drivers shaping that?

    If you can envision, we are flying at 45,000 feet, and you look off the coastal areas of the United States – what I say “inside the sea buoy” – the Coast Guard’s got a lot of capability, we have a lot of authorities there, but so do state and other federal entities. So inside the sea buoy, we’ve got a lot of partnerships that we can trade off missions, we work seamlessly with our federal, state, local, tribal partners inside the sea buoy.  As soon as we get outside that sea buoy, who has authority to enforce U.S. law outside the sea buoy, and how far offshore do your authorities go?  And when you start looking at the world from 45,000 feet, the only one who’s out there with all these authorities is the United States Coast Guard – not just for the United States, for the entire world.  There’s no entity that has the authorities like us. There’s a lot that copy us.  Right down to our paint scheme, our racing stripe, but the other thing they can’t replicate is the people we have. We’re getting the best talent that I’ve ever seen come into this service. 
We actually had a work release program, you know, back in the early 70s.  It was right after the draft, and folks could either join a service, or depending on what crime they committed, they would have to serve time.  Today we don’t have a work release program.  In fact, we have the very best talent that I’ve seen in an all-volunteer service. And I’m a little biased, but I think they gravitate to the Coast Guard because we empower people at such a very junior level. 
So if I were to look out 10 years, these 60 bilateral agreements that we have that protect everything from attacking drugs, to weapons of mass destruction, to fisheries, and remote economic exclusive zones; I don’t think organized crime is going to go away; I don’t think human trafficking or illegal migration is going to go away. As our country’s economy grows there are other countries that are going in the exact opposite direction, and so I think, for years to come in terms of people wanting to find a better life than where they live now, and that place will be here in the US.  So who is going be the enforcement? The United States Coast Guard. 
But you don’t want to do it (enforcement) inside the sea buoy.  You want to make sure that you can operate well offshore and meet these challenges before they really show up on our shoreline.

Looking back on your career, what do you count as your most influential or defining moment?

    It probably goes back to 1980. I was the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Upward, a 95 foot patrol boat.  I’m a seasoned lieutenant JG, which means I’ve got all of three years of experience under my belt.  And I was probably the youngest crew member on the vessel, but it was right there in the Mariel boatlift. Over a span of several months, we rescued well in excess of 1500 people. (And one time) we just stumbled on this vessel.  It was about 60 feet in length with well over 200 people on it.  And as soon as we came alongside, the women were literally throwing their babies to these complete strangers, but they saw “U.S. Coast Guard.” They thought their boat was going to sink, and at least their children would survive.  With this crew of 16, and all of my three years of experience, we got all 200 onto our boat.  For me, it was, “Wow. I could never do this job by myself.” This crew, the mission; I was hooked and from that point on, I said, “I have found my calling and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Who or what inside – or outside – the Coast Guard do you consider the greatest influence on your leadership style and why?

    Just before coming into this job, I looked at all of the Commandants that I had served for while I have been on active duty, and it was about eight of them. But there is one that I’ve always looked up to, and not just because he’s 6 foot 6: Admiral Jim Loy.  He was my Area Commander when I was in command of a medium-endurance cutter, and he was on a leading edge of bringing this “culture of leadership,” to all levels in our Coast Guard. He was also the Commandant during 9/11 which was a defining moment for the Coast Guard.  He went on to become senior administrator, actually the TSA administrator, to create that organization, so there’s a lot to learn from him, from his watch. 
Ultimately, you have to be humble in what you do and say, but what does that mean? I talked about my first command afloat.  My last command afloat, was on the Coast Guard cutter Rush. It was just taken out of service last year, old beyond her years.  But when I was on there as a captain, and we’re on the bridge wing, and we’re getting ready to get underway. I’ve got my self-important hand on my hip, and the other is holding a cup of coffee, and then I looked back and I’m looking at our fire control radar, and I look back at our air search radar, I look at our gun weapons system, I look at all the other antennae arrays up there, and said, “I think I know about what two-thirds of those do. I can’t fix any one of them.”
And then I look at our main console: we’ve got two diesels, we’ve got two turbine engines, and I said, “Okay, I probably don’t know how to maintain either one of them, I can call somebody in the engine room and say, ‘Hey, I need 30 knots and I need it now, they can fire up the turbine and away we go.”  And then I look at the white paint, and said, ‘Out of all these things on here, about the only thing that I could really do is paint the ship.  Everything else you do through others.’  So you need to make sure that you know who those people are and that you value them, as well.  But if you think that your self-important hand on your hip makes you all-knowing, you’re kidding yourself.  You’re an emperor with no clothes.

A very good point.  From the time you entered the Coast Guard to today, how is it the most the same and how is it the most different?

    I think what hasn’t changed is the mission.  And that mission accomplishment when I go back to making our first big drug bust, a search and rescue case, and how the crew rallies around those big events.  You know you are part of the winning team.  So what hasn’t changed is that we’re still very much a winning team.  What has changed is where we’ve gone with diversity, especially where women have come, then and now.  My last year at the Academy was the first year that women came into the Coast Guard Academy, or any of our service academies.  They were treated as a novelty. Today, our women are treated as peers, as professionals, and so the pioneers back in the 70s shouldered an immense burden to bring women to where they are today, as peers, as equals, and quite honestly, our very best leaders, as well.  And we’re seeing that in diversity, as well.  That it is a Coast Guard for all.

(As published in the March 2015 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News -

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 40,  Mar 2015

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