Carried away: The inside story of how the Carl Vinson's canceled port visit sparked a global crisis
By: David B. Larter, April 23, 2017
In early April, officials at U.S. Pacific Command were developing plans to respond to a sharp rise in tensions with North Korea. Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered PACOM Commander Adm. Harry Harris to come up with “robust and sustainable” options for North Korea if President Trump ordered a strike on the rogue regime, according to four defense officials who spoke on background.
Harris was traveling in Washington away from his Hawaii base of operations, something that he dislikes because, in his view, something always seems to happen when he’s not in his office. At one point that week, top PACOM officials called Harris to recommend that Vinson cancel its upcoming trip to Australia and make its way back to the waters near North Korea where the carrier had just been in March, thus serving as one of the responses to Mattis’s directive that they explore military options for the Trump administration.
The plan was to truncate a secretive exercise with the Australians near Indonesia, to cancel Vinson’s visit to Perth and then head the direction of the Korean Peninsula — meaning Vinson would be off North Korea by the end of the month.
Changing an aircraft carrier’s schedule is not a small muscle movement. Host nations expecting a visit from the mighty U.S. big decks have to do a fair amount of leg work to prepare for the visit. Furthermore, a good number of sailors had family flying out to Australia to meet their sailors. An Australia port visit is the holy grail for sailors on a Western Pacific deployment.
The easiest thing to do, PACOM officials decided, would be send out a press release announcing the canceled port visit — making it easier for families to get their money back from airlines and letting all parties know why the Vinson wouldn’t be visiting the Land Down Under.
And it would have another effect: it would put North Korea on notice by announcing the plans in a press release, which included language that not-so-subtly dropped that 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,” roughly the direction North Korea lies from Singapore. A press release, PACOM officials thought, was the perfect solution to wrap up all the loose ends from the carrier’s schedule change.
Sending the release with the thinly veiled language would be a message to North Korea and nervous allies alike: The Navy’s big guns were on the way so behave accordingly.
“A press release was really the only option,” one official said.
But that’s when things went haywire.
Over the course of 10 days, a series of gaffes and missteps throughout the entire national security structure to its highest levels would raise the specter of a nuclear showdown, send the U.S. and Chinese governments into crisis mode, and expose alarming communication deficiencies within the American military at large. The breakdown fueled a war frenzy at major newspapers and networks, running with the narrative that Trump was diverting the carrier personally to send a message, outlandish claims made without checking for facts until the crisis rhetoric had spun out of control.
This behind-the-scenes account is based on interviews with nearly a dozen defense officials in Washington, and in the Pacific, all of whom spoke to Navy Times on the condition of anonymity to relay in candid terms how the carrier's movement blew up from a routine Navy operation to a full-on crisis.
The war drums began beating on April 8, the day a press release came out from U.S. 3rd Fleet announcing the carrier’s move. U.S. 3rd Fleet has operational control of Vinson during its tour of the Pacific. But two hours before the 3rd Fleet's press statement hit the streets, Reuters news agency published a story that said the Vinson Strike Group, which was visiting Singapore at the time, would proceed from there to the waters off North Korea to send a message to the rogue Korean regime, which is poised to detonate the country’s sixth nuclear bomb test.
The Reuters story, followed by the unusual move from the Navy of discussing ship movements, created an initial flurry of press reports and speculation. Coming just two days after Trump’s surprising and widely praised decision to strike the Assad regime in Syria for its chemical attack on Syrian civilians, speculation swirled that the president was feeling emboldened. Maybe Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be the next recipient of a Trump-ordered barrage of cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, the Vinson and its escorts were not heading north. They were moving in the opposite direction, belying the conjecture that a strike on North Korea was imminent.
Nevertheless, by April 9, breathless news reports were proliferating through the press, including Navy Times. CNN and the other networks were beginning to get on a war footing. The New York Times claimed that “Rerouting the naval armada is President Trump’s latest escalation in force against a potential adversary,” although Trump doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with the order at all.
“The media just went nuts,” one source with close knowledge of the situation said.
When asked about the Vinson’s movement during an appearance on Fox News, Army Gen. H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security advisor, said the step was “prudent” and went on to state the commitment by the U.S. to getting nuclear weapons off the Korean Peninsula.
McMaster seemed to be saying that Harris’s move was a logical one under the broader guidance from Mattis and Trump's team on the National Security Council to draw up military options for North Korea. But the interview was the first in a string of missed opportunities for senior defense officials to correct the record on what Vinson was doing. Instead, everyone from McMaster and Mattis to the president himself inaccurately stated what Vinson's intentions were.
It was at this early phase when things could have been corrected with an additional release from PACOM, according to defense officials who spoke to Navy Times, an assessment many experts agreed with.
It would have been a quick and easy fix if the military had simply sent out a press release detailing Vinson’s plans and clarifying the initial release, said Bryan Clark, retired Navy officer who was a senior aide to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. A flawed narrative might have been stopped in its tracks and prevented rattling a region on the brink of conflict, he said.
“It’s really shocking that they let this go for nearly two weeks without trying to correct the record,” he said.