Don’t let the sun set on the U.S. Coast Guard
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Nearly three months have passed since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the Lone Star State. Irma quickly followed impacting both coasts of Florida simultaneously, only to be met by Maria, and the rest is history. Throughout this historic hurricane season, the men and women of your United States Coast Guard were there. 

The Coast Guard offers a unique and enduring value to the Nation. We are first and foremost an armed service with broad law enforcement authorities that span the globe and a service that is called upon time and again during natural and man-made disasters.

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The Coast Guard’s flat organizational structure and bias for action enables our small service to surge when our Nation is threatened with disaster. As millions of Americans witnessed, this agility was demonstrated during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and culminated in the rescue of 11,300 people and 1,500 pets.

While these harrowing rescues were underway, Coast Guard crews also worked to reconstitute our ports throughout the Maritime Transportation System–our Nation’s critical network of ports, waterways, and infrastructure that generates an annual $4.6 trillion in commerce and also ensures the safe navigation for millions of mariners who use America’s waterways both for commercial and recreational purposes.

Reconstitution of these waterways fuels the recovery of impacted regions and ensures relief supplies continue to flow in the wake of destruction and tragedy.

Yet, our work continues.

We are a military force deployed all over the globe and the sun never sets on a U.S. Coast Guard. While responding to these hurricanes, the Coast Guard continued our Arctic surface and air operations, enforced U.S. laws and regulations, conducted search and rescue and environmental stewardship, assisted scientific exploration, and fostered navigational safety and waterways management. We also participated in “Arctic Guardian,” an Arctic Coast Guard Forum-led search and rescue exercise off of Iceland alongside the seven other Arctic nations, we conducted maritime security patrols for the United Nations General Assembly, and we seized 50,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin worth over $650 million, bringing smugglers to face U.S. justice. All of these operations occurred coincident with our response to these three historic hurricanes.

The Coast Guard surged while it continued the missions that America expects – remaining ever vigilant to national threats.

While I could not be more proud of the Coast Guard’s response, I am mindful that this trio of storms pushed our platforms and our people nearly to their limits – and created costs that we cannot bear without additional resourcing.

First is readiness cost. The Coast Guard used resources well above planned rates, cancelled depot level maintenance on cutters and aircraft, and terminated training investments in our most important resource – our people.

Second is opportunity cost. Cutters and aircraft were taken away from counter-drug and security operations in favor of saving lives, restoring affected waterways, and delivering critical disaster relief supplies and equipment to impacted areas. Nowhere was this more profound than in the Eastern Pacific – and the Transnational Criminal Organizations were the benefactors of a diminished presence at a time when over 60,000 Americans perish each year from drug overdoses.

Third, and of greatest concern, is the real cost. Based on Harvey, Irma, and Maria alone, nearly $1 billion is needed to rebuild damaged Coast Guard infrastructure and restore eroded readiness. Given the many competing demands in our country today and the propensity to fix only what is broken, I am concerned the Coast Guard will continue to be known solely for our success – and not what we need to be made whole.  

Without this supplemental funding, the capacity to serve this Nation will diminish.

The Coast Guard, an armed service, is contending with the very same readiness challenges as our DoD brethren, yet we continue to get left behind. Only 4 percent of the Coast Guard budget is funded through defense discretionary appropriations. The other 96 percent, I must compete with every other federal discretionary account to fund a broad array of missions that span the globe and have not diminished over time. Ironically, 40 percent of the Coast Guard’s major cutter fleet – acquired, maintained and operated with non-defense discretionary dollars – are serving under the operational command of a DoD, geographic combatant commander around the globe.

Going forward, we require 5 percent annualized growth in our operations and maintenance account and a $2 billion floor to our acquisition account.  

I ask for this very modest relief to prevent the sun from setting on your U.S. Coast Guard. As the Congress weighs how best to rebuild the military, your Coast Guard is once again on the outside looking in.

Operating at this tempo comes with costs; one that erodes our future readiness. Readiness this Nation demands. To fulfill the Coast Guard’s motto Semper Paratus or “Always Ready,” we need the resources to rebuild the Coast Guard and modernize ALL of our Armed Forces to best meet threats, now and in the future.  

Paul F. Zukunft is Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard