While many military service branches as grappling with manpower cuts, the Coast Guard is looking to expand, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said Tuesday.
Speaking at the U.S. Capitol as he delivered his service's annual State of the Coast Guard address, Zukunft paraphrased a line from the 1975 classic "Jaws".
"Looking at the challenges we're facing in the world today: ladies and gentlemen, you're going to need a bigger Coast Guard," he said.
Zukunft added that he was directing a Coast Guard Manpower Requirements Plan to develop a force size that took into account current strategy and risk management. At 88,000 strong, the service, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, is by far the smallest of the uniformed services.
An updated growth strategy will also allow the service to develop a Cyber Task Force, Zukunft said, which will turn the Coast Guard's cyber strategy into an operational arm of the service.
"As we move forward, duty to people will take shape in a number of ways across our organization," he said. "You are going to see mission, service and individual level changes to best align our talent with demand in the 21st century."
Zukunft's tone was exultant as he praised the Coast Guard on a year of successful and high-value drug interdictions, participation in partner military exchange programs, and promising new programs, including a newly inked 12-week maternity leave policy and assignment policy changes designed to improve stability.
At the Coast Guard academy, Zukunft said, the classes of 2018 and 2019 were the most diverse of the school's 150-year history, with 40 percent female students and 33 percent underrepresented minorities.
"I am sure most Academy graduates in the audience today probably feel like I do ... I would not want to compete with the young men and women in New London today," Zukunft said.
He said he would continue to work to improve retention among women and minorities, who still tend to leave the service at accelerated rates.
In an era of tight budgets, Zukunft also celebrated the Coast Guard's largest acquisition budget in history going into Fiscal 2017. The request includes funding to accelerate the acquisition of new heavy icebreakers, a need that Coast Guard officials have highlighted steadily as the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star -- the country's only operational heavy icebreaker -- continues to age.
"I am grateful for the President's ardent support and his call for heavy icebreakers to ensure the United States maintains year-round access to the strategic polar regions," he said.
In Central America, Zukunft said, national security cutters continue to interdict drug shipments so large that their street value covers the cost of the cutters in a single deployment. In 2015, he said, the Coast Guard seized or disrupted more than 190 metric tons of cocaine and detained more than 700 smugglers.
And the removal of those drugs, he said, translates to added stability and safety in the region. In Honduras, Zukunft said, violent crime is down 23 percent, thanks to drug interdiction activities.
Zukunft closed with a reference to The Finest Hours, a film released in January that tells the true story of Coast Guardsmen who risked their lives in 1952 to save those aboard a sinking ship off the coast of Cape Cod.
"Today's trackline steers us clear of any rocks and shoals, and true to [Boatswain's Mate 1st Class] Bernie Webber's heroics, these are truly the finest hours to serve in the United States Coast Guard," he said.