WASHINGTON — For more than a week, media reports in the U.S. and around Asia routinely have mentioned the approach of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson's carrier strike group, seemingly implying an attack on North Korea could be imminent. But a week after the U.S. announced the carrier and its escorts would leave Singapore, forego port calls in Australia and instead return to Korean waters, the carrier and its group had yet to head north.
Rather, the ships were actually operating several hundred miles south of Singapore, taking part in scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean.
On Saturday — according to photographs released by the U.S. Navy — the carrier passed north through the Sunda Strait, the passage between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. It's about 3,500 miles from Korea.
U.S. Navy officials in Pearl Harbor and Washington declined to comment on the ship's movements, other than to confirm the April 15 movement through the Sunda Strait. Off the record, several officials expressed wonderment at the persistent reports that the Vinson was already nearing Korea. "We've made no such statement," said one official.
Those same officials did not push back on reports that the Vinson would return to Korean waters, where the strike group operated for much of March as part of the annual U.S.-Korean Foal Eagle exercises. While declining to confirm a specific date, they did not dispute speculative media reports from South Korea that the strike group could be in the region by April 25 or so.
Officials did, however, flatly deny reports that three U.S. carrier strike groups were being directed to mass off the Korean peninsula in a few weeks.
Speculation has been rising that the Ronald Reagan and Nimitz strike groups could join with the Vinson. The Japan-based carrier Reagan, however, is in a maintenance period at Yokosuka scheduled to complete in May. The Bremerton, Washington-based Nimitz and her strike group is off Southern California, nearing the completion of its major pre-deployment exercise. The ship is scheduled to deploy this spring to relieve the Vinson in the Western Pacific.
The Vinson's return to Korea was ordered on April 8 by Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. On April 11, Defense Secretary James Mattis – having just met with Harris in Washington – noted that no specific incident prompted the order to curtail the exercise program and head north.
"She's stationed there in the western Pacific for a reason," Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. "She operates freely up and down the Pacific, and she's just on her way up there because that's where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There's not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we're sending her up there."