This is how the whereabouts of a U.S. aircraft carrier became an international incident

U.S.S. Carl Vinson.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When the White House and top military officials gave erroneous information about the whereabouts and intentions of a U.S. aircraft carrier earlier this month — and then failed for days to correct reports — some critics claimed that the U.S. had jeopardized the safety of some of its closest allies. But how could such a monumental mistake happen?

Defense officials who spoke with Navy Times revealed that "over the course of 10 days, a series of gaffes and missteps throughout the entire national security structure to its highest levels would raise the specter of a nuclear showdown, send the U.S. and Chinese governments into crisis mode, and expose alarming communication deficiencies within the American military at large."

With North Korean aggression mounting in early April, the original plan had been to shorten the USS Carl Vinson's planned exercises with Australia and cancel its port visit to Perth, which would get it up to North Korea by the end of the month. But because an Australian port visit is "the holy grail" for sailors, many families had already planned trips to the country to visit their relatives. "The easiest thing to do, PACOM officials decided, would be send out a press release announcing the canceled port visit — making it easier for families to get their money back from airlines and letting all parties know why the Vinson wouldn't be visiting the Land Down Under," Navy Times notes.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Instead, "the media just went nuts," a defense official with knowledge of the situation said. Adding to the confusion, Reuters reported the Vinson was leaving Singapore for North Korea, although it was in fact headed south, to the truncated Australian training exercises. "Everyone from [U.S. National Security Adviser H.R.] McMaster and [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis to the president himself inaccurately stated what Vinson's intentions were," Navy Times writes.

"It's really shocking that they let this go for nearly two weeks without trying to correct the record," added retired Navy officer Bryan Clark.

Read more about how the tremendous mix-up with the aircraft carrier happened at Navy Times, and read one Democrat's take on why it was so dangerous here at The Week.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.