“When we volunteer to serve, we often find [ourselves] in the shadow of the service. I need to remove the shadow,” Zukunft said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “The first thing you need to do is establish who you are. That’s where I am right now.”
Recalling his four decades in the Coast Guard, Zukunft remembered his graduating class in 1977. Forty-one years later he judged it by one measure of progress for which he is particularly proud.
“That was me on the stage [May 23] with the vice president as we welcomed the most diverse class to ever graduate from the Coast Guard Academy, the class of 2018,” Zukunft said.
Of the 209 cadets commissioned as ensigns at the commencement ceremonies this year, 33 percent were underrepresented minorities and 40 percent were women.
“My class had no women and less than one percent African Americans,” Zukunft said. “So we had finally made progress to reflect the nation we serve.”
Explaining that “everything always begins with the people,” Zukunft said today’s Coast Guard force has the best talent he’s ever seen, whether officer or enlisted.
“The biggest challenge for our officers is the qualities and the experience in the education that many of our enlisted members serve,” he said. “So the lines are very blurred between officer and enlisted because we’ve got talent across the board at every pay grade in our service today.”
Service enjoys higher-than-normal retention
While other services are facing manpower shortages, Zukunft said the Coast Guard has advantageously high retention rates.
“About 40 percent of our recruits coming out of basic training are, historically, still on active duty 20 years later,” he said. “Sixty percent of our officers will be on active duty 20 years after being commissioned. So we don’t have to continually retrain a workforce, continually have to recruit.”
Zukunft said the Coast Guard has actually had to lower its manpower numbers this year because of high retention rates, which allows the service to be selective in the recruits it welcomes aboard.
Management style might also have something to do with retention success. He spouts a philosophy that pushes responsibility down to the very junior levels and allows people to make honest mistakes as they learn their trade.
“You can go out on any waterway today and see an E-4 running a several million dollar high speed vessel, doing law enforcement, saving lives,” he said. “And there’s no one looking over this junior petty officer’s shoulder telling them how to do his job.”
Becoming a more open organization
Zukunft also noted the type of work the Coast Guard does, while many times is behind the scenes, is extremely important. Whether it’s providing logistical support during hurricanes, running down drug smugglers on the high seas, or helping those in boating accidents, Zukunft said the work the service does touches many lives.
Perhaps the Coast Guard has not promoted itself well. Zukunft admits it has taken time to reverse past thinking about military secrecy.
“Forty years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation quite honestly,” Zukunft told Temin. “Our approach to any external relations was the ‘Heisman Trophy’ pose. It was no disclosure whatsoever, no transparency whatsoever. In this day, if you are not in marketing and sales, you are leading an organization that’s doomed to fail. So a lot of it is just getting the word out.”
One priority for Zukunft has been the modernization of his fleet. The Coast Guard is responsible for ensuring the free-flow of $6 trillion of commerce each year. And it does so with a fleet that averages just less than 60 years of age.
“We are building ships, five classes of ships, in fact,” Zukunft said. “We’re building ships that are on schedule, on budget, and exceeding the initial requirements. The last eight ships that came off the production line are fast response cutters, beautiful ships, and no discrepancies whatsoever. These are ready to go into action once we take delivery.”
At a production rate of two new ships every year, the Coast Guard expects to continue replacing its old cutters for the next 15 years.
The next priority, said Zukunft, is replacement of the service’s H-65 Dolphin helicopters, which are primarily used in search and rescue operations. All 98 of the Dolphins will eventually receive upgrades that should keep them flying past 2030.
“They are old, but they are well maintained,” Zukunft said with pride. “The people who fly our aircraft also maintain our aircraft as well.”
That, perhaps, has led to the service’s exemplary safety record. It’s been more than six years since the last fatality in the service’s aviation community.
New frontiers of air and sea
The future of Coast Guard aviation has already emerged during Zukunft’s tenure.
“We already have a small ship based unmanned aerial systems,” he said.
With a 10-foot wingspan and full of sensors, the stealthy replacements for manned helicopters provide an effective advantage. Zukunft said the new aerial systems are also safer for tropical climates with low ceilings.
“Our manned helicopter has a very distinct sound to it,” the retired admiral said. “And when traffickers hear it coming, they immediately throw their load into the ocean. If the load sinks and we don’t get video of it, it’s very hard to get a prosecutable case.”
On a macro scale, Zukunft said the Coast Guard’s mission narrative is changing. Traditionally, the military has planned for coverage of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts but now, the Arctic coast is opening in unprecedented ways.
“We’re seeing Russia militarizing the Arctic region,” he said. “China is taking delivery of a second ice breaker and we’re seeing a maritime silk road go around the world to include the Arctic as well.”
So now that he heads into retirement, Zukunft said he wants to go by simply “Paul” — a full-time husband, father, and grandfather. He has a home in Hawaii, now all this former commandant needs is a way to get around.
“My next job is to find a friend who has a boat,” he said.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, 6 a.m.-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere.
Tom also writes a weekly commentary. Subscribe to Federal Drive's daily audio interviews on iTunes or PodcastOne