Annals of Strategic Communication: The Carl Vinson Task Force Miscommunication

Joint Publication 5-0/Joint Operation Planning defines strategic communication as:

Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.

The misstatements and miscommunications regarding where the USS Carl Vinson Task Force is and what it is doing have made US strategic communication, both in general and in regard to the DPRK, much, much harder and much more problematic.

I think, however, that the Occam’s Razor explanation for what happened is the most likely one. Here’s what I think happened:

  1. Admiral Harris, Commander US Pacific Command (USPACOM), informed Secretary of Defense Mattis that he had issued a Fragmentary Order cancelling the Carl Vinson Task Force’s port call in Australia and redirecting the strike group to the Sea of Japan to show the colors.
  2. The DOD notified the White House – most likely either through the Liaison Officer or through the National Security Staff.
  3. A copy of the Fragmentary Order was filed.
  4. Secretary Mattis misspoke on 11 April, because he hadn’t actually seen the FRAGORD, that the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed immediately to the Sea of Japan.
  5. The President was briefed, without any specific details, because no one on the National Security Staff had them, that the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed to the Sea of Japan.
  6. The President stated the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed to the Sea of Japan in his Fox Business News interview.
  7. The Carl Vinson Task Force steamed south from Singapore, as ordered, to take part in a scheduled exercise with the Australian Navy.
  8. As is often the case, the US Navy, through the Public Affairs Office, released pictures of the Carl Vinson Task Force passing through the Sunda Strait – 3,500 miles from the Sea of Japan off of the Korean peninsula.

Talking Points Memo has a full timeline at this link.

How did all this miscommunication happen? Simply put – there are almost no political appointees at the Pentagon (or anywhere else in the US government) right now. Secretary of Defense is, essentially, working without a team. He has no deputy, under, assistant deputy, and deputy assistant secretaries, nor does he have any directors, deputy directors, and/or special assistants at the Department of Defense – though several designees have been named for some of these positions. He also does not have any Service Secretaries in place  – though we have have three designated nominees. And none of the deputy, under, assistant deputy, and deputy assistant secretaries, nor does he have any directors, deputy directors, and/or special assistants at each of the Services. All the Secretary of Defense has is whichever Trump campaign and transition personnel are on the DOD and Service Beachhead Teams – none of whom have been chosen by Secretary Mattis. Right now you have a DOD Secretary, the DOD and Service Beachhead Teams from the transition, and then the career civil servants (both Senior Executives and General Schedule) and uniformed military personnel. Basically the entire layer of politically appointed managers, senior to junior, are completely missing. As a result, things are going to fall between the cracks, such as the exact nature of Admiral Harris’s FRAGORD to reposition the Carl Vinson Task Force.

Aside from the bog standard embarrassment of having the President, the Secretary of Defense (a retired USMC 4 Star), and the White House Press Secretary (a US Navy Reserve Commander) not knowing where a carrier strike group is, this is also a significant strategic communication problem. This morning the Associated Press reported (h/t and via: Talking Points Memo) that both our Asian-Pacific partners and competitors are disconcerted and wary given the President and the Administration’s seeming inability to communicate accurate information.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous.

Many South Koreans are using those words to describe the president of their most important ally, rather than the leader of their archrival to the North. They worry that President Donald Trump’s tough, unorthodox talk about North Korea’s nuclear program is boosting already-high animosity between the rival Koreas.

The Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said recently that Trump is playing a “dangerous card” with his verbal threats, risking a miscalculation by Pyongyang and a war on the peninsula.

What the US is currently strategically communicating in regard to the ongoing DPRK nuclear weapon and missile development programs is not exactly inspiring confidence on the Korean Peninsula.

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Open Thread: Erik Prince Is Just Full of Ideas!

Hey, remember Erik Prince, friend-of-Putin and Seychelles tourist? Bloomberg Politics has another profile — “Blackwater Founder Prince Said to Have Advised Trump Team”:

According to people familiar with his activities, Prince entered Trump Tower through the back, like others who wanted to avoid the media spotlight, and huddled with members of the president-elect’s team to discuss intelligence and security issues. The conversations provide a glimpse of Prince’s relationship with an administration that’s distanced itself from him since the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Prince had met with a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles in January.

That island encounter was the latest in a series of conversations between Trump advisers and Russians that have come to light as U.S. investigators probe allegations that Russia interfered with the presidential election…

A Prince spokesman in London said… in a prepared statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump.” The statement also questioned whether Prince’s activities were being monitored. “Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”

Yet over a two to three month period around the election, Prince met several times with top aides as the incoming government took shape, offering ideas on how to fight terror and restructure the country’s major intelligence agencies, according to information provided by five people familiar with the meetings. Among those he conferred with was Flynn, a member of the transition team who joined the administration and was later dismissed, some of the people said. He discussed possible government appointees with people in the private sector, one person said. Prince himself told several people that while he was not offering his advice in any official capacity, his role was significant.

The meetings occurred in Trump Tower, the administration’s transition office in Washington and elsewhere, according to people familiar with them. In one informal discussion in late November, Prince spoke openly with two members of Trump’s transition team on a train bound from New York to Washington. He boarded the same Acela as Kellyanne Conway and they sat together. Joining the conversation at one point was Kevin Harrington, a longtime associate of Trump adviser Peter Thiel who is now on the National Security Council. They discussed, in broad terms, major changes the incoming administration envisioned for the intelligence community, as recounted by a person on the train who overheard their conversation…

A longtime critic of government defense and security policies, Prince advocated a restructuring of security agencies as well as a thorough rethink of costly defense programs, even if it meant canceling existing major contracts in favor of smaller ones, said a person familiar with the matter…

Lemme see if I understand this: A guy who made billions running mercenaries for the highest bidder, scion of a family notorious for pushing ‘privatization’ of government functions to fatten private businesses, someone who’s currently camped out in Hong Kong supervising the PRC’s turf-building exercises in Africa because he’s leery about answering to American legal authorities… just happened to be providing advice because “Trump was weakest in the area where the stakes were highest — foreign affairs.”

After all, the American military is a mighty machine, and therefore one that can hardly have been privatized enough, so far.

You can’t take your eyes off these goniffs for a single minute.



DPRK Failed Missile Launch/Test Open Thread

While we wait to see what, if anything happens next, here’s a nice shiny open thread for you all to speculate and/or talk about whatever.

From that Business Insider article:

A recent New York Times reportuncovered a secret operation to derail North Korea’s nuclear-missile program that has been raging for three years.

Essentially, the report attributes North Korea’s high rate of failure with Russian-designed missiles to US meddling in the country’s missile software and networks.

Though North Korea’s missile infrastructure lacks the competence of Russia’s, Russians using the same type of missiles achieved a 13% failure rate, while North Korean attempts failed a whopping 88% of the time, according to the report.

But to those in the know, the campaign against North Korea came as no surprise. Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for Comodo with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that cyberoperations like the one against North Korea were actually the norm.

While the fact that the US hacked another country’s missile program may be shocking to some, “within military intelligence spaces this is what they do,” Geers said. “If you think that war is possible with a given state, you’re going to be trying to prepare the battle space for conflict. In the internet age, that means hacking.”

And to make it a musical open thread:

Have at it!



Ordnance Only A Mother Could Love

To follow up on DougJ’s post below (and to tread on Alan ADAM* Silverman’s turf):  American forces dropped a GBU-43/B bomb on a target identified as an underground ISIS complex.  The weapon, officially named the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast,” or MOAB, has the probably obvious nickname:  the Mother Of All Bombs.

It’s a no-doubt ginormous creation, with an effective yield of eleven tons of TNT.  It’s so large it is delivered by a variant of a cargo plane, the C130, and not the kind of aircraft more commonly used to deliver battlefield weapons.

A MOAB is not the ultimate bunker-buster, those weapons designed to penetrate well-hardened targets (silos, etc.) For our Vietnam vets, the analogous ordnance is BLU 82B “Daisy Cutter.”  In the open defense literature, the MOAB is at least in part a psychological weapon and in part a clear-the-ground device.  How useful it actually is against a cave complex is unclear, as this description suggests:

The weapon is expected to produce a tremendous explosion that would be effective against hard-target entrances, soft-to-medium surface targets, and for anti-personnel purposes. Because of the size of the explosion, it is also effective at LZ clearance and mine and beach obstacle clearance. Injury or death to persons will be primarily caused by blast or fragmentation. It is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use. The massive weapon provides a capability to perform psychological operations, attack large area targets, or hold at-risk threats hidden within tunnels or caves.

There’s at least pretty good reason to believe that the use — its the first combat deployment ever  — was intended to send a message:

The strike comes just days after a Special Forces soldier was killed in Nangarhar province. Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, of 7th Special Forces Group, was killed Saturday by enemy small arms fire while his unit was conducting counter-ISIS operations, according to the Defense Department.

The fact that the U.S. dropped the MOAB in the same province where De Alencar was killed is probably not a coincidence, said Bill Roggio, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“There might have been a degree of payback here as well,” Roggio told Military Times. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re killing your enemy.”

Whatever your response to that aspect of war, here’s the thing.  As Emily Tankin and Paul McLeary write in Foreign Policy, the use of the MOAB is one facet of the broader escalation of US military action across the Middle East and central Asia:
The news came the same day as a report that a coalition airstrike in Syria mistakenly killed 18 fighters backed by the United States.

The U.S. statement also said, “U.S. Forces took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties with this strike.” The U.S. military is reportedly currently assessing the damage from the bomb.

The strike in Afghanistan is part of a huge increase in the American air war in Afghanistan that started under the Obama administration, but has increased even more sharply under President Donald Trump. In the first three months of 2017, American planes have dropped over 450 bombs on targets in Afghanistan, compared to about 1,300 for all of 2016, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. The number of strikes in the first two months of the Trump administration more than doubled the number taken in the same time period under the Obama administration.

The FP journalists note that US military leaders “long bristled at the control the Obama administration exercised over small troop movements and sometimes individual targets.”  Donald Trump — and this is one promise he’s kept — seems to have unleashed  those commanders.  The result?

Well, it seems to me that the question isn’t whether der Trumpenführer will lead us into war.  It is, rather, how quickly the war that’s already bubbling will become recognized as such by the media, and the American people.

As for war aims? That’s the kicker, isn’t it.  Multi-ton bombs are headline-grabbers.  How effective they are, really, at counter-terrorism is, to my deeply un-expert mind…”unclear” is how I’ll put it.  The current spate of bombing and micro-deployments looks like a purely ad hoc approach to whatever our tactical or strategic goals might be in Syria, Iraq and, still, Afghanistan.  If there’s a logic — and I genuinely hope there is — it sure isn’t apparent to this citizen, in whose name (along w. 312 million of my closest friends) these small wars are being fought.

Over to y’all.

Image: Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890.

*type in haste, repent at leisure.



Cheryl Rofer Guest Post on What is Going on in the DPRK Right Now: Fireworks

(and a mushroom cloud hat too!)

Sunday is the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korea and grandfather of its current president, Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans promise a big event and may have prepared some fireworks for the celebration. Reports of activity at their Punggye-ri nuclear test site suggest that the biggest firework will be underground.

Sunday is also Easter for Christians and part of Passover for Jews. North Korea likes to intrude on others’ holidays. It’s something of a tradition. And this year brings the added frisson of showing up an American president whose bluster approaches Kim Jong Un’s.

The New York Times has an extensive article on the preparations. 38 North has better overhead photos.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and is working toward a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried on their missiles, which they also have been testing and improving.

The way in which this test could be different from the previous five is that an American carrier group is heading toward Korea. Its purpose has not been stated, but it is obviously part of the Trump administration’s desire to show off its military strength. There is nothing it could do, short of starting a war, to stop a nuclear test.

I’ve been thinking about the estimates of North Korean nuclear weapons. The common way to estimate is to take the estimate of fissile material, an estimate of what is needed for a weapon, and divide the second into the first. But there are other considerations. I’ve worked some of them out and come to the conclusion that North Korea doesn’t have as many nukes as sometimes is claimed. My best guess is a half-dozen or fewer. But even that could cause a lot of damage.

Cheryl has indicated she’ll hang around in comments for about an hour to answer whatever questions you all might have.



Late Night Cruel Plebian Mockery Open Thread: Jared of Arabia

Drew Magary, at Deadspin [NSFW]:

Behold idiot son-in-law Jared Kushner—the man now in charge of brokering Middle East peace, Uberizing the federal government, reforming the entire criminal justice system, and keeping Donald Trump’s hands off his wife. This perfect still frame from a David O. Russell film has also been put in charge of beating ISIS. Yes, ISIS!…


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The Strikes Against Al Shayrat Air Base: Highly Detailed Security Theater With No Deterrent Effect

As night gave way to day we began to get greater clarity about exactly what happened with last night’s missile strikes against al Shayrat Air Base in Syria. It was security theater with no deterrent effect.

Davis also said that U.S. officials notified Russian forces in advance of the strike and took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.

Syrian military officials appeared to anticipate Thursday night’s raid on Syria‘s Shayrat air base, evacuating personnel and moving equipment ahead of the strike, according to an eyewitness.

Local residents say the Russian military had used the air base in early 2016 but have since withdrawn their officers, so the base is now mainly operated by Syrian and Iranianmilitary officers. There is also a hotel nearby where Iranian officers have been staying, though it was not clear whether it was damaged.

The eyewitness believes human casualties, at least within the civilian population, were minimal, as there was no traffic heading toward the local hospital.

Former National Security Adviser and ABC News contributor Richard Clarke said this attack, one of the quickest displays of force by a new president in recent history, is largely “symbolic.”

“This attack on one air base seems more symbolic,” Clarke said. “I think Secretary of Defense [General] James Mattis gave the president a list of options, this being the smallest. It was a targeted attack not designed to overwhelm the Syrian military … I think the president was trying to differentiate himself from his predecessor.”

If the purpose of the attack was not to actually reduce and degrade Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile and Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons, then there really was no purpose in the strike. It served no deterrent effect. Everyone already knows the US has the capability of striking targets from over the horizon. Given the warnings the US gave Russia, which Russia appears to have passed on to its Syrian client allowing them to move personnel and equipment and minimize/mitigate operational losses, the strike had no actual or effective strategic purpose. It doesn’t deter the Syrians from doing anything – they already knew we could do this at any time. Also, providing all these warnings seems to completely bely the President’s oft stated preference for utilizing the element of surprise. There was no surprise in last night’s attacks.

Moreover, once again the Interagency process appears to have either broken down or been ignored.

What we instead have is the use of an over the horizon strike as security theater intended to bolster the Administration’s theme of the week, not actually and effectively deter the use of chemical weapons.

And this type of security theater has significant repercussions:

Just as I suspect the North Korean missile test on Tuesday was intended not just to intimidate North Korea’s neighbors, but to give Xi Jinping additional leverage in his summit with the President today, last night’s missile strikes were partially intended to reverse that dynamic. Unfortunately they’ve also given the Kremlin a new opportunity to pursue the Putin Doctrine of showing that liberal democracy, as exemplified by the US, is not any better than, and often is hypocritically worse, than any other form of government and governance.

Reuters reports that:

Russia wants an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss U.S. missile strikes on Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday, describing the action as “thoughtless”.

The ministry said in a statement that Russia was also suspending a Syrian air safety agreement with the United States, saying:

“This is not the first time the United States has resorted to such a thoughtless step, which merely exacerbates existing problems and threatens global security.”

Russia has dismissed Western accusations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Washington says was responsible for a chemical gas attack that left scores dead in the Syrian province of Idlib.

The foreign ministry said it was clear that the U.S. missile strikes were prepared before the Idlib incident.

The United States, and specifically the Trump Administration, is now going to experience having Russia try to use the UN Security Council to turn the tables over the strikes against the al Shayrat Air Base. Whoever thought that coordinating the strike with the Russians, in order to deconflict the airspace, minimize damage, and conduct a symbolic attack to demonstrate US resolve, the ability to project force (which no one doubted), and deter future attacks was a good idea just got played for a fool. Putin and the Russian government are going to use this to beat the US about the head and shoulders to achieve their own objectives in the Levant and within the global system.