Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft ran down his top priorities for in a June 30 interview with Navy Times in his Washington, D.C., office. (PA2 Patrick Kelley/Coast Guard)
It’s been a month since Adm. Paul Zukunft took the helm of the Coast Guard, and now that he’s had some time to get situated, he’s talking about his direction for the service.
The new commandant is looking at a number of improvements, from codifying the service’s cyber strategy to adjusting ship-to-shore rotations, giving Coast Guardsmen the chance to spend more time in one place to develop their expertise.
It’s a cost-saving measure as much as anything else, Zukunft said, and a big help in an environment where the Coast Guard’s $10 billion budget stretches thinner every year.
Zukunft moved to headquarters after a tour as Pacific Area commander, in charge of operations from the Rocky Mountains to the farthest reaches of the Western Hemisphere.
“People say, ‘Well, you’re new to the job,’ but quite honestly, I’m probably one of the oldest people in the Coast Guard right now,” he said in his first wide-ranging sit-down interview since taking charge as the service’s top officer. “I’ve spent 34 of my 37 years in the field, so I’ve seen firsthand where some of our challenges are and where some of our opportunities are.”
Navy Times spoke with Zukunft on June 30 at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. After 30 days on the job, what do you think is the most pressing challenge you’re facing?
A. Our biggest challenge is going to be bringing the offshore patrol cutter onto budget. With that is a predictable budget, so we can look at building out an affordable platform to meet future service needs. That is one of several.
We have the C-27Js [transport aircraft]. We need to missionize all 14 of those. We have burgeoning activity up in the Arctic. I made numerous trips up there in my last assignment. There is an increase, about a 400 percent increase, in human activity in the Arctic, at a time when other nations are exerting more presence in the Arctic, as well.
On the people front, we still have a challenge with sexual assault, as do all of my counterparts in the armed services. Quite frankly, one is one too many. How do you bring about a change in culture in the organization, where nobody in the service has any tolerance whatsoever for that type of behavior?
We are growing a more diverse workforce. In fact, today the Class of 2018 reports into the Coast Guard Academy. ... Effective today, I am quite certain the Coast Guard Academy will be the most gender and ethnic diverse service academy. That is a big milestone for us, because ... it has taken us darn near 50 years to get to where we are right now.
Q. You’ve highlighted cyber as a priority. How would you beef up the Coast Guard’s policy, and will there be career opportunities with that?
A. We are actually going to promulgate a cyber strategy for the Coast Guard. A lot of people are uncertain of what the lines of operation are for cyber, offensive and defensive.
Cyber is really not just for the geeks of the world. Every commanding officer, every officer in charge, every aircraft commander, everyone is going to have to factor cyber into the world of war. If we have control systems that affect our platforms that could also be compromised, it would clearly compromise our ability to conduct front-line operations. We really need to make sure that we do not compartmentalize cyber, but we move cyber across all the organizations horizontally, as well.
Q. You also want to align recruiting and career progression. What is the work that needs to be done there?
A. We need to look at what we ask our people to do in the 21st century. Take, for example, our boatswain’s mates. We have boatswain’s mates operating 45-foot, very capable boats. They are worth about $3 million. As a BM2, they are pursuing pangas loaded with contraband, in some cases over 150 miles offshore. When they catch up, it is that second class boatswain’s mate that is directing disabling fire, or maybe even deadly force, to stop that vessel and arrest these people, as well as bringing them into custody.
It is a little bit different from what a boatswain’s mate did 100 years ago. We still apply the same expectations, that a boatswain’s mate can be a pursuit coxswain. He can run a heavy-weather surf station. He can operate on a boat. He can do aids-to-navigation. We are probably looking at having to have subspecialties within some of the ratings we have right now.
We need to revisit ship-to-shore rotation, so that the people that we are training to operate those platforms do not vanish into some other aspect of the Coast Guard and we have to retrain somebody all over again. We never get out of, “You train, you qualify, but you never become proficient in maintaining that platform.” As a result of that, you become very dependent on outside support contractors to be the subject-matter experts of your platforms. We need to be subject-matter experts in what we do.
Q. Do you see people being able to homestead a little bit?
A. That is really my desired end state. We really need to look at the value of geographic stability. It helps in a proficiency area because you know that area of responsibility. It helps with the partnerships that we work with the port communities. They actually get to know you, and you know that area as well. It helps on a readiness side.
It helps our families. The biggest churn for our families right now is having to up and move, and relocating children. Does a spouse take on a career and have a dual-income family? Can you do that, not knowing whether you are going to move in another two years or so? I am in my 21st set of orders. Shame on us, where you have to move that many times.
Q. The Coast Guard is developing its first servicewide PT tests. Why now?
A. My concern is how you implement it. How does a workforce interpret this? Do you make something mandatory and people say, this is just another excuse to force them out of the service? Does your competency within the Coast Guard require you to do so many pullups or pushups?
What we really want people to do is to embrace the healthy lifestyle. Do I want to prescribe somebody that this is what is healthy, and make you have a marathon runner that does not do a lot of pullups? They probably have great cardiovascular fitness. Are there any consequences, where you now make what was otherwise enjoyable less enjoyable? It disincentivizes people to do what they pursue to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Those are all the aspects that I look at.
Usually the first thing I hear is people telling me they do not have time to work out. As a commandant of the Coast Guard, I rarely miss a day to work out. If I can find time, rest assured the rest of our workforce could find time. It is not an issue of time.