The Costs and Benefits of U.S. Military Bases Overseas

The Costs and Benefits of U.S. Military Bases Overseas

By Luke Vargas   
Air Force jets perform an exercise at the American Kadena Air Base in Japan. April 12, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman John Linzmeier
Air Force jets perform an exercise at the American Kadena Air Base in Japan. April 12, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman John Linzmeier

Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode Three, “The Costs and Benefits of U.S. Overseas Bases.”

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.


Luke Vargas: Welcome to “Wake,” a production of Talk Media News. I’m your host Luke Vargas, here for a dip into the waters of foreign policy to consider how events overseas affect our shores.

On today’s show we’re looking at the overseas footprint of the U.S. military. As we speak, more than 150,000 troops are positioned in nearly 80 countries. Hundreds of U.S. bases serve as deterrents against adversaries, others as an assurance to allies, and still more as stops along a global military supply chain. What are the intended and unintended consequences of these deployments? What exactly are we trying to accomplish? We’ll consider those questions next on “Wake.”

Joining us are two men well-versed in the issue of U.S. military bases, and they know it from different angles.

Michael McNerney is the Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, and he spent 17 years at the Department of Defense advising the Pentagon on overseas basing and force management. In 2013, he helped author a big Rand report on the costs and benefits of the U.S. military footprint abroad.

Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael McNerney: Thanks for having me, Luke.

Luke Vargas: And also on the line with us is David Vine, author of the 2015 book, “Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.” He’s coming at this as a researcher, as an anthropologist, looking at, among other things, the social cost of deployments overseas. David, welcome.

David Vine: Thank you so much, Luke.

Luke Vargas: Michael, hang tight for a minute, because if I’ve learned one thing about overseas bases, it’s that information about exactly who is stationed where and what they’re doing is really difficult to obtain. And by merit of publishing “Base Nation” two or so years after the RAND report, David, I was hoping you could provide us with an overview of the current U.S. global deployment.

David Vine: Sure. Rand, of course, has done excellent work with the numbers, so I should give them credit, they were certainly helpful for my work.

But at this point, by my estimate using the Pentagon definition of a base site, the United States has around 800 base sites outside the 50 states and Washington D.C.

Indeed, base sites range in side from massive, city-sized bases with tens of thousands of troops and family members and schools, hospitals, everything you’d find in a not-so-small American city, to much smaller installations that might be warehouses or radar sites.

And we have these 800 base sites outside the U.S. in some 80 countries. And that’s actually more countries than the Untied States had bases in at the end of the Cold War. The total number of bases has shrunk by about half since the end of the Cold War, but the scale, the scope of these bases, the spread of these bases has expanded, basically doubled, from about 40 to about 80 countries.

We have hundreds of thousands of troops at this point on these bases, most concentrated in places where they’ve been concentrated since the end of World War II – Germany, Japan, Italy, and then South Korea, where they’ve been since the end of the Korean War.

Luke Vargas: Michael, could you walk us through the Rand assessment of overseas basing? What were some of the big takeaways coming out of that report?

Michael McNerney: Sure, and I’ll agree with David that it’s so difficult to get a handle on not just the locations, but who’s at these locations, and then the cost behind that.

So Congress came to Rand and said, we can’t figure out how much more it costs to station U.S. military forces overseas compared to at home.

In terms of fixed costs – these are the costs of the bases themselves – we found that it is indeed usually more expensive to station forces overseas, but that it can vary quite a bit. For example, the Air Force in Europe might cost twice as much to be based overseas, whereas the Army in Korea might be even a little less or about neutral, the same cost as being at home.

So it varies wildly and you have to look at the individual regions and the individual services and then try to understand what’s driving those costs to really figure out where to find savings.

Second are what we call variable costs – that’s cost per person which you have stationed overseas. And again you have significant variation, where perhaps it might cost $30,000 to station one sailor overseas, for example Europe, it would only cost $10,000 to station a Marine in Japan.

And those costs are the costs for that person’s additional pay. Because they’re overseas, it can be more expensive to make ends meet. Also for their families, there’s costs that come along with having families stationed overseas. And so, again, you have to look at the individual cases to understand how to try and reduce those types of cost.

Then you have to think about other issues like host nation support and whether you’re rotating forces of you have them permanently deployed. But we break down the details of all these factors and it’s important for Congress and the public to think about the different pieces and whether it makes sense to have those forces overseas.

Luke Vargas: David, we know that defunding or closing military bases in the U.S. is a third rail in American politics. Is there a similar pattern overseas? A tendency for temporary bases to become permanent because nobody wants to take heat for closing them down?

David Vine: I’m not sure if the problem is a fear of taking the heat. I think a significant problem has been that Congress, to my mind, has largely abdicated its responsibility for oversight over bases abroad. There are congressional committees that are charged with looking at military construction and overseas construction, but they typically do not get the attention that bases in the United States get and, in many ways, the military has sort of gotten a free pass abroad for decades, I would say.

Some of that might have developed because of dynamics during the Cold War, but there just hasn’t been the attention to bases abroad and the kind of questioning from Congress and others about whether we need every single one of these bases overseas, especially when the costs, as Michael and Rand have shown, are so significantly greater than the costs of maintaining a comparable base in the United States.

Basically, no one has looked at this total cost. I was able to find that Congress asked the military to on a yearly basis calculate the total costs of maintaining troops and bases overseas and they would come up with a figure of about $21, $22 billion every year.

And the only other global estimate that I was able to find was one from an economist that showed a total of $250 billion a year. So this is a huge spread between about $22 billion and $250 billion, and so I decided to really try to dive into the Pentagon’s numbers and look for spending that they might have been ignoring in their reports to Congress.

And by my calculation, and this was a very conservative estimate, we’re spending around $100 to $150 billion, billion with a b, every year maintaining troops and bases overseas. And I used the pentagon’s congressionally-mandated methodology in my calculations. And this more money than any government agency except the Pentagon itself.

And I think, again, Congress and members of the public have largely not paid the kinds of attention that’s necessary, given the levels of spending and given the impact these bases are having in our foreign policy generally.

U.S. missile defense systems arrive at Yongsan Garrison near Seoul, South Korea. March 6, 2017. Photo: U.S. Forces Korea
U.S. missile defense systems arrive at Yongsan Garrison near Seoul, South Korea. March 6, 2017. Photo: U.S. Forces Korea

Luke Vargas: Michael, the other element of the Rand survey assessed military capabilities. You ran a simulation – I found this fascinating – of 24 different small-scale deployment scenarios using the current base setup. These are concrete examples of what the military might be called upon to do. You simulated a deterrent mission, presumably against Russia, in the nation of Georgia, a peacekeeping/WMD scenario in Syria, an earthquake response in Peru, a counterinsurgency campaign in Nigeria.

How did the U.S. military perform in each of these scenarios? Was it possible to spot trends about what the U.S. is good, or bad at doing given this current deployment?

Michael McNerney: Yes. So this was very helpful to be specific. You have to get down in the weeds to understand what you really need.

Overall, the U.S military performed exceptionally well. They are clearly in the right places for many conceivable missions that they would have to undertake.

Maybe the most important takeaway we had there was what the military calls En Route Infrastructure. This is especially the Air Force’s ability to have a logistics chain and a transportation chain that allows forces to travel around the world quickly, and also to move equipment.

And this En Route Infrastructure has to be spaced very particularly in locations around the world to enable that movement in an efficient way and in the quickest way. So that en-route infrastructure needs to have not only primary routes but backup routes in case something happens to your primary route. And this just illustrated the importance of dispersed forces, with sufficient logistics around those sites.

And then the second thing I’d mention is that heavy equipment is slow and expensive to move. And so either you need to be close to the potential conflict, to have that equipment near where the fight is going to be, or you need to, in some cases you can’t predict where the fight will be, in those cases there may not be an advantage to forward basing. At least units that require lots of heavy equipment.

If you can’t have it right when you need it, then there may be an advantage to just keeping the forces at home. Because sometimes there’s just no advantage to being just halfway to the fight, for example if you’re in Australia versus in the United States, maybe you’re a little bit closer to a fight in Asia but it may not be worth it to be halfway. You might as well just be in the States at that point.

Luke Vargas: Michael, North Korea is in the news. This is an unpredictable regime, but it’s no superpower. And yet, according to David’s book, there are 113 U.S. bases in Japan, 83 in South Korea, which seems so far above and beyond what might be needed to deal with the regime.

What’s going on here? Is our military deployment suggesting that military leaders are prepared for all-out war with China or Russia, but maybe it just isn’t polite to talk about that publicly?

Michael McNerney: To me, the challenge we face in our basing is even more about deterrence as it is about having a war or undertaking. Both, obviously, are very important, but the reason in many ways you have the forces forward in the first place is first to deter.

I’ll give an example. In Korea – and I saw this in the Pentagon – when you encounter a crisis and you have the debate, do we rush more faces into the region? The dilemma is, do you then escalate the crisis when you’re seen surging forces into the country in the middle of the crisis?

It’s much better to have them there in the first place so that when a crisis erupts you can deal with it diplomatically without creating concerns about the volatility of moving forces around.

And then in terms of the fight itself, the reason in my opinion that you have so many bases, the numbers seem very high, is that the U.S. has been moving more and more to disperse its forces so that if one base is attacked by a missile or a terrorist attack and is put out of commission, you have forces spread out so that the entire mission is not destroyed by the loss of a single location.

A U.S. Air Force plane delivers humanitarian provisions over a remote Micronesian island as a part of the annual Operation Christmas Drop. December 8, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jacob Skovo
A U.S. Air Force plane delivers humanitarian provisions over a remote Micronesian island as a part of the annual Operation Christmas Drop. December 8, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jacob Skovo

Luke Vargas: David, I want to get to the issue of public diplomacy. Many of these U.S. bases overseas are pretty large facilities. At the very least, people in host countries know the troops are there and that their governments are dealing with the United States. How is American public diplomacy helped or hindered by these bases?

David Vine: I think U.S. public diplomacy is in many ways hindered. Bases play a complicated role in our political, economic and military relationships with other countries. I think, to begin with, it’s important to point out that U.S. bases, while they are generally invisible to most people in the United States, people in the countries that host U.S. bases see bases as the face of the United States just as much in some cases as Hollywood or fast food or pop music.

They play an important sort of cultural role, in that sense, and that can either be a positive one or a negative one.

On the negative side we’ve seen high-profile crimes committed by troops in places like Okinawa, South Korea and elsewhere that of course don’t paint the United States in a positive light.

I think one of the more troubling aspects of the role bases have played in our public diplomacy is the presence of bases in undemocratic countries where bases are effectively helping to prop up and provide legitimacy to undemocratic and sometimes dictatorial regimes. And by my count there are 33 less than democratic countries in which the United States now maintains bases and which we are propping up, again, undemocratic regimes.

And for a long time, especially during the Cold War but still today, people will say that one of the main justifications for having bases abroad is to spread democracy. And these 33 cases, at the very least, we can see that bases are doing the exact opposite.

But in a variety of other ways, I think bases are a symptom of the way in which the U.S. military has come to dominate U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with other countries. The State Department budget pales in comparison to that of the Pentagon as a whole and, as I said before, even a fraction of the total spending on bases and troops overseas.

In my mind this makes diplomacy largely a function of military policy and means that we’re not placing emphasis on diplomatic solutions to tensions and conflicts around the world, and are instead relying on military might and threats and demonstrations of power.

A public 'open house' at U.S. Air Base Morón in southern Spain. May 31, 2015. U.S. Air Force Photo.
A public ‘open house’ at U.S. Air Base Morón in southern Spain. May 31, 2015. U.S. Air Force Photo.

Luke Vargas: Michael, we’ve got so many bases in so many countries, many times with coverage overlap – which you actually talk about as a good thing, so that if something happens at one base we’re not locked out of responding to a crisis – but couldn’t we be more discerning about the countries whose values we want to reward by putting U.S. service members there?

Michael McNerney: Unfortunately, the places where U.S. military forces might be most needed are sometimes the places where there are governments that don’t share all the same values that we have in the U.S. or Europe or Japan or South Korea.

So the Middle East, for example, you have legitimate bad actors like Iran, who could pose potential threats and real current threats. How do you deter those bad actors and also fight terrorism in those regions without some sort of a presence? And so it’s a dilemma.

There’s no doubt that the U.S. does not want to make it appear that they’re rewarding any counterpart governments that don’t behave the way the U.S. would ideally want them to behave. But I think the way the Department of Defense does that is by trying to have more of a low-key presence in those places.

So for example in the Gulf states, most of the U.S. military bases are far away from population centers and don’t get involved in politics of the country at hand. That’s not possible in every case, but for the most part they try to manage that by being sensitive to the political dynamics going on in those countries.

I won’t say it’s done perfectly every time, but there is a pretty robust process that the State Department and Defense Department use to manage those sensitivities.

On the other hand, places like Europe, Japan, South Korea, while not being free of problems, historically I think the military has done a lot to make sure that in the current day those forces are there, they’re visible and the U.S. military is a great face of the United States.

Members of the armed services are great representatives of our country and when they are overseas, say in Germany, and interaction with the local population I think it puts a very positive image of the United States in people’s minds in many countries overseas.

Luke Vargas: David, it seems like we’re fast approaching a time when certain traditional military jobs are becoming obsolete or just too expensive. Drones, for instance, are replacing piloted aircraft more and more. Add to that the sometimes unfortunate message sent by establishing a base in an unsavory country, do you see a possibility in the near future in which the United States could significantly scale back its overseas military while still accomplishing most of what the U.S. military wants to do?

U.S. Vice President Michael R. Pence shakes hands with South Korean Gen. Leem Ho-Young, deputy commanding general of Combined Forces Command, near the demilitarized zone in South Korea, April 17, 2017. U.S. Army photo/Sgt. 1st Class Sean K. Harp
U.S. Vice President Michael R. Pence shakes hands with South Korean Gen. Leem Ho-Young, deputy commanding general of Combined Forces Command, near the demilitarized zone in South Korea, April 17, 2017. U.S. Army photo/Sgt. 1st Class Sean K. Harp

David Vine: The short answer to your question is definitely yes. I think there are absolutely important alternatives that we need to explore and pursue.

The sad fact is that the track record of recent U.S. military policy, foreign policy has been catastrophic to say the least, and I don’t think this has been fully appreciated or recognized here in the United States, the absolutely death and destruction, there’s no other way to say it, that we have reaped in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan and the way that our intervention, our invasion of and occupation of Iraq gave birth to ISIS, which we now see and are now combatting the terrible fruits of our own labor in a certain sense.

Our foreign policy has been giving birth to what the CIA calls blowback, breeding people and supporting people and movements that ultimately become our enemies. We really need to reexamine completely what it is the United States seeks to do worldwide and the role of the military in our foreign policy.

This is not to say that we should close all our bases overseas tomorrow. I think we need to pare back our overseas deployments significantly, I think, and examine carefully every single base and whether every base is in fact justified.

There are other alternatives that would involve pre-positioning equipment and material that U.S. troops deploying from the United States could pair up with. There are agreements that can be worked out with other countries to establish basing in the event of a crisis. So there really are alternatives to this extraordinarily expensive overseas basing structure that we have maintained now since the end of World War II and which has become a permanent presence and is diverting resources from the military itself, from [a] more sensible structure to defend the United States.

And it’s diverting resources, of course, from other important security needs when it comes to our health, our education, our housing, our infrastructure.

Luke Vargas: David Vine, author of “Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World,” thank you so much.

David Vine: Thank you very much. It was really a pleasure to speak with you.

Luke Vargas: Michael McNerney, Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, thank you.

Michael McNerney: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Luke.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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