Don’t close U.S. bases overseas

In a New York Times op-ed on July 27, American University Professor David Vine argued that the Department of Defense maintains a vast array of overseas bases that waste money, attract terrorist strikes, and militarize American foreign policy.

There is no doubt that some of his concerns are valid. For example, I would argue that the planned relocation of many Marines on Okinawa to Guam—along with the building of a major new airfield on Okinawa—is wasteful (though Tokyo will pay most of the costs). And I would agree that it sure would be nice if we could have fewer forces in the broader Middle East (though our non-intervention in Syria, and the mess that has ensued, shows that there are often huge costs to avoiding the deployment of forces as well). But on balance, Vine stacks the deck too blatantly in service of his argument, and a corrective is needed.

What the numbers really show

Vine writes that there are some 700 U.S. military bases abroad—in fact, there are fewer than 600 today. While his numbers are not far off, the bigger problem is that he conflates big bases with smaller ones.

To see the importance of this, take for example the Air Force. It has about 15 truly major operational bases overseas with significant operational capacity (major runways and related infrastructure)—and that’s it. A couple in Germany, a couple in Britain, one in Italy, one in Qatar, one in Kuwait, one in the UAE, three in Japan, two in South Korea, one in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and a couple still in Afghanistan. To be sure, the Air Force has lots of smaller facilities, but these aren’t major operational bases.

To be sure, America’s capabilities abroad are significant, dwarfing those of any other nation. But they have declined dramatically. The Army returned more than 500 facilities in Germany alone as the Cold War ended, for example.

And the process has continued since. Total numbers of overseas bases are down about one-third over the last decade. Uniformed American personnel deployed or stationed overseas numbered more than a half a million during the Reagan years (and even more during most of the Cold War); they have been reduced to less than 200,000 today.

Vine is correct that having forces deployed, say, in Germany or Okinawa does not appreciably speed their redeployment to, say, the Middle East or Korea. But having forces based where they can fight directly—such as Air Force and Army units in Korea, or Air Force and Navy units in Japan, as well as the broader Middle East—is hugely beneficial should a crisis erupt. There are also training benefits to having Army forces in Germany and Italy, for example. And the recent Ukraine crisis makes one wonder if indeed we have already downscaled too much in terms of ground forces in Europe. No one is looking for war with Russia, but we also need to be sure President Vladimir Putin knows that the United States remains committed to the security of its treaty allies, for the sake of sound deterrence.

The most jarring, and in my view incorrect, assertion that Vine makes is that having U.S. forces abroad costs the United States some $85 billion a year. He makes clear that he is not counting the costs of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq (which have indeed been strikingly expensive). But his own math shows that this figure is wrong—and The New York Times should have caught it. He says that it costs $10,000 to $40,000 a year more to have a GI abroad that at home, which is true (again, excepting the war zones). Since there are some 200,000 uniformed personnel abroad at a time, this translates into $2 billion to $8 billion a year more in ongoing, annual costs. Even adding in annualized costs for new construction projects leaves the grand total well under $20 billion—real money, to be sure, but a modest fraction of America’s nearly $600 billion annual defense budget, and a bargain if having bases abroad strengthens deterrence.

Vine raises lots of good issues and questions, but unfortunately mixes them with a combination of hyperbole and distortion that makes his overall argument far weaker than it could be, if it were more modest and careful.