Outgoing commandant says Arctic has become a top priority for US Coast Guard

As he prepares to retire, Adm. Paul Zukunft says the Arctic has grown in importance during his four-year tenure leading the Coast Guard.

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U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard in a March 1, 2017 file photo.(Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley / U.S. Coast Guard)

When he talks about his accomplishments and regrets during four years as Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Zukunft downplays the idea of a legacy.

“I do not believe in legacies,” he said Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, preferring his successors continue momentum forward, rather than looking back.

Zukunft has made strides as leader of the U.S. Coast Guard, however. Chief among his accomplishments: his push to strengthen the U.S. fleet of icebreakers.

When Zukunft took over as commandant four years ago, modernizing the Coast Guard’s Arctic presence was “aspirational,” he said. The nation’s smallest branch of the military is also tasked with protecting borders and combating drug trafficking (it’s on track to seize a record amount of drugs this year).

Yet Zukunft says the Arctic is now the highest priority for the Coast Guard. He sees it as an important economic and militarily strategic zone in the near future.

Under Zukunft’s command, the Coast Guard has enlisted five shipyards to compete for contracts to build new heavy icebreakers, and he has secured funding for one and a half ships so far. The first of these ships is set to launch in 2023.

“My biggest regret is that I won’t be on active duty and have the opportunity to command that ship,” Zukunft said, only half-joking. “My biggest regret, but maybe my only one.”

Currently, the United States has only two polar-capable icebreakers in operation; the Polar Star is a heavy icebreaker and the Healy is a medium icebreaker used predominantly for research. The Polar Star is more than 40 years old, and in February it broke down on a mission in Antarctica.

“If one gets in trouble, we don’t have self-rescue capability,” Zukunft said, adding that an icebreaker in distress would probably have to call on another country to save them. He worries that future breakdowns could be more catastrophic for the crew, and leave the U.S. with no Arctic fleet at all.

Russia, on the other hand, has 41 icebreakers, and plans to launch two corvettes armed with cruise missiles soon. Russia has also militarized islands that were once used only for search and rescue, Zukunft said, and claimed Arctic Ocean seabed territory stretching to the North Pole. China, too, has shown increasing interest in this region; and Canada sees the Northwest Passage as its own.

What happens if these countries begin to clash over control of the extensive natural resources and waterways in the Arctic? Zukunft argues that a U.S. icebreaker fleet will be integral to responding to such conflicts.

Zukunft also spoke about the changing Arctic environment. “We may see an ice-free Arctic as early as 2030 in the shoulder season,” he said. “Each year, we’re seeing record receding of sea ice,” and those open areas are quickly filled by “human activity.”

In addition, he worries about the potential for an oil spill in remote, rugged areas. In the Aleutian Islands, a 3,000-gallon oil spill recently cost $9 million to clean up.

“And this on the Aleutian Island chain,” he said. “What happens if you have an oil spill on the North Slope?”

These factors are key in thinking about the Coast Guard’s expanding role in the region, says Abbie Tingstad, researcher at the RAND Corporation who has analyzed the Coast Guard’s Arctic capabilities.

“Although there’s a need for icebreakers, they may need to focus beyond breaking ice,” she says.

“In 2030, what missions might we be doing?” she asks, highlighting a potential need for more law enforcement, search-and-rescue activities, and patrol of illicit activities in the region. The Coast Guard’s Arctic fleet will need more functionality than it has had in in the past, Tingstad says, such as improved communications systems, more aerial support from helicopters and drones, and more oil cleanup kits.

Tingstad says aggressive conflict in the Arctic is unlikely; any clashes would likely be small in scale and the result of miscommunication. Russia, for example, is ramping up its Arctic presence mainly for economic and defense reasons, she says — not necessarily out of aggression.

“It has a really long Arctic coastline, and it’s pretty exposed up there,” Tingstad says.

Moving forward, Zukunft believes the United States should become a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would give the U.S. a seat at international negotiations.

“What do Libya, North Korea, and the United States all have in common?” Zukunft asked. “Three countries that have not ratified the Law of the Sea convention.”

The Coast Guard and NOAA have mapped out territory the size of Texas with potential oil and natural gas resources. But that area is still considered global commons, because the U.S. is unable to stake a claim on Arctic waters without signing the treaty.

“China is very interested in this very same area, and they view that as global commons. And why would they not?” Zukunft asked.

Yet maintaining strong relationships with Arctic countries will be key in moving forward, Zukunft cautioned: “The biggest miscalculation is if we literally freeze our relationships.” Sharing information, charting the waters, and conducting search and rescue missions are all critical ways in which the U.S. works with other Arctic nations.

Equally important are the relationships the Coast Guard forges closer to home.

“The support we have seen on the Hill, the support we have had with this administration has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Zukunft said.

He pointed out that relationships like these are “not a baton” you can pass over smoothly: “The challenge will be how we establish those next relationships.” But, he added, his successor Karl Schultz has many good connections with lawmakers and officials.

“This is instinctive for him, so I am very confident we’re not going to drop this baton. We’re going to keep moving this thing forward.”

This story has been updated to make small corrections to several quotes.