Where in the world is the USS Carl Vinson?
One week after U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) announced that a naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson would be moving to the Western Pacific from Singapore, the ships were no closer to their destination.
Ahead of what was eventually a failed North Korean missile test on April 16, news that the strike group was nearby the country was seen as a sign of President Donald Trump’s tough talk and hardline stance on the country’s nuclear weapons program.
White House and military officials have emphasized that they never specified a schedule for the Vinson’s arrival off the Korean Peninsula, but they are facing criticism nonetheless for failing to tamp down on interpretations of the strike group’s movement as a signal to North Korea.
Here’s what we know happened, and when:
April 5: North Korea tests a ballistic missile following another test of several missiles on March 6. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says in response. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
April 7: Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping end a two-day summit at Mar-a-Lago, during which they reportedly discuss deterrents to North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions.
April 8: “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 U.S. Navy announces in a press release, adding that the strike group “will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia.”
“Third Fleet ships operate forward with a purpose: to safeguard U.S. interests in the Western Pacific,” strike group spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham says in a statement. “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.”
“We feel the increased presence is necessary,” an unnamed official tells Reuters, citing North Korea’s worrisome behavior, according to the newswire.
CNN reports, citing an unnamed official, that the strike group’s move came in response to recent North Korean provocations.
April 9: Fox News’ Chris Wallace asks National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster: “Why the carrier strike force to the Korean Peninsula?”
“Well, it’s prudent to do it, isn’t it? I mean, North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior,” he says, adding later: “The President has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.”
According to the New York Times, the Carl Vinson Strike Group at this point had yet to carry out “another mission before it set sail north: a long-scheduled joint exercise with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean.”
April 11: “As far as the movement of the Vinson, she is stationed there in the Western Pacific for a reason,” Defense Secretary James Mattis says during a press briefing at the Pentagon. “She operated freely, up and down the Pacific, and she is just on her way up there because that is where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There’s not a specific demand signal or a specific reason why we are sending her up there.”
One reporter notes that it is “unusual for us to know about a ship movement in advance. That was sort of what — what got everyone’s attention. So why was that? I mean, why was it put out in advance? Was it just to signal to North Korea that there would be a show of presence there?”
“I believe it’s because she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise, and that’s what became public,” Mattis replies. “We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise.”
However, the exercise hasn’t been cancelled, only a port call in Fremantle, Australia.
April 12: Trump tells Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo in a pre-recorded interview that the U.S. is sending “an armada, very powerful” to the region.
April 15: It’s the birthday of North Korea’s late founding ruler Kim Il Sung, known as a date on which the country has tested missiles in the past. A large parade includes what the country claims are new ballistic missiles.
An official Navy photo places the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Straight, between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. That places the ship farther away from the Korean Peninsula than it was on April 8.
April 16: According to unnamed U.S. and South Korean officials, speaking to AP, a North Korean missile test attempt results in an explosion at launch.
April 17: The Navy publishes the photo of Carl Vinson in the Sunda Straight, showing it to be thousands of miles south of where many expected it to be at the time.
Defense News first reports on the strike group’s location, based on the photo.
The publication notes: “Off the record, several officials expressed wonderment at the persistent reports that the Vinson was already nearing Korea. ‘We’ve made no such statement,’ said one official.”
April 18: The New York Times reports on “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.”
A PACOM spokesperson tells TPM in a statement: “The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group is proceeding to the Western Pacific as ordered. 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.”
Navy spokesperson Cdr. Gary Ross told TPM Wednesday that the Pentagon’s transcript of the April 11 briefing is amended Tuesday to include: “[Sic: The ship’s port visit to Fremantle, Australia, was cancelled; the exercise with the Royal Australian navy is proceeding as planned.]”
At a White House press briefing, Sean Spicer doesn’t dispute one reporter’s 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 says. Earlier in the briefing, he says that the strike force “gives the President options in the region.”
April 19: Spicer denies misleading the press about the ship’s whereabouts: “We answered the question on what signal it sent,” he says. “I’m not the one who commented on timing.”
Speaking in Saudi Arabia, Mattis also makes no mention of misleading the public or fudging the strike group’s schedule: “The bottom line is in our effort to always be open about what we were doing we said that we that we were going to change the Vinson’s upcoming schedule,” he says. “The Vinson, as I said on the record, was operating up and down the Western Pacific and we were doing exactly what we said. That is we were shifting her.”
He adds: “We don’t generally give out ship schedules in advance but I didn’t want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had. So we’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do, she will be on her way and I’ll determine when she gets there and where she actually operates, but the Vinson will be a part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the northwest Pacific.”