Battleship! (Updated)

Battleship board gameYou’ve played battleship, right? Aircraft carriers are today’s battleships, and we’re all in the game, trying to guess where they are.

Earlier this month—the 5th of April, a day before we struck Syria—I questioned reports saying an American aircraft carrier was on its way to strike North Korea. People were getting worked up: some were saying the Pacific Fleet was mobilizing for war; others that San Diego was a ghost town, every ship and sub having suddenly sailed for WESTPAC.

I didn’t buy it. Anything on that scale would be all over the news, so I did some checking. The USS Carl Vinson and its carrier group had in fact been in Korean waters, participating in annual US/South Korean military exercises. At the time, though, the Vinson was in port in Singapore, getting ready to sail south to Australia. Additionally, two US Navy destroyers had recently deployed from San Diego to WESTPAC. It all sounded pretty normal to me … we almost always have a carrier group in that part of the world, and if you were planning war with North Korea you’d need more than a couple of additional destroyers.

The next day we hit the Syrian air base with cruise missiles, and a day or two after that Trump administration officials announced the Vinson was deploying back to Korea, its port call in Australia suspended or postponed.

Now it transpires the Vinson didn’t sail north at all. It’s currently on its way to the Indian Ocean and the originally scheduled port call in Australia. The story about sailing back to Korea? Fake news.

Interestingly, just before Trump took office in January, all ten US Navy carriers were in port, an unprecedented move apparently orchestrated by the Obama administration. This was never explained. Nor has the Trump administration explained how it intends to use our carriers … nor should it. We are free to speculate, of course, and many (including me) are doing just that.

A military watchdog group called tracks the current location of US Navy carriers and task forces. As best I can tell the information presented here is accurate and up to date, and there’s nothing to indicate any kind of mobilization or heightened readiness. As for WESTPAC, the Vinson (as we now know) is sailing south to the Indian Ocean and Australia, and the USS Reagan is at its home port of Yokosuka, Japan.

It’s odd the USS Reagan hasn’t been part of this story. Yokosuka is headquarters of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, home port to an American aircraft carrier. When I was flying out of Okinawa in the late 1980s and early 90s, it was the USS Independence. Today it’s the USS Reagan. North Korea is one of the primary reasons we keep a carrier at Yokosuka.

So what’s going on? Gunboat diplomacy? Nobody in charge? Three-dimensional chess? Who knows? Presumably, nations with military surveillance satellites knew all along the Vinson story was a head-fake. That would include Russia and China, which surely would have kept Kim Jong Un informed.

Last night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow asked an interesting question: did the Trump administration believe its own fake news about ordering the USS Carl Vinson back to Korea? Put another way, did US military commanders countermand orders from the president and secretary of defense?

Wow, that didn’t occur to me at all. It’s pretty much the last thing I would have thought. Although … based on information previously and widely reported, the Pentagon did refuse to go along with Trump when he wanted to turn the inauguration into a North Korean-style parade of military might, with ranks of tanks and missile launchers rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue while jets and bombers streaked overhead. And who knows what kind of strike Trump originally wanted the military to launch against Syria? Maybe the Joint Chiefs talked him down, and the cruise missile attack was a watered-down compromise.

During the campaign Trump asked a senior advisor why, if we have nuclear weapons, we can’t use them, which at the very least suggests a willingness on his part to press the button. I’ve always believed that as long as our country was not being physically attacked by an enemy, military leadership would refuse to go nuclear, whether the orders came from Trump or any other president (as when Alexander Haig ordered military commanders to check with him first if Nixon, in the last chaotic drunken days of his presidency, ordered the use of nuclear weapons).

Maybe Rachel’s question is valid. Maybe not. Probably not. I do think the military would balk if Trump ordered something truly crazy. Ordering an aircraft carrier group into Korean waters is not crazy at all, and if in fact Trump had ordered the Navy to do it, I can’t imagine any military resistance. They would have done it. So the false story about the Vinson must have been intentional.

The question remains, though, why? If Kim Jong Un knew all along the Vinson wasn’t really headed his way (as mentioned, China and Russia would have been tracking its movements and would likely have kept him informed), then what was the point of rattling that particular saber? Hitting the Syrian air base and dropping a big bomb in Afghanistan were real things, more than enough to send a message to the Norks. Why make up an easily fact-checked story about the movements of an aircraft carrier task force?

I don’t get it. And I don’t think Rachel Maddow gets it either, but I’m glad she asked the question, because it’s something we … and especially our military leaders … need to think about.

Update (two hours later): Of course it’s also possible (maybe more than possible given what we know about Trump administration dysfunction) that no one thought to order the Navy to re-task the Vinson. Perhaps Trump and his skeleton staff on the National Security Council thought if they publicly talked about it the Navy would take the hint. And the Navy, absent orders to change its plans, kept mum because they thought the president was pulling a fast one on the North Koreans. In other words, a cock-up. That’s what Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo seems to think, and it’s as good a guess as any.

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