Going back to the Battle of Midway and beyond, the United States aircraft carrier task forces have been the dominant power on the seas, and for good reason. When properly deployed and flanked by smaller, versatile warships, they provide the equivalent of a massive air base and marine troop deployment station which can be parked on the doorstep of any enemy. Unfortunately, their days of supremacy may be numbered, at least according to one recent report. (Washington Post)

A report published Monday by the Center for a New American Security, a D.C.-based think tank that focuses on national security, claims that the Navy’s carrier operations are at an inflection point. Faced with growing threats abroad, the United States can either “operate its carriers at ever-increasing ranges … or assume high levels of risk in both blood and treasure.”

The report, titled “Red Alert: The Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers,” focuses on China’s burgeoning military posture in the Pacific and on a term that is starting to appear with increasing urgency in defense circles: anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD. The term A2/AD refers to a concept that has long existed in warfare: denying the enemy an ability to move around the battlefield. Currently A2/AD strategy is much the same as it was when moats were dug around castles, except today’s moats are an integrated system of surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, surface ships and aircraft — all designed to push enemy forces as far away as possible from strategically important areas.

This area denial threat is coming from a few sources, and they all present significant challenges to the way we’ve previously done business on the open seas. One bad actor on that stage is Russia. They have a sophisticated naval base at Kaliningrad with serious anti-aircraft capabilities and now they’ve been building up similar defenses around Syria. In a worst case scenario, they could significantly degrade our ability to launch air strikes and potentially hit our carriers, rendering them useless as aircraft platforms even if they can’t sink them.

Even more serious is the potential loss of patrol area around China. We’ve been covering the situation in the South China Sea here for a while now as the Chinese continue to build up their artificial islands, but this reports shows that some of their new radar installations on these remote reefs may be the biggest threat of all.

Satellite images show China may be building a powerful new radar system on a disputed island in the South China Sea, which could have worrisome military uses in monitoring — and potentially trying to control — a strategically vital waterway, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)…

“This would be very important in a Chinese anti-access area denial strategy that sought to reduce the ability of the U.S. to operate freely in the South China Sea, including bringing forces up through the South China Sea in case of any future crisis in Northeast Asia,” Poling wrote.

The Strait of Malacca passes between Malaysia and Indonesia and is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, while a third of the world’s shipping, and much of Asia’s oil, passes through the South China Sea.

I wasn’t taking the question of the Chinese artificial islands very seriously when it first started, but the more news I see coming out of that region, the more it’s becoming a concern. We’re still sailing and flying in the area despite China complaining about it a bit. Of course, none of this really matters as long as we don’t have open warfare breaking out in the region, but with North Korea seemingly growing more unstable by the day, nothing seems all that certain anymore. We do seem to be losing one of our greatest, long range advantages, though.

This makes me particularly sad because it involves our carriers. Having spent a few years of my life sailing around on one of them in the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Salute, Connie! We’ll always miss you.) it’s impossible to avoid thinking of our carrier task groups fondly. I wouldn’t put it past American technology to overcome some of these challenges and retain our edge in sea power, but the modern era has certainly changed the landscape and naval power isn’t the be all and end all that it once was.