The background is simple saber-rattling. The fallout is ultimately more complex.
A few weeks ago, the Trump administration ordered the aircraft carrier battle group commanded by the USS Carl Vinson to the Sea of Japan as a warning to North Korea about their potential nuclear and missile tests. But follow up reporting by several news agencies found photos later of the ship in the area of Indonesia, nearly 3500 miles from where the administration had announced it had ordered it to travel.
It seems that the Carl Vinson had been previously scheduled to participate in maneuvers with the Australian Navy in the theater of the Indian Ocean. There is some confusion, however, as to whether the Carl Vinson and its accompanying missile cruiser and destroyers ever turned around, or just continued steaming toward their planned games.
The fundamental problem here is not just whether the truth was being told about where one of the most powerful weapons systems in the American arsenal was, but whether there is a breakdown in the chain of command between the civilian government at the White House, and the military at the Pentagon. No one is clear if the President actually ordered the Vinson and its accompanying ships to the Sea of Japan through channels, or simply tweeted it, either as a diversion or because he thought it would make it happen. And if the order was made through official channels, was there a misfire of communication, or was the order simply ignored?
All of these potential scenarios, one of which had to happen, are potential disasters. Did the President and his communications team mislead the public, or were they the ones misled? The Pacific Command at the Navy is notoriously bellicose when it comes to China and North Korea, even during the Obama administration.
This also leads to questions about coordination at the Pentagon with the lack of a clear leadership at the top. With eleven carrier battle groups around the world, it is strategically vital that we keep those ships on schedule, especially to rotate out those groups engaging in our active wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
One belief is that Admiral Harry Harris in charge of US Pacific command ordered the change in direction without White House approval in anticipation of a more antagonistic approach to North Korea, something he appears to have been in favor of in the past. The White House then offered tacit agreement and rolled with it in public.
Another idea is that the President ordered the move through the Defense Secretary, which would not represent a problem, other than the potential that politics is playing a role in affecting military readiness. Also, no other branch of the military responded accordingly by moving around their own resources to compensate, with is standard operating procedure. This suggests a lack of coordination.
One of the greatest consequences is whether our strategic allies like Japan and South Korea can count on us to follow through with our promise of having their back against aggressive moves by North Korea or China.
Even more fearful, however, is the scattered approach and lack of communication and coordination between different branches and agencies. This does not bode well should a real crisis erupt that is more than just saber rattling. It raises serious questions about whether this President’s penchant for loyalty over competence is going to cost the entire nation, if not the entire world, in the near future.