President Obama has tapped current Pacific Area and Defense Force West commander Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft to be the next Coast Guard commandant, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Feb. 28.
If approved by the Senate, Zukunft, 58, would be the 25th commandant, a cutterman like the current commandant, Adm. Bob Papp, and Adm. Thad Allen before him. Papp plans to retire in May after 39 years of service.
“On behalf of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, I heartily congratulate Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft on his nomination to serve as the 25th commandant,” Papp said in a statement. “He is an outstanding selection to serve the nation as the next leader of the greatest Coast Guard in the world.”
Zukunft graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1977 and went on to command the cutters Rush, Harriet Lane and Cape Upright. After pinning on his first star in 2006, Zukunft served as assistant commandant for marine safety, security and stewardship; director of response policy; assistant commandant for capability; District 11 commander; and director of Joint Interagency Task Force West.
Allen, retired since 2010 and working as executive vice president at defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, recalled working with Zukunft during the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill just before his retirement, when Allen was national incident commander and Zukunft served as federal on-scene coordinator.
Zukunft directed more than 47,000 responders, 6,500 vessels and 120 aircraft responding to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
“Well, you like to think that every admiral’s got four-star potential, but he’s got an extraordinary operational background, he’s got an extraordinary personality, and he’s a terrific leader,” Allen told Navy Times in a March 6 phone interview.
He also had some advice for handling the pressures of the job.
“I think everybody deals with stress in a different way. The way I did it was I rode a bicycle to work,” Allen said. “I don’t know what Paul’s doing right now, but I’m sure he’s exercising and sleeping well and so forth, so I think he’s going to be terrific in the job.”
As Pacific Area commander, Zukunft has been responsible for the space between the Rocky Mountains and the eastern coast of Africa. He also serves as commander of Defense Force West, coordinating Coast Guard mission support to the Defense Department and combatant commanders.
Zukunft earned a master’s degree in management from Webster University in 1988, followed by another in management from the Naval War College in 1997.
His awards include the Department of Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, three Legions of Merit and five Meritorious Service Medals.
DHS released its fiscal 2015 budget request March 5, prioritizing acquisitions to upgrade the fleet while reducing some operational funding. It will be Zukunft’s job to enact those programs and work around those cuts.
“The real issue is, if you don’t invest in new capability, sooner or later you create a hollow force and you lose the capability to execute your missions,” Allen said. “You have to accept the risk associated with lower levels of operations if you need to recapitalize.”
Though Papp’s replacement has been decided, the selection process continues for the Coast Guard’s next Gold Ancient Mariner, a designation given to the officer with the longest-held permanent cutterman’s qualification and more than 10 cumulative years of sea duty.
The next Ancient Mariner hasn’t been determined, Papp said.