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Zukunft: Ships needed for Arctic, drug interdiction

The Coast Guard's 11 missions keep the service up to its neck in operations. Things are under control, the service's top officer said Thursday, but there are a few key areas where they're stretched thin.

Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft made his case for more ships, airplanes and resourcesassets, though the service already has a long acquisition list to tackle.

"We're a small service, but as always, we do punch above our weight class," Zukunft said In his Thursday speech before the annual Surface Navy Association symposium in Arlington, Virginia.

Here are Some highlights from Zukunft's speech and Q&A before hundreds of sailors, Coast Guardsmen and contractors:

Drug interdiction

Stopping the flow of drugs from South America is one of the Coast Guard's top priorities, but as it stands, there aren't enough cutters to do the job.

Intelligence teams have eyes on 80 percent of the drugs coming into the country by sea, Zukunft said, but only enough platforms to stop 20 percent.

"So 60 percent get a free ride," he said. "It's a $750 billion enterprise and I've got a $10 billion slingshot."

The Coast Guard has a squadron of patrol boats in Bahrain to do capacity building among allies and provide offshore presence, and he'd like to see that system expand to stem the flow of narcotics into the U.S.

"That same model would be very beneficial in Central America, as well," he said.

Immigration enforcement

Scarcely a week goes by when The Coast Guard routinely stops boats to prevent migrants from entering the U.S. illegally or, in some cases, to ensure the safety of those on board dangerous vessels where their a boat of migrants in the middle of the ocean, either because they're on a path to enter the U.S. illegally, or something goes wrong with their vessel and lives are at risk. Cuban immigrants are common, but late last year their flow doubled in anticipation of the Obama administration's move to normalize relations with Cuba, Zukunft said.

"Just over the Christmas holiday, there was a misunderstanding in Cuba that on Jan. 15, our [immigration] policy was going to change," Zukunft said.

Migrant flow increased by 200 percent, forcing the service to divert cutters to head off the vessels. Four medium endurance cutters were forced into emergency dry dock at the time, so smaller ships had to cover for them.

One , Zukunft said, was a fast response cutter with a 22-person crew, which picked up 60 migrants and held them on the decks while they were screened for possible asylum in the U.S. This was a less than ideal set-up, but the Coast Guard had no larger cutters at the time for the interdiction operation, Zukunft added.

Another country on the radar is Haiti, whose frequent regime changes prompt periodic mass migrations, and the situation doesn't seem to be getting better.

"I do not foresee a point in time when Haiti's going to be able to stand on its own two feet," Zukunft said.

Polar strategy

Since the Coast Guard was established, the waters of the Arctic Circle have been largely impassable throughout most of the year since the Coast Guard's existence, but ice melt is opening up more access every year.

Thirteen percent of the world's untapped oil and 30 percent of its natural gas are in the Arctic, Zukunft said, and that's going to draw a crowd sooner or later.

However, the Coast Guard doesn't have enough ships to thoroughly patrol the Arctic, or to help many of the people who travel there up their to prospect or do research.

That's the one thing he loses sleep over, he said.

"As the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star [a heavy icebreaker] breaks into [Antarctic research station] McMurdo, if they have a main console failure, if they have a crankcase explosion and now they're beset in ice, I don't have a buddy system," Zukunft said.

The Coast Guard used to have a second polar icebreaker, the Polar Sea, in service as a back-up, the Polar Sea, but it's out of service because there's no money to repair it. He can't call Russia for help, he added.

"The Coast Guard has no self-rescue for its Arctic mission, for its Antarctic mission," he said.

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