President Donald Trump's proposed budget guidance is asking for $1.3 billion in funding cuts to the U.S. Coast Guard at a time when the service is doing more than ever, and is already severely under-resourced.
Trump's budget would cancel a $500 million ship that is already in production, and would likely hit other areas of the Guard, which specializes in interdicting drugs, human trafficking, and keeping a close eye on what Russia is doing in the Arctic.
"Last year, we removed more cocaine than any other year in history — well over 200 metric tons — and by all accounts, it looks like this year we are on target to at least reach, if not exceed, last year's total," Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told Business Insider in a phone interview, adding that even with its success and consistent operational tempo, the service is strained.
"With all the success we had last year, there were over 500 events that we had great information on, but we just did not have enough planes, enough ships, to target all 500-plus events," Zukunft said. "We are really besieged down there," he added, referencing Coast Guard operations off the coast of Colombia.
Also read: The state of Coast Guard icebreakers
In addition to its operations targeting drug smugglers and human traffickers, the Coast Guard has been in and out of the Arctic region with its ice-breaking ships, especially as Russia attempts to claim parts of the region, and its rich resources, for itself.
The Arctic, which has roughly 13% of the world's oil and about one-third of its natural gas, could potentially turn into a South China Sea-like situation. That's because, like China has done with its creation of artificial islands in that region to gain control of shipping lanes, Russia and its fleet of 40 icebreakers has exerted itself in the Arctic to become the dominant player.
The Polar Start icebreak. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
"We're starting to see militarization of some of their outposts," Zukunft said.
The Coast Guard has only two icebreakers, one medium and one heavy — the latter being nearly 40 years-old.
"We're challenged in our ability to exert leadership when, you're the world's most prosperous nation, yet we can only seem to afford two icebreakers," Zukunft said. He said that ideally, the service would need a fleet of 3 heavy and 3 medium icebreakers to remain competitive.
Cuts to the budget are likely to strain other parts of the Guard, such as its coastal maritime security teams, which help to the protect the president when he's near the shore in Mar-a-Lago, and the service's inland fleet that maintains navigational aides and markers on waterways and in ports.
"That's been neglected probably for a half-century," he said of infrastructure which sees roughly $4.5 trillion in commerce pass through.
Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory Langston fights the boat fire from the Coast Guard 29-foot response boat in Hopkins Point Marina in Jonesport, Maine on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. The was no one aboard at the time of the fire. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephanie Horvat)
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said in a letter to President Trump that such cuts "egregiously" conflict with his stated goals to strengthen national security.
"These proposed cuts ... will guarantee negative consequences," Hunter wrote, adding that it would "create exposures that will most certainly be exploited by transnational criminal networks and other dangerous actors."
The Coast Guard occupies a unique role as a military branch within the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump is seeking to up the Pentagon's budget by $54 billion by taking money from non-defense areas, such as the State Department.
Since the budget has not been finalized, a spokesman for the Coast Guard declined to comment on the matter.