The recent military episodes illustrate how even the military’s most seasoned four-star field commanders can fail to consider the broader political or strategic ramifications of their operational decisions.
WASHINGTON — When Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the military’s top commander in the Pacific, ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson “to sail north” from Singapore this month, he was oblivious to the larger — and incorrect — impression that he was rushing a naval strike force to confront an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
Four days later, when Gen. John Nicholson Jr. dropped the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal on Islamic State group fighters in a tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan, he not only seized headlines around the world but also unintentionally signaled to dictators in Syria and North Korea that they might be the next target of what the Defense Department called the “mother of all bombs.”
Instead of simply achieving tactical objectives, the timing of their actions surprised their bosses at the Pentagon, upset edgy allies and caught the Trump administration flat-footed. Taken together, the episodes illustrate how even the military’s most seasoned four-star field commanders can fail to consider the broader political or strategic ramifications of their operational decisions, and it prompted some current and former senior officials to suggest that President Donald Trump’s decision to unshackle the military from Obama-era constraints to intensify the fight against terrorists risked even more miscues ahead.
“There are lots of decisions that military commanders make every day on their own without asking ‘Mother, may I?’” said Robert Scher, a former senior Pentagon official. “But they have to realize and take into account that their actions can have strategic impact outside of their areas of responsibility.”
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U.S. officials said Thursday that Nicholson did not request permission from Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before dropping the giant bomb, a GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB.
It does not appear the administration was aware of the location of the carrier group when the press secretary, Sean Spicer, or the national-security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, made their public comments about it. White House officials said both men were relying on talking points supplied by the Pentagon.
Nicholson already had the necessary authority to bomb the tunnel complex and also had it during the Obama administration, U.S. officials said.
But current and former Defense Department officials said that it was likely that if President Barack Obama were still in office, Nicholson would have checked with his bosses before calling in what is the country’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb because the Obama White House had made clear to the Pentagon that the president wanted to be consulted in major strike decisions.
“Nicholson should have been a little more aware that using that weapon for the first time would be a big story,” said Scher.
Trump has made clear that he does not want to be consulted on every strike and that he wants commanders in the field to have more authority to move swiftly against foes.
The timing of the episodes, at the beginning of the administration, likely played a part, one Obama administration official noted.
“Once the previous administration’s political appointees have departed, the balance of power in the Pentagon always shifts away from the civilians and toward the uniformed officers,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and top Pentagon Middle East policy official.
“That’s not necessarily dangerous, but until you get the new administration’s team in place, you miss the policy oversight that can sometimes help field commanders — who are appropriately focused on operations — think through the political and strategic ramifications of their actions.”
The dropping of the explosive came in the middle of an already fraught time for U.S. security, with a narrative that had begun to take hold of an untethered Pentagon, freed from Obama-era restrictions.
The United States had only days earlier fired dozens of missiles on the airfield in Syria from which President Bashar Assad had launched a chemical-weapons attack. (Trump authorized that strike.)
And the country was bracing for a possible showdown with Pyongyang as the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, was expected to launch another missile test amid incorrect talk from Trump that a U.S. “armada” was headed toward the Korean Peninsula.
Into that atmosphere, the announcement April 13 that the United States had just dropped the MOAB was a dramatic development and was interpreted by many news organizations and national-security experts that the Trump administration was sending Kim, or Syria’s Assad, a message.
That was not so; a U.S. commander in Afghanistan had simply taken it on his own to use a particularly large bomb on a cave complex in the remote province of Nangarhar.
“Commanders always want more freedom to act within their own judgment,” said Adm. James Winnefeld, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Sometimes those same commanders may not sense which of their decisions will bleed over into the strategic level.”
Asked Thursday whether Nicholson discussed the bombing with him beforehand and had considered the larger strategic message he was sending, Mattis said, “We take into account the strategic effect of everything we do.”
For the wayward Carl Vinson, the confusion began April 9, when the public-affairs office of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet issued a news release saying Harris had ordered the Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, and its strike force — two destroyers and one cruiser — to leave Singapore and “sail north” to the Western Pacific.
As is customary, the Navy did not say exactly where the carrier force was headed, when it would get there or its precise mission.
But the news release omitted any mention of a secretive naval exercise with Australia that Harris never meant to suggest he was canceling, Navy officials said.
Thus, once the Carl Vinson left Singapore on April 8, it sailed south, toward the Indian Ocean, the opposite direction Harris had said it was going.
At that point, some Pentagon officials said Thursday, it would have been embarrassing and possibly damaging to U.S. interests to publicly correct the narrative and send mixed messages to the North Koreans. But some former officials disagreed.
“Words matter, and there will be a cost to U.S. credibility in Asia for this mistake,” said Brian McKeon, the Pentagon’s top policy official at end of the Obama administration. “Given the stakes, senior officials should have taken greater care to understand the facts, and to correct the record once they learned them.”