BEIJING — It was supposed to be steaming toward North Korea more than a week ago, an "armada" signaling American resolve. Then it wasn't.
Now, it seems the USS Carl Vinson may finally be heading north.
"Our deployment has been extended 30 days to provide a persistent presence in the waters off the Korean Peninsula," Rear Adm. Jim Kilby, the commander of Carrier Strike Group One, said in a message posted on the Carl Vinson's Facebook page addressed to "families and loved ones" of the personnel on board.
The Carl Vinson, accompanied by a carrier air wing, two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser, was supposed to have been ordered to sail north after leaving Singapore on April 8. But a week later, the Navy published photos showing it was actually sailing the opposite direction through the Sunda Strait between the Indonesia islands of Sumatra and Java, more than 3,000 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula — and more than 500 miles southeast of Singapore.
The White House is now facing questions about why it was not clear about the carrier group's whereabouts. Several times over the the last two weeks, the Trump administration said the ships were heading north.
On April 9, Adm. Harry Harris said the carrier strike group was headed north to the Western Pacific after departing Singapore on April 8. A spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Command linked the move directly to North Korea's "reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."
Days later, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters the Carl Vinson was "on her way up there." In an interview that aired April 12, President Trump said the U.S. was sending ships. "An armada, very powerful," he said.
It is not clear why the carrier strike group never left Southeast Asia, or why the Trump administration did not clarify where she was. On Tuesday, Pacific Command said only that the strike group completed military exercises — and would now head north.
"After departing Singapore on April 8 and cancelling a scheduled port visit to Perth, the Strike Group was able to complete a curtailed period of previously scheduled training with Australia in international waters off the northwest coast of Australia," a U.S. Pacific Command spokesperson said in a statement. "The Carl Vinson Strike Group is heading north to the Western Pacific as a prudent measure."
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mattis said Wednesday: "The bottom line is in our effort to always be open about what we were doing we said that we that we were going to change the Vinson's upcoming schedule. The Vinson, as I said on the record, was operating up and down the Western Pacific and we were doing exactly what we said. That is we were shifting her.
"We don't generally give out ship schedules in advance but I didn't want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had. So were doing exactly what we said we were going to do, she will be on her way and I'll determine when she gets there and where she actually operates, but the Vinson will be a part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the northwest Pacific."
Both U.S. and South Korean media have reported that the Vinson is now expected to arrive in waters off the Korean peninsula by April 25, just as North Korea marks the anniversary of its army's founding.
"Our mission is to reassure allies and our partners of our steadfast commitment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region," Kilby wrote. "We will continue to be the centerpiece of visible maritime deterrence, providing our national command authority with flexible deterrent options, all domain access, and a visible forward presence."
China, meanwhile, is feeling anything but reassured, warning recently that "a storm is about to break" over the divided Korean Peninsula.
Beijing, long considered North Korea's last remaining ally, has stepped up its criticism of Pyongyang. At a daily Foreign Ministry briefing on Friday, minisry spokesman Lu Kang reiterated the Chinese side's "serious concern" about "recent trends about North Korea's nuclear and missile development."