Despite Reports, U.S. Carrier Was Nowhere Near Korea

USS George Washington Battle Group

Just over a week ago it was reported that the United States was moving a carrier battle group headed by the USS Carl Vinson closer to the Korean Peninsula in response to increased provocation from the DPRK and the rumors that it would attempt some kind of demonstration as part of last weekend’s 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. As it turns out, the ships weren’t anywhere near Korea:

WASHINGTON — Just over a week ago, the White House declared that ordering an American aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan would send a powerful deterrent signal to North Korea and give President Trump more options in responding to the North’s provocative behavior. “We’re sending an armada,” Mr. Trump said to Fox News last Tuesday afternoon.

The problem was that the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the three other warships in its strike force were that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanation by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.

By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Mr. Trump was considering a pre-emptive military strike. It was portrayed as further evidence of the president’s muscular style days after he ordered a missile strike on Syria that came while he and President Xi Jinping of China chatted over dessert during a meeting in Florida.

With Mr. Trump himself playing up the show of force, Pentagon officials said, rolling back the story became difficult.

The story of the wayward carrier might never have come to light had the Navy not posted a photo online Monday of the Carl Vinson sailing south through the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. It was taken on Saturday, four days after the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, described its mission in the Sea of Japan.

Now, the Carl Vinson is finally on a course for the Korean Peninsula, expected to arrive in the region next week, according to Defense Department officials. White House officials declined to comment on the confusion, referring questions to the Pentagon. “Sean discussed it once when asked, and it was all about process,” a spokesman, Michael Short, said of Mr. Spicer.

Privately, however, other officials expressed bewilderment that the Pentagon did not correct its timeline, particularly given the tensions in the region and the fact that Mr. Spicer, as well as the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, were publicly answering questions about it.

“The ship is now moving north to the Western Pacific,” the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, Dana White, said Tuesday. “This should have been communicated more clearly at the time.”

Now it’s being reported that the Vinson and its support ships will spend an extra 30 days on deployment near the Korean Peninsula once they reach their destination:

The USS Carl Vinson will spend an extra 30 days on deployment in order to patrol the waters off the Korean Peninsula, the ship’s commander announced late Tuesday night.

Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, commander of Carrier Strike Group One, said in a Facebook post that the Carl Vinson will spend an extra 30 days at sea in order to “provide a persistent presence” near North Korea.

“Our mission is to reassure allies and our partners of our steadfast commitment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” Kilby wrote. “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.”

The Carl Vinson is the subject of controversy this week after the White House said last week it had sailed toward North Korea in order to provide a deterrent for Kim Jong-un’s scheduled missile test. A photo posted on Sunday showed the ship near Sumatra in the south Pacific, and reports surfaced Tuesday that it had sailed south instead of north when the White House made that statement.

The Vinson had been scheduled to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy, and it was announced that those exercises had been canceled. However, the Vinson took part in a shorter exercise with the Australian Navy before sailing toward North Korea.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the Pentagon was being intentionally vague about the location of the Vinson and it’s intended course in order to throw the North Koreans off. If that’s true, though, it’s unclear why the White House was apparently left out of the loop, or were they?

FILED UNDER: Asia, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Fake news.
    I’m very likely to trust anything and everything this administration says in the run-up to the war they are obviously intent on starting.

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    A Chinese news web site called the Vinson;

    “Schrodinger’s U.S. aircraft carrier.”

  3. Slugger says:

    I find the threat from NoK a bit incredible. Are they really planning a nuclear attack on the US? It seems that this is another grave threat that Serious People stroke their beards over and make our people wave flags to support our manly strong President. Perhaps the mission of the Vinson was to impress us and not just impress the North Koreans.

  4. Pete S says:

    It seems to me that somebody from among the group of Mattis/McMaster/Trump wanted the Vinson group dispatched to the Korean Peninsula and encountered resistance, leading them to announce that it was on its way. This makes everyone involved look stupid but announcing that the ships weren’t going after all would have been even worse. What a way to run a country.

  5. Hal_10000 says:

    Look, anyone can lose an aircraft carrier. It happens. There are just so many of those little plastic pieces in the Axis and Allies set Trump is using to plan his foreign policy.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    I think a rational military planner would have a strong objection to confining a deep sea task force in the narrow Sea of Japan (or as Koreans would have it – the East Sea).

  7. Scott says:

    I find it doubtful that the intelligence services of all the East Asia countries, including NK did not know exactly the status of the task force. The only ones fooled are the American people.

  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @JohnMcC: Shows what you know. Who said there were any rational military planners in the Trump cadre?

  9. dazedandconfused says:


    If I were the Sec of the Navy, I’d be thinking that if the Norks are as batshoot crazy as we must believe them to be in order to think they are likely to lob a couple nukes at America (f-yeah!!!), of all things, and that the Norks already have several deploy-able short range weapons, then it would be wiser to stand off a bit and let the only available target be the Wild Blue Yonder bases on the peninsula. Then, swoop in with boomers and flattops and win that war afterwards. Have to practice a deeply concerned look in the mirror when consoling all those fly-boy widows and mistresses at the ticker tape parade in Times Square, but that should be doable.

    Wrong direction..or right direction? Hmmmmm…..

  10. al-Alameda says:

    This was more Trump bluster.
    The existence of an American naval armada on the way to North Korea should easily be confirmed as the truth or, as we’re now accustomed to, a lie. Of course the lie is reported about a week late.

    Naturally, this was all reported in most ‘mainstream media’ as well as in the fevered 24/7 conservative media as Trump finally being “presidential.”

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @dazedandconfused: I see that you and I share an opinion of the quality of the general run of military leadership.