Coast Guard ‘delighted’ by boon in budget, plans on addressing maintenance backlog

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After being the military’s neglected stepchild, the Coast Guard is finally getting funds it needs to finance acquisition and sustainability issues it has been dealing with for years.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said his service in previous years was funded at a “featherweight class.”

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“If you’re in the featherweight class of boxing, the only thing you can do is punch up. You’re like the New York Mets of ’62. You have nowhere to go but up. The good news is we are now a middleweight contender. We are not a nuclear enterprise, so we will never be the heavyweight, but we are right where we need to be,” Zukunft said during an April 10 speech at the Sea Air Space Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland.

The service went from potentially getting its budget cut by $1.3 billion, or 14 percent, in the 2018 presidential request to getting a modest increase in 2018 from Congress and a more than $1 billion dollar increase in the 2019 budget request.

The Coast Guard will receive $10.5 billion in 2018 and is requesting $11.65 billion. A total of $750 million of that will go to the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreaker set for delivery in 2023.

“We have seen nearly a 15 percent markup from president’s guidance to what we were appropriated in 2018. It’s the first time since the Budget Control Act [BCA] was first passed in 2011 that our operations and maintenance account was funded above the BCA floor,” Zukunft said April 11 at a Defense Writers Group event in Washington. “We went from 2011 to 2017 funded below the floor. For us that adds up to a nearly $1 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance funding.”

Zukunft said the consequences of that shortfall caused the Coast Guard to draw down the size of its workforce and deferred its shore maintenance to the point where it has a $1.6 billion backlog.

“We are operating on buildings that are over 100 years old. We got shellacked this past hurricane season. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are all where we have major Coast Guard installations. We incurred an excess of $800 million worth of damage,” Zukunft said.

The 2018 budget fully reimburses the Coast Guard $835 million just for hurricane issues and then buys down some of the $1.6 billion backlog.

“The 2018 and 2019 budgets will buy down the equivalent of nearly two decades worth of backlog funding based on the rate we were funded prior to 2018, so to say that we are delighted with the 2018 consolidated budget and 2019 would be an understatement,” Zukunft said.

That doesn’t mean that Zukunft doesn’t have concerns though. While the service is getting funding for the acquisitions it needs, including three new heavy icebreakers, it will still need funding in the future to sustain them.

Zukunft said Congress should expect a 5 percent annualized growth for operations, maintenance and talent. That takes into account inflation, sustainment and pay.

Zukunft was careful to note the Coast Guard is one of the few military agencies that not only completed an audit, but had a clean audit the past five years.