At this moment, Carrier Strike Group 1 of the U.S. Navy, led by the USS Carl Vinson, was supposed to be sailing from Singapore to Australia. Instead, it is sailing toward the Korean peninsula, headed for the Sea of Japan. On Sunday, around the same time the Carl Vinson arrives at its destination, Vice President Pence will land in Seoul to begin his ten-day visit to Asia.
President Trump’s strategy for countering North Korea’s ballistic-missile threat is thus evolving before our eyes.
First off, it’s important to note the downside of Strike Group 1’s diversion: It means the abandonment of group’s previously planned Australian port call. Australia is a top U.S. ally whom the Pentagon wants to expand its military presence in the Pacific. Sending a carrier fleet to Australia is a good way to help advance that agenda. After all, when its carriers come to town, the U.S. Navy puts on a big show for foreign dignitaries, and provides a career highlight for young sailors. So there are costs — diplomatic and financial — to Strike Group 1’s diversion. If it were simply a calculated show of force, it might not justify those costs. Yet it is something more than that.
For a start, Carl Vinson’s trip to Korea means traversing some interesting waters. Its most efficient route would have it passing directly between the Paracel and Spratly island chains of the South China Sea. China sees the militarization of those islands as the means to control vast regional trade flows and thus dominate the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Correspondingly, a U.S. carrier strike group in those waters will infuriate Beijing.
Trump — or at least defense secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — know this. And they know message that Strike Group 1’s diversion will send the Chinese: “Pressure North Korea with economic or political restrictions, or you can expect the U.S. to get in your face.” It’s a clever move insofar as it anticipates China’s geostrategic thinking: Beijing believes everything should be on the table in negotiations, but it also values respect alongside perceived strength. The Vinson’sdiversion thus joins a stick to the carrot Trump just offered President Xi Jinping by warmly welcoming him at Mar-a-Lago last week.
Still, I don’t think this is just about sending a message. It also significantly strengthens American military capabilities vis-à-vis North Korea. Carl Vinson’s embarked Carrier Air Wing brings a potent array of strike capabilities to supplement America’s already-considerable regional assets, which include a squadron of B-1 bombers deployed to Guam and multi-role fighter squadrons based in Japan and South Korea. What’s more, the U.S. Navy has other carriers that could be deployed to Korea on short notice. The USS Nimitz is currently completing final-stage deployment qualifications off the coast of California, and the USS Ronald Reagan, whose home port is in Japan, should complete scheduled maintenance work next month.
As it sails north, the Carl Vinson will remain under 3rd Fleet command. That’s important, because the 3rd Fleet (headquartered in San Diego) traditionally operates east of the International Date Line, while the 7th Fleet (headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan) covers the area to the west of the line. This suggests that the Vinson’s diversion could have the added objective of emphasizing the importance of China and North Korea to the 3rd Fleet’s operations and planning staff. In the event of a conflict in the South Pacific, the added experience could come in handy.
Which is not to say that a conflict appears imminent, or even likely. For one thing, in light of other threats to American security, the Navy’s current emergency-standby carrier group, whose flagship is the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, remains in the Atlantic. For another, the Trump administration must understand that any strike designed to weaken or cripple North Korea’s ballistic-missile capabilities would risk retaliation against the South. So diplomacy remains pivotal. But, to paraphrase Mao, we’re seeing the practice of American diplomatic power through the barrel of many American guns.
The bottom line is that the Pentagon has resolved to enhance Trump’s options. The North Korean nuclear threat has long required a new doctrinal U.S. response. Fortunately, that response now seems to be taking shape.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for Opportunity Lives and National Review, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Email him at Thomas.RoganE@Gmail.com
Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that the U.S. 7th Fleet is headquartered in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It is headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan.