No less a top official than President Trump himself had been saying over the past weeks that the strike group was deployed to the Korean Peninsula amid rising tensions with North Korea. “We are sending an armada, very powerful,” tweeted Trump, attempting to look strong in the face of increased military nuclear activities by North Korea.
The pronouncements about the dispatching of the vessels — comprising the large Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and several support vehicles — along with North Korean counter-threats worked to significantly ratchet up tensions.
Several regional countries, including North Korean ally China and adversary Japan, called for restraint. China even made an unprecedented offer to protect North Korea in the future if Pyongyang agreed to give up its military nuclear program, which had initially provided the pretext for hyped-up US rhetoric. China also suspended flights to Pyongyang.
To all of these countries and to observers the world over, war looked increasingly likely.
Except that it wasn’t.
On Monday, the US Navy raised eyebrows when it posted a photo of the Carl Vinson on its website with a caption that said the strike group was heading south through Sunda Strait near Indonesia to later take part in a joint drill with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean.
That would be more than 5,600 kilometers southwest of the Korean Peninsula, where US officials claimed the vessels had been dispatched to.
White House officials were subsequently contacted by the media for an explanation, but they declined to comment, referring all inquiries to the Defense Department, where, it came to light, officials had apparently been going ahead with a previously-scheduled mission for the strike group that would take it in the opposite direction.
A timely show of force that wasn't
The strike group, then in Singapore, had in fact been deployed toward the south — for the scheduled drill with Australia — rather than to the north, in the Western Pacific, where the Korean Peninsula is located.
Sailing toward the Indian Ocean meant that the strike group would be unavailable in the Korean Peninsula for another two weeks even as White House officials were saying that it had already headed for the peninsula. But Pentagon officials, apparently not given actual instructions to have the strike group sail to the peninsula ahead of schedule, did not reveal the current timetable, leaving everyone to think that the strike group was in fact heading to the Korean Peninsula as White House officials said it was.
Apart from President Trump, an array of other senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster and others, had been busy touting what they thought was a dispatch to the Korean Peninsula as a well-timed, strong signal to North Korea.
A lack of coordination also reportedly meant that the actual mission schedule of the strike group would remain unchanged for the time being. And, by the time the US president posted the “armada” tweet, and as tensions skyrocketed, the Pentagon officials established that revealing the actual timeline could complicate things, continuing to keep the schedule to themselves.
But the unwitting posting of the photo by the US Navy finally brought the timetable to light. And as the story has now unfolded, the US administration has taken corrective steps, ordering the strike group to head north toward the Korean Peninsula. The embarrassment is likely to persist, however.
Such confusion caused by a lack of coordinated policy has not been a new feature of the young Trump administration. It began before he took office, with a messy transition that continues to take its toll on governance. Infighting, firings, a failure to fill key cabinet positions, policy reversals, and a disregard for protocol have also all been constant features of the White House since Trump took over as president in January.
But the latest debacle involving the strike group, which came after all the ostensibly tough posturing against North Korea, may be the first to have taken ironic proportions.