The Trump administration has left foreign policy analysts with no shortage of odd situations to scrutinize. The latest, however, was both particularly dangerous and a head-scratcher.
On April 8, U.S. Pacific Command released a press release noting that the Carl Vinson Strike Group, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, would “sail north” from Singapore to report to the Western Pacific. In the ensuing days. One thing led to another and that press release was mangled as it got picked up by the press, leading to reports that the United States had dispatched a carrier group to the Korean peninsula, all while tensions ran hot in anticipation of a North Korean nuclear test on or around April 15, the country’s most important public holiday.
It wasn’t until April 17, when Defense News‘ Chris Cavas published this important reality-check, that we learned the Vinson strike group was 3,500 miles south of the Korean peninsula all along, in the Tsunda Strait.
The press, however, wasn’t alone in drumming up the carrier strike group’s northbound journey. Trump, in an interview on Fox Business Network, remarked that the United States was “sending an armada” to the Korean peninsula when asked about the deployment. Maria Bartiromo, the Fox anchor, told Trump: “You redirected Navy ships to go toward the Korean peninsula. What are we doing right now on North Korea?”
Trump, slightly caught off guard, simply said, “You never know!” Gathering himself, he continued that “I don’t talk about the military,” going into his usual spiel against the Obama administration, which, in his view, was overly talkative about planned military operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, Trump threw fuel on the fire when he declared:
We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this, he is doing the wrong thing.
Trump wasn’t the only one in his administration seemingly confused about the deployment of the Vinson strike group. His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, had an opportunity to clarify the Vinson’s movements when a reporter asked about the Vinson strike group being “redirected towards the Sea of Japan in the coming weeks.” Mattis, instead, was rather noncommital, simply noting that the carrier was “on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”
Nothing Mattis said was actually inaccurate. The latest reporting in the past 24 hours has seen U.S. officials confirm that while the April 8 Pacific Command statement simply referred to the Vinson’s eventual movement to the Western Pacific, the carrier strike group will still eventually head to waters near the Korean peninsula.
In the end, this all seemed to be a uniquely Trumpian failure of strategic communications. The New York Times cited Pentagon officials who noted that the government made no effort to walk back the media reports given that Trump had chosen to play up the “armada.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer also alluded to the Vinson strike group’s operations in the Sea of Japan falsely as well.
What ultimately makes the entire episode even more bizarre is that the North Koreans bought the story and assumed that the U.S. carrier strike group was either on its way to Korean peninsula waters or was already there. An April 13 report in North Korea’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) cited a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson who noted that the “repeated dispatch of the Carl Vinson carrier strike group shows that the U.S. aggressive scheme has entered the risky practical stage.”
The article continued that the statement came “after the U.S. urgently sent a nuclear carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula waters.”
That the North Koreans took the broader misreporting of the PACOM statement (and Trump’s remarks) seriously should be concerning. Long before Trump was on the scene, Pyongyang believed that the United States and South Korea would look to launch a surprise attack to ‘decapitate’ the regime; this is part of why North Korea loudly protests annual U.S.-South Korea exercises. Given the particularly high tensions of late, North Korea took reports that the U.S. had dispatched a second carrier to Northeast Asian waters (in addition to the permanently forward-deployed USS Ronald Reagan very seriously.)
In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that North Korea’s failed April 16 missile launch may have been partly undertaken with the intent of signaling its capabilities against the carrier strike group. Consider that North Korea’s April 5 exercise came 48 hours after the United States, South Korea, and Japan held anti-submarine drills in the East China Sea, off South Korea’s Jeju Island.
As I observed yesterday, North Korea appeared to have tested a new anti-ship ballistic missile on both April 5 and April 16. While it’s impossible to ascribe intent with any certainty and North Korea tests new missiles for technical reasons primarily, any signaling effect to the United States and South Korea is likely taken as a nice bonus side-effect. The April 5 signal was no doubt received, but on April 16, there was no carrier group around to receive the signal, alas. Incidentally, that North Korea couldn’t determine if a U.S. carrier was present in the East Sea on its own doesn’t speak well to its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities — something that it would want if it’s serious about pursuing a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile capability.
So, what then are the takeaways from this episode?
First, this is not good deterrence practice. For all of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s huffing and puffing at the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) about Trump’s resolve, Trump’s missing “armada” reveals — to be quite blunt — simply incompetence. Is there a prescription to patch this? Well, Trump could begin filling key posts at the Pentagon with appointees that may keep him up-to-date on carrier movements, for instance. If the “three Cs” of deterrence used to counsel that leaders should “communicate capabilities credibly,” the Trump administration merits a “fourth C,” as MIT’s Vipin Narang suggested on Twitter: competently communicate capabilities credibly.
Such basic incompetence, combined with broader concerns about the Trump administration’s thresholds for the use of force after a sudden about-face on Syria policy leading to dramatic cruise missile strikes earlier in April, will sow concern among allies. Adversaries, meanwhile, will come to wonder if the Trump administration’s messaging on any matter can be taken seriously if the president of the United States himself can be goaded into manufacturing a carrier strike group’s trajectory by a leading question in an interview.
Second, what does it tell us that North Korea, between April 8 and April 17, was ostensibly operating on the assumption that a U.S. supercarrier was potentially steaming toward its shores to ready-up a potential U.S.-led preemptive strike on the basis of nothing but media reports? Foreign intelligence agencies bemoan the difficulty of extracting useful intelligence out of North Korea, but Pyongyang too is limited in its ability to glean what its adversaries are up to, often relying on open sources itself to guide action.
Third, if the stakes here weren’t ultimately nuclear war, there is some humor to be found in all this. Trump boasted of a U.S. armada without presumably appreciating the fate of the Spanish armada in 1588. North Korea may have hastily pushed ahead with a test of its new Scud-derived ASBM because of media misinterpretation of a PACOM statement. If nothing, we have an unfortunate case study in the salience of bounded rationality in decision-making.