WASHINGTON—The Navy confirmed Tuesday that it didn’t send one of its aircraft carriers directly toward North Korea amid growing tensions with Pyongyang, despite representations by President Donald Trump and his top defense advisers that it was on its way.
In fact, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was thousands of miles away on exercises off the northwest coast of Australia and likely won’t arrive near the Korean Peninsula until sometime next week.
The U.S. Pacific Command released a statement Tuesday that said the Vinson is now heading toward the Western Pacific as ordered after a shortened training exercise with the Australian Navy. The statement described the move as a “prudent measure.”
The White House’s avowed deployment of the Vinson came as foreign adversaries from the Middle East to Russia and the Far East have been looking to test the mettle of Mr. Trump. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that it scrambled fighter planes earlier this week to intercept two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska, the first such incident since 2015.
How Mr. Trump’s muscular response to North Korea morphed into a false narrative about a naval armada sailing in a show of force toward waters off the coast of North Korea appears to be a story of mixed and contradictory messages that the Navy appeared to notice in the past week, but made no strenuous moves to correct.
“At the end of the day it resulted in confused strategic communication that has made our allies nervous,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “If you don’t have a consistency with your actual strategy and what you’re doing with your military, that doesn’t seem terribly convincing.”
Misunderstandings over the mission of the Vinson appear to have been born in part out of operational secrecy coupled with a desire by the White House to project a tough image. Navy officials were aware of the public misimpressions, according to Navy officials.
The Vinson’s location was earlier reported by Defense News.
A senior White House official blamed the mistake on the Pentagon and said that the Pentagon didn’t realize the error until Tuesday.
A second White House official said the White House didn’t need to know last week that the Pentagon had given misleading information because the details of the timing of the vessel’s navigation weren’t something White House press secretary Sean Spicer or National Security Council officials had discussed publicly. Their comments were about the signal that the movement of the vessel sent to North Korea.
“The only issue is that [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis started to talk about timing and there was some confusion within DoD about whether or not they were going to maintain the exercise,” the official said.
Defense officials first said more than a week ago that a carrier strike group would move toward the Western Pacific as a show of force. White House national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said on April 9 that moving the carrier group is “prudent to do,” given North Korea’s provocative behavior.
Also on April 9, a statement from the Navy said that Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, had directed the Vinson to steam toward the Western Pacific and that planned port visits had been canceled in Australia.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
- April 8: Reuters prints story about the USS Carl Vinson’s change of mission directing it to the Western Pacific.
- April 10: U.S. Pacific Command posts a release: “Adm. Harry Harris, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, has directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific.”
- April 11: Navy officials say the Vinson will take part in planned exercises near Australia before proceeding to the western Pacific.
- April 11: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says that the exercises have been canceled.
- April 11: Shortly after Mr. Mattis’s remarks, Navy officials confirm port calls in Australia have been canceled, but that exercises haven’t been.
- April 12: President Donald Trump tweets that North Korea “is looking for trouble” and tells Fox Business Network that he is “sending an armada, very powerful.”
- April 18: U.S. Pacific Command statement: “The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group is proceeding to the Western Pacific as ordered. After departing Singapore on April 8 and canceling a scheduled port visit to Perth, the Strike Group was able to complete a curtailed period of previously scheduled training with Australia in international waters off the northwest coast of Australia. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is heading north to the Western Pacific as a prudent measure.”
On April 11, Mr. Mattis added to that at a press conference, saying that exercises had also been canceled and that the Vinson was “on her way up” to the Western Pacific.
“That’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time,” Mr. Mattis said of the Vinson.
But soon after Mr. Mattis’s press conference, the Navy issued a statement that seemed to contradict their boss.
“As announced over the weekend, the Carl Vinson Strike Group was ordered north as a prudent measure to maintain presence and readiness in the Western Pacific,” said Cmdr. Clay Doss, a Navy spokesman, in a statement issued that day. “While port visits to Australia were cancelled, impacts to other previously scheduled activities are still being assessed during the transit.”
Mr. Trump the next day said, “We are sending an armada.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump said he also told the Chinese leader Xi Jinping of the carrier group.
“I said, ‘Look we have ships heading there,’” Mr. Trump said. “He says he knows it very well. I said not only are the aircraft carriers, we have the nuclear subs, which are far more destructive, and I think you have to let him know.”
Mr. Spicer and a senior administration official did nothing to counter that version of events. Asian and American newspapers widely reported that the carrier was headed toward the peninsula.
A week later, on Tuesday, the Navy stressed it had never said the Vinson was given a final destination to the waters off North Korea. A Navy official said that its messaging had been consistent and that from Singapore the carrier and supporting ships would head to planned exercises near Australia and then on to the Western Pacific, though it didn’t specify where in the Pacific.
“We certainly did not say that and have been consistent with that messaging,” a Navy official said Tuesday when asked if it had ever said the Vinson is headed to North Korea.
On Saturday, the Navy published a photo of the carrier steaming through the Sunda Strait, near Indonesia, thousands of miles from the Sea of Japan and the Korean Peninsula.
—Carol E. Lee contributed to this article.
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