Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Come Sail Away


Trump’s Administration produces chaos even for the US military 


 
Remember 10 days ago when the US administration raised global anxieties (at least those following the news) because it claimed that Trump had ordered a carrier strike group to head towards North Korea in advance of that regime’s sabre-rattling missile tests?  Well it turns out the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its supporting ships were actually conducting exercises off the coast of Australia, a US defense official acknowledged today. Indeed it was actually traveling in the opposite direction — towards the Indian Ocean, not to the northwestern Pacific — as recently as four days ago.  Trump and his spokespeople thus either lied or were totally confused about the warships’ whereabouts.  Given the track record and general ignorance of Trump and his proxies, either likelihood seems possible; both are laughably ridiculous if the brinkmanship deployed by Trump in this episode wasn’t so frightening. 


The Navy announced on April 9 that the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group had been ordered to “sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean.”  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 10 that the carrier was “on her way up there because that's where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”  White House press secretary Sean Spicer and a senior administration official told Reuters the deployment of the group of ships was a “necessary” show of force because of North Korea’s recent behaviour, which included a failed missile test. Trump himself went on to say the US was “sending an armada” to counter the North Korean threat, prompting a strong rebuke by North Korea. A statement to CNN from Pyongyang indicated that North Korea would respond to the "reckless acts of aggression".

But the US Navy released a photograph on Saturday April 15 showing the aircraft carrier sailing through the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java and later that day it was in the Indian Ocean.  So on the very day that many in the world nervously watched North Korea stage a massive military parade and the media speculated about a pre-emptive US strike, the Carl Vinson and its escort was more than 4,500 Km southwest of the Korean Peninsula.

The White House clearly allowed this story to remain unchallenged for more than a week without correcting the misperceptions that the Carl Vinson was “steaming” north toward a possible standoff.  This might be calculated misdirection. But it might just be incompetence.  According to the Washington Post, the White House has had no comment, referring journalists to the Pentagon. The Pentagon directed all queries to US Pacific Command.  The armada is now on the way, apparently.  Korea Herald reported that the Carl Vinson is now due to arrive in South Korea’s eastern waters on April 25, in time for another important date on the North Korean calendar: the anniversary of its army’s founding.  What the news that the Carl Vinson group has actually been thousands of Km away in the Indian Ocean, rather than bearing down on the Korean Peninsula, will have in Pyongyang is not known. 

Here is a timeline of the strike group’s movements and US statements about them (shortened and lightly edited from the Washington Post’s own timeline)

April 9: The US Pacific Command announces that Admiral Harry Harris had “directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April 8.”
April 10: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is asked about the movement and says it is “prudent”.
April 11: Spicer is asked about the movement and seems to confirm it:
Q: The President in his tweet noted that China could certainly help on the North Korean issue. And when you unpack it through that lens and the fact that the USS Carl Vinson is sort of steaming out toward the Sea of Japan, that may be an additional pressure to maybe get China to come to the table. … Putting that strike carrier group in the Sea of Japan, in that region, is that also a messaging circumstance? Or is that simply protective for our allies in Japan and Korea?
SPICER: A carrier group is several things. The forward deployment is deterrence, presence. It’s prudent. But it does a lot of things. It ensures our — we have the strategic capabilities, and it gives the president options in the region. But 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. So I think it serves multiple capabilities.
April 11: In a taped interview with Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo (which would air April 12), Trump is asked about the movement and confirms it:
BARTIROMO: You redirected navy ships to go toward the Korean Peninsula. What are we doing right now in terms of North Korea?
TRUMP: We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.
April 12: In a background briefing, a “senior administration official” is asked about Japanese reports of joint drills with the Carl Vinson on its way to the Korean Peninsula, and doesn't correct the record:
Q: Japanese media is reporting that the USS Carl Vinson is in operations with the Japanese naval forces. As you know, they have a (inaudible). What happens if there is a confrontation this week between North Korean forces and Japanese and U.S. forces? And how will you prevent this from spiraling into a broader military conflict?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you heard from the president many times, we're not in the business of trying to predict with a high degree of certainty precisely what our response is going to be. I think what we demonstrated last week was the ability of the President's national security team to come together, convened by the National Security Council, to look at events such as those that might occur on the Korean Peninsula, quickly analyze those events, place them in context with U.S. vital interests, establish objectives that protect American citizens and advance our interests, and then develop and present the president with options.
April 12: At a news conference in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to suggest that the Carl Vinson's movements actually aren't about North Korea:
Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The Korean Peninsula: The Americans have sent a whole naval company. Did you talk about that in your negotiations and the danger to the particular region? And does mean that the U.S. has some plans for a military campaign around the Korean Peninsula? Thank you.
TILLERSON: The Carl Vinson Strike Group is routinely in the Pacific Ocean — it's in the Pacific theater. And its movements in the Pacific are made in a way that's planned by the military planners. There is no particular objective in its current course. The Vinson sails up and down the Pacific routinely, and so I would not read anything into the Carl Vinson's current locations.Top of FormBottom of Form
April 13: NBC News reports that the United States is prepared to launch apreemptive strike if it thinks that North Korea is about to launch a nuclear weapons test. 
April 15: A photo taken and published by the Navy shows the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait, between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.
April 17: Vice President Pence visits the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and has tough words, declaring the end of the United States' policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea. “Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” Pence said. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”
April 17: Defense News puts together the puzzle and deduces that the Carl Vinson isn't, in fact, headed up to the Korean Peninsula — at least not yet. A Pacific Fleet spokesman, Cmdr. Clayton Doss, confirms that the Carl Vinson is not in the waters around either South Korea or Japan.
April 18: Other reports, from the Korea Herald and the New York Times (citing Defense officials), indicate that the Carl Vinson is now headed for the Korean Peninsula.