Coast Guard chief: ‘We need to be funded like a military service’

While the House recently passed its $696 billion version of the 2018 defense spending bill, one branch of the armed services — the U.S. Coast Guard — won’t receive a windfall in defense spending.

Instead, the Coast Guard is lucky to have avoided a $1.3 billion, or 14 percent, cut in its fiscal 2018 budget that President Donald Trump’s proposed in his “skinny” budget in March. Since then, the Trump administration has proposed a Coast Guard budget that “sustains current funding levels.”

The Coast Guard operates under the Homeland Security Department, and carries out law enforcement and intelligence-gathering missions, but Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said the service is still a branch of the armed services, and should be funded as such.

“It’s often forgotten that we are a military service … but we are not funded as a military [service],” Zukunft told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “Ninety-six percent of my budget is funded through nondefense discretionary funding. Only 4 percent of that is funded as a military service, and most of that is for the work that we’re doing in the Mideast, where I’ve got a squadron of ships deployed over there.”

While the Trump administration proposed $54 billion in extra defense in its March budget proposal, the Coast Guard faces its fifth year of funding at levels below the Budget Control Act’s caps.

“The area where we are starting incurring some degree of risk is on the maintenance side, and once you go down that slippery slope, you may have to delay or take a ship out of service, so it’s a very delicate balance. But as a military service, we need to be funded like a military service,” Zukunft said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard enjoys the highest retention rate of all the armed forces. Forty percent of enlisted recruits coming out its training center in Cape May, New Jersey will remain on active duty 20 years later, as will 60 percent of commissioned officers graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. However, Zukunft said he cannot expect that trend to continue without new incentives.

“I cannot assume that we are going to enjoy these unprecedented retention rates. If the economy changes, do people decide, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to leave. Coast Guard, thank you for these great job skills, I’m now going to make more money somewhere else,'” he said.

Taking a page from the Navy and Air Force, which are working to keep pilots from leaving for the private sector, the Coast Guard recently put out a human capital strategy to address things like incentive packages, dual careers, childcare, and the number of times Coast Guard personnel move to new assignments.

“We make tremendous investments in training these individuals, but if they then leave and walk out the door, we never get to that next level, where they truly become professionals at what they do, and we continue to operate with journeymen,” Zukunft said. “If you don’t look out for your people, you can build all these great new ships and new planes, but if you’re not keeping an eye on your people, they will be tied to the pier, and will not be able to put to sea.”

For all its budget constraints, Zukunft said the Coast Guard benefits from information sharing with other DHS components in carrying out its drug interdiction mission.

“It’s our ships that have the authority to apprehend and interdict the vessels, but it really is a collective effort among everybody. But certainly great synergy within the Department of Homeland Security,” Zukunft said.