How the Coast Guard Navigated Trump's 1st Year

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, with 75,000 horsepower and its 13,500-ton weight, is guided by its crew to break through Antarctic ice en route to the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Jan. 15, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/David Mosley)
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, with 75,000 horsepower and its 13,500-ton weight, is guided by its crew to break through Antarctic ice en route to the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Jan. 15, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/David Mosley)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For the United States Coast Guard, 2017 began with a snub.

It ended with record-setting rescues and drug busts and lavish praise from the president himself.

The Coast Guard is by far the smallest of the U.S. military services and the only one to fall under the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Defense Department. Historically, it has been one of the military's best-kept secrets.

But as global military interest increasingly centers on coastal regions and an evolving Arctic, people are paying more attention.

And despite being strapped for resources, the Coast Guard has continued to draw praise in its own right, most recently by saving thousands of lives in the trio of hurricanes that hit Texas and the Caribbean last fall.

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In September, ratings-conscious President Donald Trump observed a change on the wind.

"No brand has improved more than the United States Coast Guard," he said during a press briefing at Camp David, amid relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey.

It was a dramatic shift from Trump's first interaction with the Coast Guard seven months before.

Shortly after Trump took office Jan. 20, a predecisional memo emerged showing a proposed $1.3 billion cut to the Coast Guard within the White House budget proposal. For the service, which operates on an annual budget of roughly $9 billion, the reduction would have been devastating.

"In February, we were in a state of shock," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told in a December interview at the service's glass-walled headquarters complex in Washington, D.C. "After a nearly unprecedented successful year of the Coast Guard across all mission areas, it was leaked out in open source that our funding line was going to be reduced by 13 percent, which I viewed as punitive. Is that the way we reward success?"

The crisis was, however, short-lived.

Newly confirmed Department of Homeland Security Director John Kelly jumped into the breach to advocate for the Coast Guard, and lawmakers wrote letters of support for the service. The funding was restored.

While the year was off to an "ominous start," by Zukunft's admission, the tide was even then changing. In fact, in many ways, 2017 would become the year of the Coast Guard.

Selling the Service

In terms of visibility, the Coast Guard was everywhere in 2017. At the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space convention, the largest maritime expo in the United States, Coast Guard officials participated in six of the 20 total panels and keynotes. The lineup included a keynote delivered by Zukunft and, departing from recent tradition, a Coast Guard-focused panel composed entirely of Coast Guard flag officers.

By comparison, Sea-Air-Space in 2016 featured Coast Guard speakers in only three of its 18 panels and keynotes and had no main events specific to the service.

Zukunft appeared before Congress more often in 2017, making five committee appearances compared with three in 2016. He also made time for myriad speaking engagements and lectures, appearing at events hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Navy League, the U.S. Naval Institute, and the Center for Media Policy, to name a few.

For a small service competing for resources, public exposure is far from a trivial consideration.

"I had dinner with a member of Congress who sits on our committee, who was not aware of the fact that we were a member of the armed forces, who was not aware of the fact that only 4 percent of our budget comes out of defense discretionary funding," Zukunft said, highlighting the frustration of being so little understood by the public.

This common misconception comes with a monetary cost: When defense discretionary funding goes up, non-defense discretionary funding goes down, meaning a loss of available resources for the Coast Guard.

"And so here we are, an armed service, donating to the other armed services, who lament the day if they ever see the water level of ... sequestration," Zukunft said. "Whereas we, the Coast Guard, have been underwater for five years."

While this year the Coast Guard seems to have had something of a public relations breakthrough, it was a long time coming. Zukunft speaks of service leaders pursuing various labor-intensive strategies to demonstrate to the nation that the Coast Guard deserved the funding that would bring it back "above the water line."

How about a clean financial audit? The Coast Guard became the first military service to get one in 2013, and has repeated the feat every year since. The other military branches are still in the hunt.

Like healthy acquisition programs? The Coast Guard has them. While a number of the Navy's brand-new littoral combat ships were encountering engineering problems and sustaining hull damage on their first deployments, the Coast Guard was churning out Legend-class national security cutters on time and on budget.

To date, seven of the planned nine have been commissioned. A few of the cutters paid for themselves on their first outing, bringing in drug interdiction hauls that exceeded the cost of the vessels.

"What more do I need to do to demonstrate responsibility?" Zukunft asked.

For his part, Zukunft said he has tried to be as visible as possible during his time as the service's top officer.

"I'm in the business of marketing and sales. If you're the CEO of your organization and you've got a great product, you can't sell it from behind your desk," he said. "You've got to get out there and press the flesh. And so that's really been the campaign, at least the one I decided to undertake in my tenure as commandant."

When it comes to getting more airtime at trade shows, Zukunft believes it's a sign of the times, globally speaking.

In September 2016, as keynote speaker at the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, Rhode Island, Zukunft said he began to list off maritime threats around the world. Few constituted jobs for an aircraft carrier or armed destroyer.

Zukunft cited problems such as unprecedented migration, national disasters, piracy, transnational criminal organizations, and conflict over fishing territory that escalates to violent skirmishes. Extraterritorial claims in places such as the East and South China seas and freedom of navigation concerns also made the list.

"For many maritime nations, these are the threats they face most," he said. "They're less worried about an amphibious assault [force] taking over their country. But these are the day-in and day-out threats they face, and they can't afford a U.S. Navy."

All this is not to say the work of the Navy itself is becoming less important. But as the issues raised by Zukunft become more globally pressing, the role of the Coast Guard becomes more consequential.

As if to underscore that point, the Navy moved in December to commit ships in support of the Coast Guard's anti-trafficking mission in U.S. Southern Command, a region that has traditionally made do with Coast Guard cutters for shipping needs.

A memo from Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson revealed a commitment to send littoral combat ships and expeditionary fast transports to the region, sometime in 2018.

"It is, worldwide, the era of Coast Guards," Zukunft said.

Success at Sea

The service was dealt an early victory in January, when then-President Barack Obama repealed the United States' unique "wet foot dry foot" policy for Cuba as one of his final acts in office. The policy permitted any Cuban who set feet on U.S. territory to stay in the country, and prompted some to take extreme measures, such as maiming themselves to earn a medevac flight to the mainland.

The repeal, for which Zukunft had previously signaled his support, slowed the gush of Cuban migrants to a trickle. In April 2017, the Coast Guard passed a full month without apprehending a single Cuban migrant.

Zukunft told that month that the Coast Guard might be able to shift more resources to its drug interdiction mission if the trend continued, allowing patrol vessels to apprehend more of the smugglers they tracked on the water.

Certainly, illicit drug seizure was a central focus in 2017. In Zukunft's State of the Coast Guard address in March 2017, he noted that the service had set records the previous year, removing 201 metric tons of cocaine in drug interdictions and apprehending 585 smugglers.

But in 2017, the service left that mark far behind. Zukunft told in December that the Coast Guard had at year's end confiscated 232 metric tons of cocaine and arrested more than 700 smugglers, who were then sent to the United States for prosecution.

"Here, they are held accountable," he said. "But more importantly, they'll enter into a plea bargain with our Department of Justice where they'll provide us valuable information that will allow us to get closer and closer to the heads of these networks. Just this weekend, one of the largest drug kingpins, who goes by the pseudonym Tom, was taken down in Colombia. He is a protege of [late Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar."

Apart from record-setting drug busts, there were a number of other significant moments throughout the year.

After years of pleading its case to Congress for funding for new heavy icebreakers to replace the barely seaworthy Polar Star for Arctic missions, the Coast Guard took an important step forward in fall 2017, releasing a draft request for proposals for a new heavy icebreaker design.

The service had already awarded contracts for design studies earlier in the year, and now is moving toward its goal of building three medium icebreakers and three heavy, with construction to begin next fiscal year.

Zukunft credits the achievement of this stepping-stone with successful communication to Congress and the public of the importance of the Arctic as ice melts, sea lanes open up, and a race begins with Russia and China to seize advantage in the region.

"We need to think, long-term, that if we're going to exert sovereignty, we can't do it with paper, we can't do it from the shore and shake our finger and say, 'That's ours.' We actually have to be there," he said. "So we now have a down payment to build the first of six icebreakers. [You have to] demonstrate the 'why.' "

As if to underscore the Coast Guard's place in the lineup of military services, 2017 saw a dozen Coast Guardsmen become the first of their ranks in 25 years to be recognized for coming under enemy fire.

A 12-man team that deployed aboard the Navy destroyer USS Mason last year received the coveted Combat Action Ribbon in November for supporting the ship's defensive efforts when it was fired upon by Houthi rebels from the coast of Yemen in October 2016.

'Not Break Faith'

There was at least one notable moment for the Coast Guard, though, that had nothing to do with military operations or drug seizures.

In August 2017, within days of President Trump's tweeted announcement that he intended to ban transgender people from the military, Zukunft made headlines when he became the first service leader to take an unequivocal stance on the issue.

He told a think tank audience in Washington, D.C., he had personally reached out to the small number of Coast Guardsmen who had identified as transgender following the tweets.

"’I will not turn my back,’” Zukunft said he told one transgender petty officer currently serving. "'We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith.'"

Zukunft told that he had "done his homework" in advance of making the statement and consulted with then-DHS Secretary John Kelly for guidance.

"My interpretation of a tweet was that it was not an executive order," he said. "If it was an executive order, then it stands on its face. But [it was] a tweet, and what it did was it created immediate consternation among about 17 members in the entire Coast Guard who came out under a policy and are doing great work in the United States Coast Guard, and now they see this."

Although Zukunft said a lot had changed and been clarified since those tweets, and the service chiefs were now "in lockstep" working on the issue, at the time his response was motivated by a personal sense of what was right.

"Some of these individuals, when they came out, their families disowned them -- you no longer exist. I don't know how you cope with something like that," he said. "But they knew they had another family, and that was their Coast Guard family. So, as Dad, am I going to tell them that you're no longer welcome in my family? I said, 'No, I'm not going to break faith.' "

Hurricane Response

At the end of a busy year came a crisis that would test the Coast Guard, the presidency, and the nation as a whole.

Hurricane Harvey would tear through southern Texas in August, causing 90 deaths and $125 billion in damage. Hard on its heels would be Irma and Maria, wreaking havoc and destruction in the Caribbean.

Storm response requires planning and coordination as well as resources, and Zukunft said he was cognizant of how major storms had tested administrations in the past. Perhaps most famously, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with its chaos, destruction, and missteps, would haunt the legacy of President George W. Bush.

"And now we have three of them," Zukunft said.

But U.S. coastal regions are home turf for the Coast Guard. And the service wasted little time in getting to work.

"We had over 100 aircraft pulled from all corners of the country. We moved 3,000 people in," Zukunft said. "This was before the first hurricane even made landfall. We weren't waiting to be told what to do."

When the local 911 center failed, the Coast Guard improvised a social media solution: It had storm victims take to Twitter with the hashtag #Harvey so that rescue teams could locate them.

In addition, Zukunft said, the service was taking calls at the rate of 1,000 per hour at the Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. Information was then triaged and transmitted back to the rescuers on the ground.

"Typically within 10 minutes of a phone call, we can get the same information to the cockpit of a helo and render assistance," he said.

Zukunft added with pride that the system worked so well, cable news trucks were following the Coast Guard to find stories, an acknowledgment that the service was the first in the area to receive information about emergencies.

In the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the storm brought even more death and destruction.

Zukunft spoke of the diagonal swath Maria cut straight through already impoverished Puerto Rico.

"The first time [I visited], it was several days, right after Maria cleared out, and there was not one square inch of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that was not impacted by this hurricane," he said.

In all, the Coast Guard saved some 12,000 people in all three hurricanes, and rescued another 1,500 pets. That represents a little less than half of the rescues the Coast Guard completed 12 years previously, in Hurricane Katrina.

And while many found ample fodder for criticism in Trump's hurricane response plan, particularly in the Caribbean where aid sometimes seemed slow and inadequate, Zukunft was not among the critics.

"If I just reflect on these three hurricanes, as a service chief, I was completely empowered," he said. "There was no second-guessing how many helicopters, how many people, how many boats, how many ships."

Where previous administrations had micromanaged to the point of hindrance, Zukunft said the current administration's hands-off approach was refreshing.

"We've been doing this for 227 years. I've been in the Coast Guard over 40 years, so I know a little bit about this," he said. "So they fully empowered us to go out and do our jobs."

The Coast Guard came out of the three hurricanes more cash-strapped than before, having sustained nearly $1 billion in infrastructure damage from the storm.

The commandant is now asking for funding to restore damaged assets as well as resources to move forward: 5 percent annualized growth in operations and maintenance, and a $2 billion floor for acquisitions.

The future of Coast Guard funding and acquisition programs has yet to be written. But in the last 12 months, it seems the service has made one powerful ally.

"Incredible people, you've done an incredible job," Trump told assembled Coast Guardsmen in Florida as the service continued to provide disaster relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey. "I just want to thank you on behalf of the whole country and behalf of us. What a job you've done."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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