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:
- 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.
- The DOD notified the White House – most likely either through the Liaison Officer or through the National Security Staff.
- A copy of the Fragmentary Order was filed.
- 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.
- 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.
- The President stated the Carl Vinson Task Force was headed to the Sea of Japan in his Fox Business News interview.
- The Carl Vinson Task Force steamed south from Singapore, as ordered, to take part in a scheduled exercise with the Australian Navy.
- 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.
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.