Coast Guard chief optimistic his service will get its largest-ever acquisition budget

Adm. Paul Zukunft says he’s highly optimistic that more money is coming to help recapitalize his fleet. The House and Senate have yet to agree to a 2016 appro...

The Coast Guard has gotten used to the idea that when it buys a new ship, it’s going to stay in the fleet for a very long time before Congress finds the funds to replace it.

Several of the service’s large and medium sized-cutters are past or approaching their 50-year anniversaries. Or as one Coast Guard engineering officer deadpanned to a visiting congressional delegation recently, his boat is one of only a few U.S. military assets that are totally impervious to cyberattack, but that’s because there are no digital systems onboard.

But Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, who relayed the above account to the National Press Club last week, said that he’s also highly optimistic that more money is coming to help recapitalize his fleet. The House and Senate have yet to agree to a 2016 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, but he said his discussions with leaders of both parties from the two congressional appropriations committees suggest his service will get a robust plus-up.

“I can’t share those with you, but it may bring the largest acquisition budget in the Coast Guard’s history, so I’m pretty excited about that,” he said.

The House and Senate left for their August recess last week without agreeing on an appropriations bill for the Coast Guard and the rest of DHS. For the Coast Guard, the gap between the preliminarily bills House and Senate appropriators had passed in their own committees was wide: $8.5 billion and $10.3 billion, respectively.

But members of both parties and in both houses have expressed willingness to add funds to the Coast Guard’s procurement budget, especially in the context of widening concern about the United States’ ability to exert influence in the Arctic Ocean. Russia has dozens of icebreakers in service, but on a good day, the U.S. has two, only one of which is capable of breaking heavy ice. That vessel, the USCGC Polar Star is nearly 40-years-old and is only able to keep sailing because of borrowed parts from its sister ship, the Polar Sea, whose engines ground to a halt five years ago.

Zukunft said what his service needs most of all is stability — the Coast Guard has experienced year-to-year variances as large as 40 percent in its capital budget over the last several years, which makes long-term planning difficult.

A decade after the first missteps in the Deepwater program — during which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent during delays of the construction of the Coast Guard’s newest ship class and several of its smaller ones were ruined during a failed upgrade attempt — he argued his service’s acquisition program is now under control and deserved consistent funding from Congress. The Coast Guard’s total acquisition portfolio now is experiencing cost growth of less than 2 percent per year, Zukunft said.

“We mind our checkbook, we drive a hard bargain when we buy stuff, and when we buy it, we take care of it,” he said. “When I’m challenged by people who say that our program of record isn’t affordable, it’s like saying that your mortgage isn’t affordable after someone just took away half of your disposable income. Yeah, you’re probably going to have to foreclose. But if you don’t cut me 40 percent, this is a very sustainable program.”

An unrelated point from Zukunft’s speech at the Press Club: When it comes to defending military networks against cyber threats, it’s possible that bigger isn’t always better.

As NBC News first reported last week, the Russian government is suspected of launching a sophisticated spear-phishing attack which forced the Pentagon’s entire Joint Staff to take its email systems offline for two weeks while IT experts cleansed their systems of malware.

The attackers seem to have been targeting other senior military officers across the government, but Zukunft said his service’s small team of 70 cyber experts spotted and stopped what appears to have been the same attack before any of his officers received the emails and got a chance to click on an infected link.

Just to be clear, Zukunft did not explicitly say that the attack his officers stopped was one-and-the same as that which brought down the Joint Staff, but his description of it was identical to anonymous sources’ accounts of the Pentagon infiltration: it started in mid-July, originated from a foreign government and seriously impacted a major military organization. He declined to say much else about the attack or how, in the case of the Coast Guard, it was able to be stopped, calling the matter highly classified.

“But in our case, our cyber watch standers were able to kill that spear phishing attempt before it ever reached our users. Had those recipients opened it, we would have had to take them off of the net, and it’s no coincidence that many of the targets were very senior military officers. Fortunately, they can’t spell Zukunft.”

This post is part of Jared Serbu’s Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jared’s Notebook.

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