How Did The Whole Misleading Vinson Carrier Story Get Started?

Sean M. Castellano/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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A Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson is on its way to the Western Pacific, reportedly to waters near the Korean Peninsula.

Feeling a little deja vu? Coming up on April 15, many observers assumed the Vinson was close, if not already there. Numerous reports indicated that the carrier strike group was sailing towards the peninsula in a show of force as North Korea was preparing for a possible sixth nuclear test. There was no nuclear weapons test, and it turned out the strike group was thousands of miles away from the Korean peninsula.

The sudden turn of events has left many wondering where exactly the false narrative of a naval strike group sailing north to square off against Kim Jong-un came from.

April 9:

The 3rd Fleet Public Affairs office released a press statement on April 9 which read, “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 Ocean.”

The press statement said that the carrier strike group left Singapore one day prior.

That same day, Reuters wrote that a U.S. official said the Vinson was moving into the Western Pacific near the Korean peninsula because “we feel the increased presence is necessary.”

In the wake of that report, The Associated Press, citing the Pentagon, wrote, “A Navy carrier strike group is moving toward the Western Pacific Ocean to provide a physical presence near the Korean Peninsula.”

In both the Reuters and AP reports, the movement of the Vinson to waters near Korea was called a “show of force.” There is no indication of an arrival date in either post, but a New York Times article hinted that it would be arriving around the time North Korea celebrated the “Day of the Sun” on April 15.

The NYT, citing military and intelligence officials, wrote, “The timing of the of the ship movements was also intended to anticipate a milestone event coming up on the Korean Peninsula: the anniversary on Saturday of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder and the grandfather of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.”

U.S. Pacific Command signaled that the purpose of redirecting the ship was related to North Korea’s frequent provocations, which include multiple missile launches in recent weeks.

“U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” said Commander Dave Benham, “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.”

Previously scheduled port visits in Australia were reportedly canceled, and the ship was supposedly redirected.

April 10:

North Korea condemned the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to waters near Korea, stating that it would counter America’s “reckless acts of aggression.”

April 11: 

Secretary of Defense James Mattis downplayed the Vinson’s movements, stating that the ships deployment was not intended as a show of force.

“There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there,” Mattis said at a press conference, 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.”

Mattis also mentioned that the Vinson would not be taking part in joint exercises with Australia; however, Voice of America, citing military officials, later reported that the exercises would still be held, but on an accelerated basis — signaling that perhaps the carrier could still get up north in time for North Korea’s big day.

“It would be unlikely the Vinson [carrier strike group] wouldn’t arrive before the April 15 Day of the Sun, the annual holiday that celebrates the birth of North Korea founder Kim il-Sung,” USNI News reported.

That evening, reports citing government officials revealed that North Korea had loaded a nuclear device into the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. 38 North, a research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, reported that the test site was “primed and ready.”

April 12:

President Donald Trump told Fox Business that the U.S. is sending an “armada” in response to questions about Kim Jong-un’s latest threats to U.S. assets.

“We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier,” he said, “We have the best military people on Earth.  And, … he is doing the wrong thing.” The presidents comments hinted at a certain degree of urgency, but he did not provide specific details of when the carrier strike group would be where.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, like Mattis, argued that the Vinson had “no particular objective,” adding, “I would not read anything into the Carl Vinson’s” activities.

April 13: 

Citing intelligence officials, NBC released a highly-criticized report claiming that the U.S. would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea if it detected signs of a sixth nuclear test.

“Two things are coming together this weekend,” Admiral James Stavridis, former commander of NATO and an NBC analyst, said “One is the distinct possibility of a sixth North Korean nuclear weapons detonation and the other is an American carrier strike group, a great deal of firepower headed right at the Korean Peninsula.”

This report followed a surprising move by the military, the dropping of a weapon known as the “mother of all bombs” on Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. The move marked the second heavy-handed act by the Trump administration in a week. The previous Thursday, the U.S. military bombed an airfield in Syria.

Some observers suggested that North Korea might be the next target on Trump’s list of troublemakers.

April 14:

China warned that the U.S. and North Korea had “swords drawn and bows bent” and that “storm clouds” were gathering. The Chinese foreign minister said he feared that “war could break out at any moment,” and North Korea said it “will go to war” if Trump provoked it.

April 16:

North Korea unsuccessfully tested a new type of scud, which analysts believe to be an anti-ship ballistic missile, sometimes referred to as a “carrier killer.” That North Korea test-fired an ASBM as news outlets around the world reported that the Vinson was on its way to Korea may not have been a coincidence; the North may very well have thought the carrier strike group was coming for them, if not in the area already.

Around the time of the test, the Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese paper, reported that Russian and Chinese ships were shadowing the U.S. Navy carrier strike group through the East China Sea.

April 17:

Defense News revealed that the USS Carl Vinson was operating down near Indonesia, thousands of miles away from the Korean peninsula, where it was supposedly sending a message of strength.

April 18:

U.S. Pacific Command stated, “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.”

Arguments that the president lied may be exaggerations, but there is a possibility the White House was unaware of the detailed plans for the Vinson.

A senior White House official pushed the blame onto the Pentagon, arguing that the president and his team were unaware that the Department of Defense had provided misleading information about the deployment plans of the Vinson and the other ships in the strike group, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The White House directed all questions to the Pentagon, which directed reporters to U.S. Pacific Command, which directed people to the 3rd Fleet Press Office.

April 19: 

The White House clarifies some of the president’s previous statements. “We have an armada going towards the peninsula. That’s a fact,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

“The Vinson, as I’ve said on the record, was operating up and down the western Pacific. And we’re doing exactly what we said. And that is, we’re shifting her, instead of continuing one direction as she pulled out of Singapore she’s going to continue part of our cruise down in that region but she was on her way up to Korea,” Mattis said in a rather vague statement to reporters.

“She will be on her way. And I’ll determine when she gets there and where she actually operates. But the Vinson is going to be part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the northwest Pacific,” he added.

The Vinson is now headed towards waters off Korea. “Our deployment has been extended 30 days to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean peninsula,” the carrier strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral James Kilby, wrote Wednesday on the group’s Facebook page.

Now, it appears that the Vinson and the cruisers, destroyers, and submarines accompanying it are headed to Korea in an intentional show of force.

The carrier strike group may be arriving in Korea around the time of the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, another major North Korean holiday; however, that has yet to be determined.

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