So, it’s the Navy’s fault that the U.S.-North Korea spat has gone so far?
That’s the apparent message from senior administration officials who, according to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, said that they had long planned to send B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers, and F-22 fighters to the Korean Peninsula as part of preplanned wargames with South Korea, but that they had not planned the recent deployment of Navy destroyers.
Last weekend, the U.S. ordered two guided-missile destroyers to the Western Pacific — the USS John S. McCain and the USS Decatur — to provide additional defense against North Korean ballistic missiles. That move represents an operational escalation of U.S. forces in the region, in contrast to the symbolic show of force provided by the fighters and bombers, which conducted only flyby passes and bombing practice (or, in the case of the F-22, just sat on the ground).
But the destroyer deployment never was intended to be publicized in the same way. Kim Jong Un’s regime has responded to each U.S. move with increasingly dangerous threats, and U.S. officials say they are now trying to tone down the muscular posturing. That Navy officials publicly confirmed the destroyer deployment to reporters did not help, U.S. officials told the Journal.
What’s unclear from that account, however, is whether Pentagon officials simply did not know the destroyer deployments were to be kept under wraps, or whether the White House was actually unaware of the deployment orders until the ship movements were made public.
“We’re not discussing our interagency deliberations,” said Caitlin Haydn, National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman, in an email.
A senior defense official, however, told FP, “There was no White House secrecy order.”
According to several U.S. officials, the decision to task two destroyers on a ballistic missile defense mission specific to North Korea went through the usual chain of command.
Pacific Command’s Adm. Samuel Locklear requested additional ballistic missile defenses in the Western Pacific. That decision was made in conjunction with Northern Command’s Gen. Chuck Jacoby. Those two combatant commanders are responsible for determining the military forces required for ballistic missile defense of U.S. allies in Asia and the homeland, respectively. Their request was given to the Joint Staff, at the Pentagon. The Joint Staff then asked the Navy what assets were available to meet the mission. The Navy identified the Decatur and the McCain, which Locklear then ordered to their positions. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel did not give the order.
“The secretary did not sign deployment orders,” a senior defense official said. The final order was given by the PACOM commander.
Ship movements normally do not require approval of the president or the defense secretary. Of course, these deployments were not made under normal circumstances. Hagel was apprised of the move, but it is unclear whether the White House knew about the deployment in advance. Caitlin Hayden, NSC spokeswoman, declined to say.
“But there clearly was a disconnect with the Navy in making that move public,” said a separate U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reporters routinely ask defense and military officials if there have been extraordinary changes in military assets and alert levels, such as ship deployments, aircraft positioning, or troop movements specific to various threats that emerge. Pentagon officials field that question daily during times of crisis like the current North Korean situation.