“That’s my fault,” Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee. “I’ll take the hit for that.”
The embarrassing episode began April 8 when the Navy announced that the Carl Vinson strike force was being diverted north from Singapore as a show of force during rising tensions with North Korea.
The carrier group instead conducted exercises in the Indian Ocean for a week, and was headed in the opposite direction last weekend. It is now east of Okinawa, or about 1,000 miles southeast of North Korea, Harris said.
The carrier’s announced detour north contributed to concerns that a conflict might be imminent, especially because it came shortly after the Trump administration had launched a missile strike in Syria and dropped the so-called “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan.
Harris also told the committee that North Korea was making steady progress in its efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States, although it is still believed to be several years away from reaching that goal.
Although Pyongyang has conducted five underground nuclear tests over the last 11 years, it has not mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough and hardy enough to withstand the extreme heat a ballistic missile re-entering the atmosphere would be subject to.
In an April 15 parade, it showed off missile tubes that experts said appeared capable of crossing the ocean, but North Korea has not tested any of them yet.
Harris warned, however, that achieving the goals set by North Korea’s leader is only a matter of time.
“With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike capability against American cities,” Harris told the House Armed Service Committee.
Regional tensions have soared in recent weeks with satellite photos indicating Pyongyang was planning a sixth nuclear test. It launched a midrange missile instead that crashed into the ocean seconds after launch.
Several days later, Vice President Mike Pence stood on the deck of aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan docked in Japan and warned North Korea not to “test” the Trump administration.
The U.S. nuclear submarine Michigan arrived off Pusan, South Korea, on Tuesday in what is meant as a show of U.S. resolve, Harris said.
“As President Trump and (Defense Secretary James) Mattis have made clear, all options are on the table,” Harris said. “We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees.”
The entire U.S. Senate is visiting the White House on Wednesday for a briefing on North Korea amid questions about how the Trump administration intends to address Pyongyang’s advances.
Existing North Korean missiles are grossly inaccurate by U.S. standards. But they could still cause widespread casualties in South Korea and Japan, where the U.S. military has more than 70,000 troops stationed.
Harris acknowledged there’s a “capability gap” between what North Korea could achieve with a missile attack, but said “we have to look at North Korea as if Kim Jong Un will do what he says.”
The Pentagon recently moved a missile defense system, called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, to South Korea, and Harris said it would be operational “in the coming days.”
He advocated expanding the U.S. ground-based missile defense system, possibly to Hawaii.
“We need more interceptors,” Harris said.
The current system, which is designed to shoot down incoming warheads in space before they reach the United States, has 37 operational interceptors — 33 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, Calif.
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