In Washington, the United States’ Congress is struggling to fix the national debt, and one suggested way to cut spending is to close excess overseas military bases. However, in June, the Senate Armed Services readiness committee rejected the Defense Department’s request to close some U.S. bases.
Statistics do not give an exact annual cost of operating foreign military bases, but Foreign Policy in Focus puts it at approximately $250 billion. That is roughly one-third of the United States military budget. Estimates count that there are anywhere from a several hundred to over a thousand overseas bases run by the U.S.
United States troops are present in over 200 countries, and U.S. bases exist in over 60 countries including Cuba, Japan, Kuwait, El Salvador, and Curacao. There are U.S. bases all over Europe, including as many as 54 military facilities in Germany alone. Countries such as China have no foreign military bases, while U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom and France operate much smaller numbers of overseas bases. Even Russia closed most of its foreign bases after the Cold War.
According to The Boston Globe, the Defense Department argues that the money saved from closing excess bases could instead be spent on military training and other operations. However, these bases help provide a thriving economy to the communities in which they are located. The upfront cost of a round of military base closures is too high, said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.
These bases were implemented for various reasons. Stationing U.S. Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy personnel overseas is a guaranteed way of protecting U.S. interests, responding quickly to a crisis, and reassuring allies. An article in The Diplomat explains, “Deterring regional aggression with forward basing has been central to U.S. military strategy since the end of World War II, when we resolved to never again have to fight our way in as we had just done in the Pacific.”
For example, during and after WWII, the U.S. established bases in Germany and Europe in order to maintain peace. Later, during the Cold War Era, European bases provided a containment ring against Russian communism.
The United States military bases in Japan were set up as part of the judgment of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East immediately following WWII. Like the bases in Europe, having military installments in Japan helped the U.S. during the Cold War. Having these bases allowed the U.S. to build a strategic ring of protection and provided strategic points from which they can either defend or launch offensive strikes.
The number of overseas bases implemented after WWII and into the Cold War is seen by some as U.S. Imperialism. World War II left the United Sates as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. According to Z Communications magazine, before WWII, the primary actor in world affairs was Britain, and even France had more global reach. The war had obliterated Japan and Germany and left France and the U.K. to rebuild. This left the U.S. the ability to gain control in Western Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British Empire, and as much of Eurasia as possible.
In the case of the Chagos Islands, the U.K. forced evacuation of the natives in order to for the U.S. to set up military bases. BBC News did a story in November 2000 detailing that, “In the mid-1960s, the U.S. was worried about possible Soviet expansion in the Indian Ocean and wanted a base in the region, but one without a “population problem” which might upset the base’s operation.” The U.S. reportedly provided the U.K. an $11 million subsidy to use the Chagos Islands, a part of Mauritius, which was then a British territory campaigning for independence. In return, the U.K. forced an evacuation of the islands’ citizens.
“At first, the islanders were tricked and intimidated into leaving; those who had gone to Mauritius for urgent medical treatment were prevented from returning,” explains John Pilger in a 2008 report in IC Magazine. “The remaining population were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes and furniture, and their lives.”
There are cases when the U.S. is asked to set up bases in foreign countries. In April, Manila offered to allow U.S. military bases in the Philippines in case of war with North Korea, according to The Express Tribune. Military tensions are intensifying in the Korean peninsula as North Korea threatens a nuclear war. They conducted a rocket test last December and a nuclear test in February. Improving defense ties with the United States would help the Philippines against this nuclear threat from North Korea. In addition, U.S. forces would help in the territorial dispute with China over parts of the South China Sea.
In other instances, citizens want U.S. forces removed from their cities. The Japanese island of Okinawa finds the dozens of U.S. military bases positioned there to be burdensome. The bases cover almost one-fifth of the island. Seventy-four percent of U.S bases in Japan are positioned on this one island, and in April 2010 over 90,000 Okinawans gathered to protest the bases.
Naoya Iju of the prefectural government’s Military Base Affairs Division tells BBC News, “Okinawans understand there are national security needs, but they do not understand why Okinawa has to have such a large proportion of the US bases.” Opponents say that the bases cause aircraft noise and traffic disruption. They complain about high levels of base-related crime. They say Okinawans have the highest birth-rate in Japan and desperately need the land back to live on.
The Transnational Institute says that U.S. foreign military bases function in the following six ways:
- They host about 160,000 US citizens: soldiers, civilians and other personnel. This figure excludes active duty personnel in ongoing wars and occupations, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also does not include the thousands of military personnel stationed in US overseas territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico and Kwajalein Atoll.
- Base are launching platforms for military maneuvers: Aerial bombings in Pakistan are launched from Diego Garcia; the now closed Manta base in Ecuador was used to coordinate covert military actions in Colombia; military facilities in Iraq and Turkey are used as coordination centers for behind the lines intelligence missions into Iran and Syria.
- Bases are often forward storage facilities for all sorts of weaponry including nuclear arms.
- Some bases are test-ranges for new weaponry, including nuclear testing; others are training grounds for US soldiers, or joint training locations.
- Other facilities serve as intelligence operations, such as the world-wide network of “Echelon” bases that monitor all email, phone and data communications traffic.
- In recent years, we have seen that foreign military bases are also used for the extra-judiciary transport, imprisonment and torture of people. Guantanamo Bay is the best known example, but many other facilities in Diego Garcia, the Middle East and Europe are implicated.
Devil’s Tower Camp in Gibraltar provides military training such as parachuting, driving, and tunnel warfare. Below the roads of the City there are tunnels up to 35 miles long. There are two firing ranges, an obstacle course and a fake village used for training to mimic warfare in a city environment.
The Kwajalein Atoll base is located on 97 small islands providing around 1100 square miles of land. No one actually lives on one of the islands, Meck, so workers must commute 25 miles from the nearby island Kwajalein. This Island has recently been a place to test weapons that are hypersonic but still experimental. Hypersonic weapons are weapons that use scramjet engines to project missiles at a higher speed than usual.
It’s true that many bases are important and useful, but with so many overseas bases, some eventually become outdated or useless. Proponents of shutting U.S. military bases to cut spending think it is time to close these excess bases. For example, there is an air base in Qaasuitsup, Greenland, called Thule. It is the most northern U.S. military base, and temperatures can dip to -40 degrees Fahrenheit inflicting exposed skin with frost bite in under a minute. Extreme temperatures mean the port is only usable three months out of the year. For those three months, the base is a useful location for missile defense and surveillance. They do this by using a radar system called the Missile Earning Warning System which continuously shoots a beam of radio waves into the ionosphere to check for aircraft or random objects flying over the North Pole. This goal of checking for missiles was a necessity in the Cold War. Now the base checks to see if the satellites are working properly, and the radar also checks for space debris.
Eareckson Air Station is located on the Aleuitian island of Shemya 1200 miles west from Anchorage and 200 miles east of Russia. This base is used as an emergency airfield for flights going through, but most of the time the winds are so extreme that the planes can’t fly off for days. The base is also tasked with scanning for possible North Korean rocket launches. The problem is the radar is outdated compared to new SBX radar. The government isn’t planning to update the radar but pay Raytheon 65 million dollars to keep it functioning.
Opponents of so many U.S. bases overseas find it unfair that there aren’t more foreign bases within the United States. Stationing military bases in the U.S. isn’t a strategic move for allies. The U.S. doesn’t have enemies at the borders threatening national security which often happens in the Middle East or Asia. Still, there is a little-known German base in the southwestern United States for pilot training. Allies often send their forces to American bases for practice and training because vast open space provides plenty of room for varied training maneuvers.
Despite not being in the most advantageous location, other countries occasionally ask to set up bases within the United States. As recently as 2007, “Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said Washington must let him open a military base in Miami if the United States wants to keep using an air base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast,” reported Reuters. The proposed Ecuadorean base was rejected by the U.S. government, forcing the Manta U.S. air base in Ecuador to close in 2009.