By Simon Denyer and Emily Rauhala,
BEIJING — It was supposed to be steaming toward North Korea more than a week ago, an “armada” signaling American resolve. Then it wasn’t.
Now, it seems the USS Carl Vinson may finally be heading north.
“Our deployment has been extended 30 days to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula,” Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, commander of Carrier Strike Group One, said in a message posted on the Carl Vinson’s Facebook page and addressed to “families and loved ones” of the personnel on board.
[Despite talk of a military strike, Trump’s ‘armada’ actually sailed away from Korea]
The Carl Vinson, accompanied by a carrier air wing, two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser, was reported to have been ordered to sail north after leaving Singapore on April 8. But a week later, the Navy published photos showing it was actually sailing in the opposite direction through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, more than 3,000 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula — and more than 500 miles southeast of Singapore.
It appears the confusion over its whereabouts stemmed from a U.S. Pacific Command announcement that “could have been worded a little more clearly,” in the words of a defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
On April 9, the Pacific Command announced that the strike group was heading to the “Western Pacific,” even as a spokesman for the Pacific Command linked the move directly to North Korea’s “reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
Days later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that the Carl Vinson was “on her way up there.” In an interview that aired April 12, President Trump said the United States was sending ships. “An armada, very powerful,” he said.
They were not exactly wrong, Navy officials now say. It’s just that the change of course toward the Korean Peninsula had not happened yet.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, during his daily media briefing on Wednesday, disputed the notion that the administration had led anyone astray.
“What part is misleading? I’m trying to figure that out,” Spicer said. “We were asked a question about what signal [the decision to dispatch the carrier to the Western Pacific] sent. We answered the question on what signal it sent. I’m not the one who commented on timing.”
It is not clear why the carrier strike group stayed in Southeast Asia, or why the Trump administration did not clarify where it was. On Tuesday, the Pacific Command said only that the strike group had completed military exercises — and would now head north.
“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,” a U.S. Pacific Command spokesman said in a statement. “The Carl Vinson Strike Group is heading north to the Western Pacific as a prudent measure.”
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mattis said Wednesday: “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. 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.
“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.”
U.S. and South Korean news media have reported that the Carl Vinson is now expected to arrive off the Korean Peninsula by April 25, just as North Korea marks the anniversary of its army’s founding.
“Our mission is to reassure allies and our partners of our steadfast commitment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” wrote Kilby, the carrier group commander. “We will continue to be the centerpiece of visible maritime deterrence, providing our national command authority with flexible deterrent options, all domain access, and a visible forward presence.”
China, meanwhile, is feeling anything but reassured, warning recently that “a storm is about to break” over the divided Korean Peninsula.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Riyadh and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.
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