The Mysterious Case of the Wayward Aircraft Carrier

This is a dangerous way for the world’s most powerful military to operate.

USS Carl Vinson
The USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea on April 8.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matt Brown/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

There is a sobering reality beyond this week’s strange “Where’s Waldo?” story of the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group: For a period of time, significant confusion existed as to the location of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, one of the most potent weapons in the American arsenal, at a moment of high tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Although not (yet) a major crisis, this incident portends deep problems with the White House, its chain of command, and its approach to national security. At best, The Vinson episode suggests policy gaps between the president and his top military advisers over how to act toward North Korea. Worse, it appears the president has not firmly established control over the chain of command—or that he possibly overdelegated authority to his generals and admirals. Further, this incident sends deeply disturbing signals to allies and adversaries regarding the president’s control over the military and the credibility of his statements, diluting the deterrent value of American words and actions.

Let’s start with two fundamental premises of U.S. civil-military relations. First, the president is the elected commander in chief of the military; short of declaring war, he has the power to order military deployments and operations, and be held politically accountable for them. Second, the president ought to know with accuracy the locations and readiness of major U.S. military assets, and have the ability to command those forces as needed to protect the country.

Any departure from these norms stands out as potentially threatening to national security. When, in 2007, the Air Force lost track of nuclear weapons and inadvertently allowed them to fly over the continental United States mounted on a bomber, then–Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightfully saw the incident as an abomination and fired the Air Force leadership.

In the case of the Vinson, any movement toward similar accountability starts in a complete muddle. Did President Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer deliberately mislead the public with their statements about the carrier’s whereabouts? Were they misinformed by the Pentagon? Or were they carelessly freelancing with their comments to be more bellicose toward Korea? Any of these scenarios is fraught with peril; all depart from established norms of civil-military relations that dictate the president speak with authority and accuracy about the military forces he commands. It’s also unclear who, exactly, ordered the Vinson and its battle group to steam toward North Korea, let alone whether that was fully coordinated with the Pentagon or other parts of the government.

One possibility is that U.S. Pacific Command, led by Adm. Harry Harris, ordered the Vinson maneuvers to create options for the White House in anticipation of a tougher policy on Korea. The sequence of events bears this out, given that Harris’ announcement preceded any notice from the White House or Pentagon, suggesting there was little coordination in advance. This accords with the general hawkishness of Pacific Command on issues relating to China and North Korea—hawkishness which differed greatly from the Obama administration. This scenario would align with President Trump’s recent aloofness toward his role in the chain of command, as well as the preferences of top advisers like Steve Bannon and H.R. McMaster, who, respectively, want to “de-operationalize” the National Security Council and implement a “mission command” style of direction for the military. The recent delegation of authority to commanders overseeing the Afghanistan war—who, in turn, decided to drop the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” bomb in ISIS fighters near the Afghanistan–Pakistan border—fits this pattern as well.

A second possibility is that the Trump administration, perhaps led by Defense Secretary James Mattis, ordered the carrier move. If so, this does not represent a civil-military relations problem per se; ordering around aircraft carriers is unquestionably a presidential prerogative. However, it does highlight weaknesses in the White House’s competence and expertise in the use of military force. The disconnects between the White House and Pentagon statements suggest a lack of close coordination, much less any substantive follow-up such as complementary movement of air and ground forces. (Although troop movements are generally kept classified, significant moves like these are hard to conceal, and they are often publicized because there is greater deterrent value in making such moves openly.) This lack of coordination isn’t helped by the unfilled appointments throughout the Trump administration, nor the infancy of the administration itself, which makes the whole enterprise function as something less than a “fine-tuned machine.”

Similarly, it’s unclear whether McMaster or Mattis fully played out the scenario surrounding the Vinson’s dispatch and the potential commitment of two other carriers to the waters near Korea. Sending three carriers to the Western Pacific deprives the Navy—with its 11 total carriers—of the ability to rotate carriers through other missions, including support for the actual wars being fought in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan. Just as the Army and Marines surged in Iraq and Afghanistan during tough fighting periods, so too can the Navy surge its carrier groups in a crisis—but it cannot maintain this posture indefinitely. And although President Trump pledged to build a larger Navy during the campaign, he can’t build one overnight, or possibly even during his presidency. Trump’s impulsive and seemingly uncoordinated commitment of a carrier here could constrain his options for years to come.

The Vinson episode also illustrates, once again, how questions about the president’s truthfulness can have adverse strategic consequences. Our friends and allies, including South Korea, can hardly take comfort in knowing the American cavalry is coming when the administration speaks so cavalierly. Conversely, America’s adversaries listen to every presidential word—whether he wants to be taken literally or not. They also check those words against their intelligence, gathered via their own satellites, spies, and other means. The Russians and Chinese watch the Vinson’s movements closely and surely noticed the gap between the statements from Pacific Command, the Pentagon, and the White House. Bluffing works in statecraft, but only when your opponent can’t see your cards. In Moscow and Beijing, President Trump’s word now carries less force because he has devalued it by making statements that are demonstrably untrue about the deployment of American military forces.

If the current tension with North Korea resolves on its own, the curious case of the wayward carrier may not matter much. But if we are indeed headed for a major crisis like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1994 showdown with North Korea over nukes, then it matters greatly that the White House, Pentagon, and Pacific Command are marching to the beats of separate drummers. Imagine if, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the military had inadvertently moved forces in Europe to create options for the Kennedy administration or otherwise signaled hostile intent to the Soviets. That crisis might have ended far differently, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The presidency’s national security responsibilities are too complex to be handled like a family real-estate business or reality television show. President Trump and his advisers need to communicate much more clearly with each other, and he must personally exercise greater control over the forces he commands, or else his presidency (and possibly the world) will end in disaster.