The head of all U.S. forces in the Pacific canceled a planned carrier exercises and port visits in Australia and redirected the Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean Peninsula as the U.S. weighs a series of limited options for dealing with an increasingly unbalanced and dangerous North Korean regime.
In a release Saturday afternoon, U.S. Pacific Command announced the cancellation and redeployment of Vinson. Announcing carrier movements in advance is rare, and generally done to send a clear message.
"Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, has directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April 8," the release said.
"Carl Vinson Strike Group, including Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 2, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) and USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112), and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia."
The release does not specifically mention North Korea, but two defense officials who spoke to Navy Times Sunday said the move is designed to send a message to North Korea and to increasingly nervous allies such as Japan and South Korea that the U.S. is ready to defend them.
"It’s designed to send a message to our allies and all the nations in the region," one official said. "With Vinson comes a lot of options for leadership."
The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has launched about half a dozen missiles since President Trump took office in January, which is seen as a test of the new administration.
The rising threat has prompted the U.S. and South Korean governments to agree to deploy the
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, designed to shoot down some missiles, over strenuous Chinese opposition and widespread anxiety over the move in South Korea itself. North Korea's missiles are already capable for striking many key U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea.
Experts warn that the tests show North Korea is getting closer to its goal of producing a nuclear-tipped rocket able to reach the United States, and that they are working on solid-state rocket fuel that can enable a launch with very short notice. Many see that as an unacceptable situation. The Trump administration has been floating the possibility of preemptive strikes, but China is pushing the U.S. to engage in direct diplomacy with Kim's government to try and get them to halt their development.
The strike group brings with it a ton of firepower, including the strike- and air-combat capabilities of the Hornets, early warning radars, electronic-warfare capabilities and more than 300 missile tubes on the carrier’s escorts.
The Trump administration is pleased with the Navy and the Pentagon, generally, in the wake of the limited strike on Syria, launched as punishment for breaking a 2013 agreement with the Obama administration to scrap all chemical weapons, according to one defense official with knowledge of the discussions between the White House and Pentagon.
Trump was moved to action by horrific images of children gassed to death by sarin gas, which the Pentagon said was launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, according to the White House and multiple media reports.
Trump views North Korea as the biggest threat to peace in the world, and several officials who have spoken to Navy Times in recent weeks said the Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command has been sharpening plans for military strikes on the North as an option should the administration want to pursue that action.
The risks of such a strike, however, are enormous. Even if the U.S. managed to eliminate North Korea’s nukes, the South Korean capital of Seoul is in range of North Korean long-range artillery. Furthermore, some defense officials, including former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, have said that a punitive strike from the U.S. could trigger an invasion of the south by North Korea's force of more than a million soldiers.
That would mean an all-out regional conflict that would bring the U.S. and its allies head-to-head with not only North Korea, but perhaps with China, which has an interest in keeping the Kim dynasty in power. The crisis was almost certainly discussed over the weekend when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Trump at his Florida retreat at Mar-a-Lago.
Experts said the move to send a carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula is a smart one in the wake of the strike in Syria, but that policymakers shouldn't get too carried away in thinking that it fundamentally changed Kim Jong Un's calculus.
"During the Clinton administration, when he ordered missile strikes on Iraq and then on Sudan and Afghanistan, far from being seen as a sign of American strength, over time it was seen as a sign of American timidity and its unwillingness to commit ground troops," said Michael O'Hanlon, an influential analyst with the Brookings Institution. "It's really important that we not start beating our chest over one strike."
O'Hanlon said moving the carrier was a good idea but that Kim might just wait until the carrier leaves and begin strikes again. A better move would be to set clear markers for the Kim regime, letting them know what the U.S. intends to do if it, for example, intends to launch a long-range ballistic missile. A limited strike on a missile before it launches or shooting down a missile after it launches and while its still in the boost phase is an option that has the potential to impact Kim's decision making without triggering a wider conflict.
Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the move on the heels of the Syrian strike should send a message to the allies and the North Koreans that, after years of perceived U.S. unwillingness to overly entangle itself in foreign conflicts, the U.S. is moving back to a more assertive role.
"It's a well-timed move," Clark said. "We obviously don't have the ability to strike their nuclear facilities, they are buried deep underground, but we can go after the missiles themselves while they are fueling. It's a signal to the North Koreans that we will, for the time being, have the ability to attack those facilities."