Contrary to Claims, Naval Strike Group Wasn’t Headed To N. Korea Last Week

MC2 Sean M. Castellano/Navy Office of Information (CHINFO)

Contrary to several senior government officials’ assurances last week that a naval strike group led by the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier was on its way to the Korean Peninsula, Defense News reported Monday night that the strike group was instead thousands of miles to the peninsula’s south as late as Saturday, taking part in exercises with the Australian Navy.

On April 8, the U.S. Pacific Command first announced that “Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April, 8.”

The strike group, the statement added, “will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia.”

In fact, a week after that announcement, on April 15, an official Navy photo showed the strike group farther away from the Korean Peninsula than it had been at the time of the announcement, passing through the Sunda Straight, in between Java and Sumatra.

“The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group is proceeding to the Western Pacific as ordered,” a U.S. Pacific Command spokesperson told TPM in a statement. “After departing Singapore on April 8 and cancelling 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.”

The New York Times reported, citing unnamed officials, that there had been “a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from a premature announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that an American armada was racing toward the waters off North Korea.

On April 8, a spokesman for the Pacific Command, Commander Dave Benham, said the command was “a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” adding: “The number one threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”

On April 11, White House press secretary Sean Spicer didn’t dispute the characterization that the strike group was “steaming up toward the Sea of Japan.”

“I think when you see a carrier group steaming into an area like that, the forward presence of that is clearly, through almost every instance, a huge deterrence,” he said, saying earlier that the strike force “gives the President options in the region.”

The same day, Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there,” adding: “She’s stationed in the Western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific and she’s on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”

“We’ve made no such statement” that the strike group was already nearing Korea, one unnamed official told Defense News, referring to reports otherwise. Unnamed Defense Department officials told the Times that the strike group could be expected in the region sometime next week. 

On April 16, the North Korean government attempted to test a ballistic missile, which unnamed U.S. and South Korean officials told AP exploded during launch.

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously assistant editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK