The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that the Trump administration had said was steaming toward North Korea was actually conducting exercises off the coast of Australia, a U.S. defense official acknowledged Tuesday.
The Navy announced April 9 that the USS Carl Vinson strike group, including the carrier and two guided missile destroyers, was ordered to “sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean.”
Following the Navy’s announcement, a U.S. official told Reuters the deployment of the group of ships was a “necessary” show of force because of North Korea’s recent behavior, which included a failed missile test. President Donald Trump went on to say the U.S. was “sending an armada” to counter the North Korean threat.
The move prompted a strong rebuke by North Korea, which told CNN in a statement that it would counter the "reckless acts of aggression" with "whatever methods the US wants to take."
But a Navy photograph posted online Saturday showed the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait near Indonesia, providing the first clues that the ship was not where many had reported.
The Carl Vinson strike group is currently off the northwest coast of Australia after conducting exercises with the Royal Australian Navy for the past three days and is heading north toward the Sea of Japan, the defense official said.
Defense News first reported that the ship was not near North Korea on Monday night. The Washington Post and New York Times also reported on the confusion, which The Times said stemmed from a “glitch-ridden sequence of events” that included a premature announcement of the deployment from the Navy and an incorrect statement from Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Mattis was asked directly about whether the deployment of the Carl Vinson strike group was intended as a “show of presence” to North Korea during a news conference a week ago.
“She’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time,” Mattis responded.
“I believe it’s because she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise, and that’s what became public. We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise,” he continued, though the Defense Department’s transcript was amended to note that a port visit to Australia, not the exercise with the Royal Australian Navy, was canceled.
The defense official was unsure whether the Navy had had any conversations with Mattis’ office or the Joint Staff following the mix-up, but said it was “not the Navy’s place” to speak with the White House about it.
The White House had no comment, referring questions to the Pentagon. The Pentagon directed all queries to U.S. Pacific Command, which did not immediately have a response.