- By Kevin Baron
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge.
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 U.S.S. John S. McCain and the U.S.S. 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 the E-Ring, "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. 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.
Until this weekend, there were no public notices or media reports of any changes to the U.S. force posture, though there were already U.S. ships forward deployed in the region that are capable of defending against ballistic missile attacks.
The U.S.S. John S. McCain was told to steam from port in Japan — where it had been resting following two weeks of drills in March that were part of the U.S.-South Korean "Foal Eagle" exercise — specifically to provide additional defense against North Korean ballistic missiles. Also, the U.S.S. Decatur, which was on its way home from the Persian Gulf to San Diego, was told to hold in place before it crossed the Pacific, in a separate location from the McCain.
U.S. and defense officials declined to provide the specific location of either ship, citing operational security.
On Thursday, a third destroyer, the U.S.S. Fitzgerald, reached the U.S.S. Decatur’s location and has relieved that ship, which is now continuing its journey home to California, the E-Ring has confirmed.
Administration officials now say publicly they want to cool things off with North Korea, and quickly. Defense Secretary Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry have placed phone calls to their Chinese counterparts in the past two days seeking a diplomatic resolve.
“This does not need to get hotter,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Thursday.
But the U.S. has shown no sign of pulling back its newly deployed defensive measures, including the destroyers. Last December, when North Korean tested a long-range rocket and put an object into space, ship deployments out of Japan for ballistic missile defense duty lasted for weeks.
Contrary to the claim of softer rhetoric, the Pentagon announced on Wednesday it was deploying the controversial THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to Guam as a precautionary measure against the North Korean missile threat. That deployment required Hagel’s authorization.
Moreover, the U.S. is pressing on with plans to continue joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the Korean Peninsula into April.
“We have two events that will be closely managed and controlled,” Col. Amy Hannah, U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman tells the E-Ring. “The two main events are a combined logistics over the shore exercise and a Marine amphibious landing.”
No requests to change those plans have come up the chain of command, according to the U.S. official.