Base lines and military projections

David Vine has updated his map of the global footprint of the US military over at Politico.

VINE US military bases

I used an early version for my ‘War and Peace’ essay (DOWNLOADS tab), and that map – like this one – was drawn primarily from the annual Base Structure Report, a summary of the US military’s ‘real property inventory’ (all sites owned and managed by the Pentagon).  It’s an unwieldy document which uses a high threshold to filter inclusion:

To qualify for individual entry in the BSR, a DoD site located in the United States must be larger than 10 acres AND have a Plant Replacement Value (PRV) greater than $10 million. If the site is located in a foreign country, it must be larger than 10 acres OR have a PRV greater than $10 million to be shown as a separate entry. Sites that do not meet these criteria are aggregated as an “Other” location within each state or country.

Iraq doesn’t appear in these tabulations – though it is shown on the map – yet the continuing US involvement in the conflict there and across the all-but-erased border in Syria has surely extended its footprint.  As David notes,

‘There were 505 bases at the U.S. occupation’s height, but the Iraqi parliament rejected the Pentagon’s wish to keep 58 “enduring” bases after the 2011 withdrawal. U.S. forces have occupied at least five bases since 2014 and are considering more installations.’

Afghanistan is absent too: ‘By the end of 2014 … the U.S. military will have closed, deconstructed, or vacated most of what were once around 800 military installations, ranging from small checkpoints to larger combat outposts to city-sized bases.’  But the US military retains a significant presence there, and its drones are still based there to support continuing military operations and to attack targets across the border in Pakistan.

There are also strategic omissions.  There’s no mention in the Base Structure Report of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, for example, which is the location of US Central Command’s Combined Air and Operations Center.

(You can find more from David on the history of America’s ‘infrastructure for war’ in the Middle East here and on its ‘lily-pad’ strategy here).

There are all sorts of issues involved in measuring a ‘military footprint’ – see my post here and Josh Begley here (who works from the previous year’s Base Structure Report for FY 2013 to produce a radically different visualization) – but for all its uncertainties, David’s map is a sobering snapshot, and he relies on supplementary sources to conclude:

Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.

By my calculation, maintaining bases and troops overseas cost $85 to $100 billion in fiscal year 2014; the total with bases and troops in warzones is $160 to $200 billion.

VINE Base Nation

When I first contacted David, his original map formed part of his scorching investigation into Diego Garcia: Island of Shame: the secret history of the US military base on the island of Diego Garcia (Princeton, 2009; paperback 2011: all royalties went to the Chagossians); the new version forms part of an even more ambitious project, Base Nation: how US military bases abroad harm America and the world (Metropolitan Books, 2015):

American military bases encircle the globe. More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. still stations its troops at nearly a thousand locations in foreign lands. These bases are usually taken for granted or overlooked entirely, a little-noticed part of the Pentagon’s vast operations. But in an eye-opening account, Base Nation shows that the worldwide network of bases brings with it a panoply of ills–and actually makes the nation less safe in the long run.

As David Vine demonstrates, the overseas bases raise geopolitical tensions and provoke widespread antipathy towards the United States. They also undermine American democratic ideals, pushing the U.S. into partnerships with dictators and perpetuating a system of second-class citizenship in territories like Guam. They breed sexual violence, destroy the environment, and damage local economies. And their financial cost is staggering: though the Pentagon underplays the numbers, Vine’s accounting proves that the bill approaches $100 billion per year.

For many decades, the need for overseas bases has been a quasi-religious dictum of U.S. foreign policy. But in recent years, a bipartisan coalition has finally started to question this conventional wisdom. With the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan and ending thirteen years of war, there is no better time to re-examine the tenets of our military strategy. Base Nation is an essential contribution to that debate.

There is a long history of struggles against the presence of US military bases overseas – Catherine Lutz‘s edited collection, The bases of empire: the global struggle against US military posts (New York University Press, 2009) remains an indispensable starting-point.

Of course, the US military is also omnipresent in the United States, with installations in all 50 states and seven territories.  The Base Structure Report includes this summary:

DoD sites JPEG

And these bases have brought their own problems and spawned their own protests too.