NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- When a predecisional document from the Office of Management and Budget reflected a pending $1.3 billion cut to the Coast Guard's budget in March, some 70 lawmakers in the House and Senate sent letters to the White House protesting the move, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said Monday.
Speaking to an audience at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference, Zukunft said he was grateful for the support, and the ultimate final "skinny budget" proposal that did away with the cut, but added it is time for the service to be more aggressive in advocating for more resources and personnel.
"Oftentimes, our identity as an armed service is forgotten," he said. "We didn't see it in the executive order [from President Donald Trump] to restore readiness for the military services. I'm delighted that Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps are being plussed up, but we got left behind. Then look at the other executive orders that were directed at the Department of Homeland Security, and there again, we were left behind."
The Coast Guard, the only U.S. armed service to produce a clean financial audit over the last four years, has spent 40 percent of the time since 2010 operating under a continuing resolution instead of a proper budget, Zukunft said. And while other services have decried the effects of sequestration budget cuts, the Coast Guard operations and maintenance account has been funded below sequestration budget caps since the Budget Control Act went into effect in 2013, he said.
"So other services want to know what sequestration is like? I'll tell you what it's like below the floor, and it's not looking pretty," he said.
Zukunft reiterated that the service is not interested in being moved to the Defense Department, a prospect raised by California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in a March letter to Trump. He noted that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has called the Pentagon "the Death Star" for innovation and rapid acquisitions, and added that the Coast Guard is proud of its relative agility.
Despite the recently floated prospect of a 15 percent cut to the service's modest $11 billion budget, Zukunft said he has faith in the secretary of Homeland Security, retired Marine Corps general and former commander of U.S. Southern Command John F. Kelly, to advocate for the service.
"He understands the Coast Guard. He understood it so well while he was commander of SouthCom that when he would appear at a hearing, he would say, 'My Navy fleet is painted white with red stripes and says U.S. Coast Guard,' " Zukunft said. "He fully understands the value proposition of our service, and he has gone to bat for the Coast Guard."
But the service needs 5,000 more personnel and 1,100 more reservists to accomplish its primary mission, he said. And Coast Guard leadership look uncertainly to the future to the prospect of a "perfect storm" -- a series of simultaneous disasters that require service response and would max out or exceed current capabilities.
"I can't in good faith look at my workforce and say everything is going to be great in 2018. We need to continue to think of being more offensively minded in our budget process," Zukunft said. "... Your voice has been heard; we need to keep shouting."