Carried away: The inside story of how the Carl Vinson’s canceled port visit sparked a global crisis

By: David B. Larter

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.

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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.

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‘We’re sending an armada’

On April 10, President Trump threw gasoline on a growing fire by implying in an interview with Fox Business News that the administration had directed the carrier to proceed to Korea.

“We are sending an armada, very powerful,” he said. “We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than an aircraft carrier, that I can tell you.”
The confirmation of the misleading narrative from the commander in chief — as well as the allusion to nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines — sent the crisis into overdrive.

Governments in Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo and Beijing began reacting to what looked like an emergency with the speedy U.S. carrier beelining to the Sea of Japan. The situation became even more muddied when Mattis tried to tamp down the frenzy during a press conference, telling the reporters — inaccurately — that the announcement of the carrier move was not from a specific demand signal but was instead announcing the canceling of the exercise with the Australians, which the Vinson was at that moment participating in.

Some reporters were getting it right. After the confusing press conference, USNI News’s Sam LaGrone filed a story that corrected Mattis and reported that Vinson was participating in the exercises before heading to North Korea. But in the larger media, major outlets were reporting what by now was accepted (but completely wrong) wisdom: that Vinson and her escorts were headed for a confrontation with Kim Jong Un.

On April 12, the media frenzy prompted a call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Trump, with Xi urging all sides to calm down and resolve differences peacefully. At the same time, North Korean officials were taking to the airwaves to warn that “thermonuclear war” was imminent.

Behind the scenes at the Pentagon and out in the Pacific, officials were trying to put the brakes on what was by now a runaway train.

“Everyone who asked was told the same thing — that the carrier was doing exercises with the Australians and then was proceeding north after that,” an official said, a statement that echoed what several other sources told Navy Times.

Many reporters, however, weren’t bothering to check on the status of the carrier, multiple officials said. Across the world, U.S. military officials were watching the story spin out of control but didn’t know quite what to do about it. The carrier was, after all, getting to North Korea eventually.

“You know things have gotten out of control when CNN is playing the story on loop every 90 minutes,” a defense official said.

The story was everywhere, noted another official.

“You couldn’t walk by a TV screen without that story smacking you in the face.”

‘Preemptive strikes’: a crisis fizzles out

The come-to-Jesus moment for officials in the Pentagon and the media happened when NBC News filed an April 13 story cited to “intelligence officials” that said if Pyongyang moved to light off a nuclear test, the military was preparing a massive preemptive strike.

And while PACOM was forming options to present the President, the report described the situation as considerably more dire than it was, officials said.

“It was fake news,” one official said.

After the alarming report from NBC, more reporters began checking with media offices in the Pentagon and in the Pacific and it became clear that everything was not as it seemed. The story line, however, continued through the weekend news cycle despite the fact that many Pentagon reporters were telling their bureaus that the notion that Vinson was steaming towards Korea was wrong, multiple officials said.

The crisis came to a screeching halt on April 17, when Navy Times’ sister publication Defense News published a story with a revelation that stunned governments and media worldwide: Vinson hadn’t gone north at all, but had headed the exact opposite direction to participate in exercises. The story was based on pictures posted on official Navy websites showing the carrier transiting the Sunda Strait, between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java: 3,500 miles from Korea.

In South Korea, the media pounced, calling the Trump administration liars on par with North Korea, which often exaggerates and bluffs to intimidate perceived adversaries.

“The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked,” said the spokesman of Korea’s main opposition party, according to a New York Times report.

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Growing pains

With the benefit of hindsight, officials in the Pentagon and in the Pacific said they should have done more to nip the story in the bud before it got out of control.

“In my view, we shouldn’t have announced the port cancellation so early,” one official mused.

But many defended the decision to make the announcement, saying there was no way that they could tell 5,000 families on the Vinson that their port visit to Australia was canceled and it not get out.

“It would have lit up social media immediately and then we would have had to make the announcement anyway,” another official said.

Jerry Hendrix, a retired Naval Flight Officer and now analyst with the Center for a New American Security, said the fact that the announcement came on the heels of the Syria strike, and that subsequent use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, framed what was a reasonable and routine Navy move of sending the carrier where the crisis is seem like a bigger deal than it was.

“What you are seeing here is a reaction to a more activist foreign policy with the Trump administration,” he said.

Obama’s more cautious approach to foreign policy made moving a carrier into a contentious region seem less threatening than it does under Trump, especially since Trump has made seapower and growing the Navy a key part of his defense strategy, Hendrix argues.

“Moving a carrier means something very different today than it did under a more cautious, lead-from-behind Obama administration.”

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