WASHINGTON -- If you watch cable news or follow the president’s Twitter feed, you might be under the impression that the U.S. is heading to war with North Korea. But somebody, it seems, forgot to loop in the U.S. military.
North Korea is threatening to launch missiles toward Guam; U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Friday morning that military options were “locked and loaded;” NBC News ran a story Wednesday claiming the U.S. had ”prepared a plan” to strike North Korean missile sites with B-1 bombers.
But while the rhetoric is nearing a fever pitch in D.C., out in the Pacific you’d never know the world was on the brink of nuclear war.
In Yokosuka, Japan, the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed ready aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sits peacefully pier-side, along with the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship Blue Ridge. On the Korean Peninsula, the State Department has not advised American citizens to leave the country and U.S. military family members are not being evacuated. No Marines are being loaded on amphibious ships; no sailors have been recalled off leave to prepare for emergency operations; and no ballistic missile defense ships have been sortied to North Korea, the waters off Japan or to Guam, three sources said.
The frenzied rhetoric being propelled by the president’s words and fed back by the news cycle is, for the second time this year, failing to match what’s actually happening, sources told Defense News.
Publicly, the U.S. military is saying that the United States maintains a high state of readiness to respond to any attacks.
“We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea,” Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said in a statement.
But privately, military and U.S. officials are hard-pressed to avoid a sense of déjà vu. In April, a confusing statement from U.S. 3rd Fleet about the carrier Carl Vinson led the news media and, it seemed, the White House to believe the ship was steaming full-speed toward North Korea to send a message.
A series of confusing statements from the Pentagon and the White House sent world leaders and the media into a frenzy that only abated after Defense News reported that the carrier was not headed to North Korea but was, in fact, thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean.
The current flare-up is the latest example of the war rhetoric far outpacing the facts on the ground, a U.S. official said on background Friday morning.
“This may come as a shock, but the rhetoric doesn't match reality,” a U.S. official said. ”[I’m] worried about a ‘Guns of August’ scenario, where we stumble into a conflict,” referring to the popular history book of World War I that argued the war happened because of a series of diplomatic miscues.
Out at U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM, the command that would lead any attack on North Korea, its situation normal, according to a source familiar who spoke on background.
“Nobody at PACOM is setting their hair on fire; its calm and professional,” the source said. ”It‘s really D.C. rhetoric that’s driving this whole thing.”
The latest war frenzy was kicked off by a story in the Washington Post on Aug. 8 that reported U.S. intelligence has concluded in a new assessment that North Korea had managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, a key step in being able to threaten the U.S. mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
That evening, Trump was asked about the report and responded by implying he would order military action if North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un continued with his bellicose rhetoric.
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters. “They will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”
B-1 bombers over Korea?
An example of the tensions surrounding Korea was on display Friday afternoon, when the Korean analyst community was paying careful attention to the flights of any B-1 Lancer bombers stationed as Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
An Aug. 9 statement from the North Korea KCNA newswire, a public mouthpiece for Pyongyang, specifically stated that the military is considering firing near Guam in order to “contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.”
While the B-1 Lancer is no longer nuclear capable, analysts who closely monitor KCNA statements believe the “strategic bomber” phrase here is a reference to the planes, and raised concerns that further B-1 flights might be seen as a trigger for North Korea to initiate another missile launch. The U.S. has flown B-1s near Korean airspace in the past as a show of force.
On Friday, tweets citing publicly available aviation data seemed to indicate a pair of B-1s were just returning from a run into South Korea. The timing of those flights coincided with video, released on the Pentagon-run DVIDs site, showing two B-1s taking off at Anderson and marked as having launched on Aug. 11, leading to a rash of questions about whether the U.S. had purposefully challenged North Korea on that issue.
However, a U.S. Air Force spokesperson said the B-1s have not flown missions over the Korean peninsula since Aug. 7, a day before Trump’s “fire and fury” comments helped ramp up tensions between the United States and North Korea.
“The B-1s at Andersen routinely fly a variety of mission profiles across the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” said Maj. Phil Ventura, a spokesman for Pacific Air Forces. “They did not fly any sorties yesterday from Andersen into Korean airspace. Last mission that fit that profile was the Aug 7 bilateral with Japanese and then Korean air forces.”
The episode highlighted the confusion surrounding a rapidly escalating crisis that has stunned veterans of the executive branch.
“We went from 0 to 100 miles per hour because somebody decided it was a good idea to tell the Washington Post about an ... intelligence assessment and the president reacted to the story in the media,” said one former Obama administration official who spoke on background.
What’s even more galling is that nothing has substantially changed in the situation with North Korea that would have precipitated the escalating rhetoric other than Trump’s reaction to a news report, the source said.
“We‘ve known for years that Kim Jong Un has sought to miniaturize nuclear warheads,” the source said. ”What we are seeing is how an echo-chamber of hyperbole can spin out of control to the point where the entire Korean Peninsula is on the edge of a nuclear crisis. That’s the power these leaks have now.”
Valerie Insinna and Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.