US admiral in hot seat at hearing takes the blame for the Vinson carrier location flap

Key Points
  • U.S. military's Pacific Command chief testified to House panel that the miscommunication was "my fault"
  • Admiral said USS Carl Vinson today sits within 'striking range and power projection range of North Korea if called upon to do that.'
  • The senior officer also expressed concern about U.S. military stockpiles of critical munitions generally running low.
The Nimitz-class U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Philippine Sea while conducting a bilateral exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force April 23, 2017.
U.S. Navy | Z.A. Landers | Reuters

The U.S. military's top Pacific chief was in the hot seat Wednesday at a House hearing and took the blame for apparent miscommunication over the USS Carl Vinson carrier's movements amid the rising tensions with North Korea.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump said in an interview the military was sending "an armada" to the Korean Peninsula and reports at the time indicated the carrier strike group was led by the Vinson. But as tensions mounted with North Korea over the nuclear and ballistic-missile threat, it was learned last week from a New York Times story the Vinson was actually headed in another direction and not toward Korean waters.

"With regard to the Carl Vinson, that's my fault on the confusion and I'll take the hit for it," Navy Adm. Harry Harris, the four-star commander of U.S. Pacific Command, testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services.

Harris explained that he made the decision to pull the aircraft carrier out of Singapore and cancel a port visit to Australia. He also ordered the carrier to proceed north. However, he said, he failed to communicate that adequately to the press. "So that is all on me."

The flap over the Vinson led to charges the Trump administration used the Vinson as just a "bluff" against Pyongyang. South Korean's Yonhap news agency ran a story with a headline, "Trump's 'armada' gaffe stains his commitment to alliance."

White House spokesman Sean Spicer was asked last week about the Vinson issue and insisted there was no intent to mislead. Harris, however, didn't explain the disconnect with the White House over the matter.

The admiral said the military has since moved the Vinson closer to the region to handle a Korean mission.

"Today it sits in the Philippine Sea, just east of Okinawa and [within] striking range and power projection range of North Korea if called upon to do that," Harris said.

Harris was pressed on the carrier mess by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-California), a member of the House Committee on Armed Services. "When dealing with an unpredictable regime [like North Korea], empty rhetoric can be dangerous," the congressman remarked.

Meantime, Harris also said the USS Michigan, a guided-missile nuclear submarine, is now in South Korea's Busan port and will be there for a few days and then will leave port and be operating within the area. "This is a show of solidarity with our South Korean allies and a flexible deterrent show of force to North Korea should they consider using force against South Korea."

From the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. early Wednesday launched an operational test of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg AFB in California. The test also was seen as a demonstration to North Korea of the U.S. nuclear deterrent capability.

Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Pyongyang regime's ruling party, Wednesday "denounced the U.S. for getting all the more zealous in its war hysteria against the DPRK." DPRK is short for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The U.S. military's Pacific chief testified at the House hearing Wednesday that North Korea's nuclear program poses a bigger threat than ever but China, despite offering to help, remains a formidable adversary with island-building and increased militarization.

"North Korea remains our most immediate threat in the Indo-Asia-Pacific," he said.

Harris said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is "on a quest for nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them intercontinentally. The words and actions of North Korea threaten the U.S. homeland and that of our allies in South Korea and Japan."

North Koreans have "an aggressive weapons test schedule, as demonstrated by yet another ballistic missile launch this April," the admiral said. He added that the regime launched more ballistic missiles last year than it did in the previous few years combined.

"Just as Thomas Edison is believed to have failed 1,000 times before successfully inventing the electric light bulb, so too, Kim Jong Un will keep trying," he said. "One of these days soon, he will succeed."

Harris said the concern isn't just land-based missile technology but submarine weapons the North Koreans are developing. Moreover, he indicated that solid-fuel advances by Pyongyang also are troubling.

"Aggressive rhetoric since the New Year strongly suggests North Korea will not only continue to test these proscribed systems, but is also likely to attempt a first launch of a similarly prohibited intercontinental ballistic missile," he added.

That said, the military's Pacific chief said the North Korean leader's "strategic capabilities are not yet an existential threat to the U.S., but if left unchecked, he will gain the capability to match his rhetoric. At that point, we will wake up to a new world."

Harris in his testimony said North Korea's existing conventional capabilities are today "a significant threat" to both allies in the region as well as the 90,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Western Pacific.

Yet while the North Korea threat has the U.S. military on alert, the admiral expressed concern that the stockpiles of armaments are generally lower than it should be.

Specifically, he said the military was running low on critical munitions such as small bombs and anti-air warfare weapons used by fighter aircraft.

"These are not exciting kinds of weapons," Harris said. "But they are absolutely critical to what we're trying to do, not only against North Korea but also in the fights in the Middle East."

Harris also expressed concern that the military's attack submarine fleet is lower in numbers than it should be and that more vessels need to be built to strengthen the Navy's deterrent capabilities.

"Submarine numbers are low and getting smaller," he said. The Pacific chief said the Navy can only meet 50 percent of his stated requirement for attack submarines.

As for China, Harris said, Beijing has made significant gains in military capability and also militarized the South China Sea through the building of seven military bases on artificial islands.

"China's military modernization cannot be understated, especially when we consider the communist regime's lack of transparency and apparent strategy," he said. "China is committed to developing a hypersonic glide weapon and advanced cyber and anti-satellite capabilities that present direct threats to the homeland."

At the same time, Harris said the Russians are "modernizing its military and once again exercising its conventional forces and nuclear strike capabilities in the Pacific, which also threaten the homeland."

Harris also said the Russians continue to demonstrate "increasingly aggressive behavior, both regionally and globally. Nuclear-capable bombers continue to fly missions focused on rehearsing strikes on the U.S. mainland or regional targets."

Indeed, there were at least four instances in the past week of Russian bombers flying in international airspace and approaching the Alaska coast. Prior to that, the last time there was a long-range Russian bomber off the Alaska coast was back in 2015.