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That 'Armada' Heading To North Korea? Actually, It Sailed South

An official photograph dated April 15 and posted by the Navy shows the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in an Indonesian strait thousands of miles south of North Korea.
MC2 Sean M. Castellano
U.S. Navy
An official photograph dated April 15 and posted by the Navy shows the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in an Indonesian strait thousands of miles south of North Korea.

The "armada" that President Trump said he was sending to deter North Korea still hasn't arrived — and it has thousands more miles to cover if it actually does sail to the Korean Peninsula.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group actually sailed south after U.S. Pacific Command announced April 8 that it was canceling the ships' planned visit to Australia and instead ordering them to "sail north and report on station to the Western Pacific Ocean."

The Navy posted an official photograph dated April 15 that showed the Carl Vinson in an Indonesian strait thousands of miles south of North Korea. The carrier and its companions could still make their way back to the Korean Peninsula, which they last visited in March, but U.S. defense officials generally decline to describe the deployments of American military units before the fact.

News organizations around the world, including NPR, covered the statements by Trump and other officials in Washington about the Carl Vinson's deployment as though the ships were bearing down on North Korea. The narrative last week was that the U.S. and its allies in the western Pacific were gearing up for a showdown with strongman Kim Jong Un ahead of the anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

"We are sending an armada, very powerful," Trump told Fox Business News, warning that Kim Jong Un "is doing the wrong thing."

Other nations were said to be joining in. News reports said Japan was planning to deploy its own destroyers to form up with the Carl Vinson and its U.S. escorts, the destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and Michael Murphy and the cruiser USS Lake Champlain.

That could still happen, but the potential flashpoint that many expected over the weekend has passed: North Korea attempted to fire a ballistic missile early Sunday, but it exploded very soon after launch. It did not conduct a nuclear weapons test or attempt an attack on South Korea or Japan, which might have prompted a military crisis.

Defense News' well-known naval correspondent Christopher P. Cavas was first to report Monday about the Navy's post that revealed the Carl Vinson nowhere near the Korean Peninsula.

It isn't clear yet whether the storyline about the Carl Vinson was the product of deliberate deception by the Navy, defense officials in Washington or the White House, or whether internal miscommunication within the government might have turned the snowball into the avalanche. But as part of its regular updates about the operations of the strike group after it sailed from Singapore, the Navy posted photos of ships and aircraft along with captions describing them as underway in "the South China Sea."

The South China Sea technically extends south of Singapore and flows among the islands that make up Indonesia before it becomes the Java Sea. So although the Navy's details might have been accurate, they never specified where in the South China Sea, or in which direction the ships were sailing.

NPR National Security Editor Philip Ewing answered questions about this story in a Facebook Live video. Watch it here:

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.