Entry 66: About That Armada…
Editor’s Note: This is the 66th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
Remember that time when the Trump administration lost an aircraft carrier while Trump told Fox News he was sending “an armada” to Korea? It happened. It was big news. And so much other big news has happened since that it doesn’t feel like it happened. Our collective memories have gone numb.
I’m at the point in my current chapter, on the early months of the Trump era, that I’m writing about stuff now that I was writing about in real-time as a commentator. One such object of punditry was the tale of the lost aircraft carrier, starring Admiral Harry Harris, President Trump, and Secretary Mattis. I wrote 1,200 words today (!), some of which appears below in a short, excerpted form. Enjoy!
On April 8, Harris—Commander of U.S. Pacific Command—told the Third Fleet to issue a press release announcing that the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group “will be operating in the Western Pacific rather than the previously planned port visits to Australia.” It was a redirect to send the aircraft carrier to Korea rather than Australia.
Harris agreed to the proposed plan because it nested well within his beliefs about deterrence (more on that in the actual book) and it satisfied the NSC’s call to increase pressure on Pyongyang (more on that in the book too). But Harris didn’t formally issue orders to the Third Fleet to cancel the Australia visit and redirect to Korea. So the press release went out but the rerouting order didn’t.
For the next week, the Carl Vinson gradually made its way from Singapore southward to Australia—not northward to Korea—but every senior official in the Trump administration believed it was steaming for Korea as Third Fleet announced on April 9, and said as much publicly. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Mattis, Tillerson, and McMaster were all asked about the reason for suddenly sending an aircraft carrier to Korea, and each gave different answers, but all confirmed they believed it was heading to Korea and not Australia.
On April 12, Trump appeared on Fox News and was asked about his thinking on North Korea. He was coy for a moment and then blurted out, “We’re sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you. And we have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this. He [Kim Jong Un] is doing the wrong thing. He is doing the wrong thing.”
The statement was significant not only for the hyperbole of “an armada,” which aped the North Korean style of over-the-top threat-making, but also in the sense of risking war in a way that was probably not fully appreciated. It was not a trivial thing to place an aircraft carrier in the vicinity of an adversary armed with nuclear weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles. The North Korean military had studied the American way of war in operations since the Gulf War in 1990-1991, and understood that the United States only launched military campaigns after first massing forces in a staging area accessible to the battlefield. An aircraft carrier presence was typically part of that staging effort.
Once it became public (a full week later) that the aircraft carrier was steaming for Australia the entire time and NOT en route to Korea, nobody knew what to believe. A series of exposés were later published that documented the minute-by-minute details of how this happened, but they were drowned out by the next news cycle.
The administration looked incompetent, and it was everybody’s fault. North Korea even issued propaganda threats that specifically targeted U.S. aircraft carriers, and began a handful of anti-ship ballistic missile tests. The incident was an own-goal. And it was the first of many.
I wrote about this when it happened and still it feels like a fuzzy, distant memory. Argh!
Also, this is the same team (minus the diplomats) that is supposedly going to meet with Kim Jong Un and guarantee North Korea will turn over its nuclear arsenal? Purely from a policy execution perspective, if you can read about the Carl Vinson incident and still be optimistic about a Trump-Kim summit then you have more faith in U.S. influence than facts or reason would allow.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.