WASHINGTON – The Trump administration said Wednesday that it did not intend to mislead the public about the movements of a U.S. carrier strike group.
The Carl Vinson strike group was said last week to be diverting from scheduled port visits in Australia to the Sea of Japan, but was later identified as thousands of miles away and transiting in the opposite direction.
“The president said that we have an armada going towards the [Korean] Peninsula. That is fact. It happened. It is happening, rather,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a regular news briefing on Wednesday.
The U.S. Navy said in an April 9 release that the Carl Vinson would skip stops in Australia and instead sail north of Singapore toward the Western Pacific. A week after, the Carl Vinson had yet to head north and did take part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean.
The White House later said that the movement would be a deterrent for North Korea. April 15 is North Korea’s largest holiday, the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, which often is marked with weapons tests.
When Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was asked about the movement of the strike group on April 10, he said:
“She operates freely up and down the Pacific, and she’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we’re sending her up there.”
Asked about the movement of the carrier and larger strike group on April 11, Spicer said:
“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.”
During a April 11 interview with Fox Business Network, President Donald Trump was asked about the redirecting of the ships to the Korean Peninsula and said:
“We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked April 12 if there was a military campaign planned against North Korea and he said the Carl Vinson strike group is routinely in the Pacific:
“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.”
On Monday, Defense News, citing an April 15 picture published by the Navy, deduced that the strike group was not in the waters around the Korean Peninsula. The photo showed the aircraft carrier passing through the Sunda Strait, a passage between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java.
Mattis, when asked about the confusion Wednesday, said the Carl Vinson is headed toward the Korean Peninsula but not as soon as some had expected.
“We don’t generally give out ships’ 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. We’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do. She will be on her way. I’ll determine when she gets there, and where she actually operates. But the Vinson is going to be part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the Northwest Pacific.”
Vice President Mike Pence told CNN Wednesday that Trump had meant to say that the U.S. is “ready to defend our allies in this region” and not that the strike group was transiting at the moment to the region.
“We want to send an unambiguous message especially to North Korea that any attempt to use weapons of any kind against our allies in this region or American forces abroad will be defeated and will be met with overwhelming force.”
On Tuesday, in a message to the families of those deployed, strike group commander Rear Adm. Jim Kilby said their deployment would be extended for a month “to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.”