08/28/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

Air Power

Prior to Operation Desert Storm, it was established naval doctrine that aircraft carriers could never operate in the Persian Gulf. The area was so small it left the great behemoths vulnerable to shore-based rockets or raids by small torpedo boats. The assumption was that we would not risk a multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier with its 70-plus aircraft and 5,000 people in such a confined space.

When the war broke out, that doctrine went by the wayside. We needed launching pads for our aircraft close to the battle zones and carriers were the obvious solution. There was great concern about their safety but carriers are critical elements of our weaponry. When war breaks out, you use all of your weapons. Peril is always part of the military equation.

Today our 10 aircraft carriers constitute a primary part of our ability to project power around the world, but it wasn't always so. When World War II broke out, the U.S. Navy was still wedded to battleships. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was deemed a great disaster because they sank some of our battleships, but in truth those vessels were already obsolete. Our carriers were out to sea and would soon turn the tide of battle against the Japanese. From then until today aircraft carriers have been key to naval power.

Today we project power in the Middle East and Asia mainly through our aircraft carrier fleets but we would do well to remember the concerns about their integrity that dominated our policy before Desert Storm. Our primary rival in Asia is China which is clearly concerned about the significance of our carrier fleets. Time and again we have sent them into Asian waters to remind the Chinese of our clout and the challenge was not lost on them. China is emerging as a great power that will not indefinitely abide what it considers our insolence.

For the past few years, China has been building and deploying a new missile -- the Dong Feng-21 D missile -- that can be launched from a truck and sent almost 1000 miles across the ocean to pounce on a moving target. Of course, our carriers with their surrounding battle groups have defenses against missile attacks and the Dong Feng is unproven in combat. But China has vast resources and technical expertise beyond that of our enemies in the Near East. It is a given the Chinese will continue to develop this weapons system and others like it until it can present a real and present threat to our carrier fleets.

It is unlikely that aircraft carriers will be rendered obsolete anytime soon, but the possibility that one could be seriously damaged or even sunk is an ever present threat. There is no such thing as an invulnerable weapons system. I have said often in the past and here state again that though air power is awesome, it has limitations. To project military power, we will never get beyond the need to put boots on the ground, as politically sensitive as that may be.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.