PENTAGON - Despite comments from the U.S. secretary of defense, the Navy says the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group is still participating in planned exercises with the Australian navy.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon that the strike group was set to travel south for joint exercises with Australia but "canceled" its role there when the warships were directed north to the Western Pacific instead. Mattis said the move north was announced in an attempt to "explain why" the Vinson "wasn't in that exercise."
However, military officials told VOA on Tuesday that the Vinson was still participating in the exercises with Australia.
"The Carl Vinson Strike Group has placed scheduled joint operations with Australia on an accelerated timeline in order to facilitate the transit north," Navy spokesman Lieutenant Loren Terry said.
The strike group includes its namesake aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, as well as three guided missile destroyers.
A military press release Saturday said the Vinson would "operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia." The press release did not mention U.S. participation in exercises with Australia.
Commander Dave Benham, director of media operations for the U.S. Pacific Command's Third Fleet, told VOA the fleet operates to "safeguard U.S. interests in the Western Pacific."
"The No. 1 threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability," he said.
Pyongyang has repeatedly defied international warnings about conducting missile launches and testing nuclear devices.
Mattis said the Vinson group was called north to the Western Pacific without a "specific demand signal," or threat seen emanating from the Korean Peninsula.
On Sunday, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official was quoted on state-run media as vowing to step up the country's defenses to protect itself from airstrikes like the one that the U.S. carried out against Syria last week.