In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made a trenchant point: "The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?"
For years, the late Chalmers Johnson, the man who literally wrote the book on the US military's empire of bases, The Sorrows of Empire, made the same point and backed it with the most detailed research on the globe-spanning American archipelago of bases that has ever been assembled. Several years ago, after mining the Pentagon's own publicly-available documents, Johnson wrote, "[T]he United States maintains 761 active military 'sites' in foreign countries. (That's the Defense Department's preferred term, rather than 'bases,' although bases are what they are.)"
Recently, the Pentagon updated its numbers on bases and other sites, and they have dropped. Whether they've fallen to the level advanced by Kristof, however, is a matter of interpretation. According to the Department of Defense's 2010 Base Structure Report, the US military now maintains 662 foreign sites in 38 countries around the world. Dig into that report more deeply, though, and Grand Canyon-sized gaps begin to emerge.
A Legacy of Bases
In 1955, 10 years after World War II ended, the Chicago Daily Tribune published a major investigation of bases, including a map dotted with little stars and triangles, most of them clustered in Europe and the Pacific. "The American flag flies over more than 300 overseas outposts," wrote reporter Walter Trohan. "Camps and barracks and bases cover 12 American possessions or territories held in trust. The foreign bases are in 63 foreign nations or islands."
Today, according to the Pentagon's published figures, the American flag flies over 750 US military sites in foreign nations and US territories abroad. This figure does not include small foreign sites of less 10 acres or those that the US military values at less than $10 million. In some cases, numerous bases of this type may be folded together and counted as a single military installation in a given country. A request for further clarification from the Department of Defense went unanswered.
What we do know is that, on the foreign outposts the US military counts, it controls close to 52,000 buildings, and more than 38,000 pieces of heavy infrastructure like piers, wharves, and gigantic storage tanks, not to mention more than 9,100 "linear structures" like runways, rail lines, and pipelines. Add in more than 6,300 buildings, 3,500 pieces of infrastructure, and 928 linear structures in US territories and you have an impressive total. And yet, it isn't close to the full story.
Last January, Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told me that there were nearly 400 US and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. He expected that number to increase by 12 or more, he added, over the course of 2010.
In September, I contacted ISAF's Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow up. To my surprise, I was told that "there are approximately 350 forward operating bases with two major military installations, Bagram and Kandahar airfields." Perplexed by the loss of 50 bases instead of a gain of 12, I contacted Gary Younger, a Public Affairs Officer with the International Security Assistance Force. "There are less than 10 NATO bases in Afghanistan," he wrote in an October 2010 email. "There are over 250 US bases in Afghanistan."
By then, it seemed, the US had lost up to 150 bases and I was thoroughly confused. When I contacted the military to sort out the discrepancies and listed the numbers I had been given—from Shanks' 400 base tally to the count of around 250 by Younger—I was handed off again and again until I landed with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF Joint Command's Public Affairs. "The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411," Brown wrote in a November email, "which is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the Combat Out Post-level." Even this, he cautioned, wasn't actually a full list, because "temporary positions occupied by platoon-sized elements or less" were not counted.
Along the way to this "final" tally, I was offered a number of explanations—from different methods of accounting to the failure of units in the field to provide accurate information—for the conflicting numbers I had been given. After months of exchanging emails and seeing the numbers swing wildly, ending up with roughly the same count in November as I began with in January suggests that the US command isn't keeping careful track of the number of bases in Afghanistan. Apparently, the military simply does not know how many bases it has in its primary theater of operations.
Black Sites in Baseworld
Scan the Department of Defense's 2010 Base Structure Report for sites in Afghanistan. Go ahead, read through all 206 pages. You won't find a mention of them, not a citation, not a single reference, not an inkling that the United States has even one base in Afghanistan, let alone more than 400. This is hardly an insignificant omission. Add those 411 missing bases to Kristof's total and you get 971 sites around the world. Add it to the Pentagon's official tally and you're left with 1,073 bases and sites overseas, around 770 more than Walter Trohan uncovered for his 1955 article. That number even tops the 1967 count of 1,014 US bases abroad, which Chalmers Johnson considered "the Cold War peak."
There are, however, other ways to tally the total. In a letter written last Spring, Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Barney Frank, Ron Paul, and Walter Jones asserted that there were just 460 US military installations abroad, not counting those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nicholas Kristof, who came up with a count of 100 more than that, didn't respond to an email for clarification, but may have done the same analysis as I did: search the Pentagon's Base Structure Report and select out the obvious sites that, while having a sizeable "footprint," could only tenuously be counted as bases, like dependent family housing complexes and schools, resort hotels (yes, the Department of Defense has them), ski areas (them, too) and the largest of their golf courses—the US military claimed to possess a total of 172 courses of all sizes in 2007—and you get a total of around 570 foreign sites. Add to them the number of Afghan bases and you're left with about 981 foreign military bases.
As it happens, though, Afghanistan isn't the only country with a baseworld black-out. Search the Pentagon's tally for sites in Iraq and you won't find a single entry. (That was true even when the US reportedly had more than 400 bases in that country.) Today, the US military footprint there has shrunk radically. The Department of Defense declined to respond to an email request for the current number of bases in Iraq, but published reports indicate that no fewer than 88 are still there, including Camp Taji, Camp Ramadi, Contingency Operating Base Speicher, and Joint Base Balad, which, alone, boasts about 7,000 American troops. These missing bases would raise the worldwide total to about 1,069.
War zones aren't the only secret spots. Take a close look at Middle Eastern nations whose governments, fearing domestic public opinion, prefer that no publicity be given to American military bases on their territory, and then compare it to the Pentagon's official list. To give an example, the 2010 Base Structure Report lists one nameless US site in Kuwait. Yet we know that the Persian Gulf state hosts a number of US military facilities including Camp Arifjan, Camp Buering, Camp Virginia, Kuwait Naval Base, Ali Al Salem Air Base, and Udari Range. Add in these missing sites and the total number of bases abroad reaches 1,074.
Check the Pentagon's base tally for Qatar and you'll come up empty. But look at the numbers of Department of Defense personnel serving overseas and you'll find more than 550 service men and women deployed there. While that Persian Gulf nation may have officially built Al Udeid Air Base itself, to call it anything but a US installation would be disingenuous, given that it has served as a major logistics and command hub for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add it in and the foreign base count reaches 1,075.
Saudi Arabia is also missing from the Pentagon's tally, even though the current list of personnel abroad indicates that hundreds of US troops are deployed there. From the lead up to the First Gulf War in 1990 through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US military stationed thousands of troops in the kingdom. In 2003, in response to fundamentalist pressure on the Saudi government, Washington announced that it was pulling all but a small number of troops out of the country. Yet the US continues to train and advise from sites like Eskan Village, a compound 20 kilometers south of Riyadh where, according to 2009 numbers, 800 US personnel (500 of them advisors) were based.
Discounted, Uncounted, and Unknown
In addition to the unknown number of micro-bases that the Pentagon doesn't even bother to count and Middle Eastern and Afghan bases that fly under the radar, there are even darker areas in the empire of bases: installations belonging to other countries that are used but not acknowledged by the United States or avowed by the host-nation need to be counted, too. For example, it is now well known that US drone aircraft, operating under the auspices of both the CIA and the Air Force and conducting a not-so-secret war in Pakistan, take off from one or more bases in that country.
Additionally, there are other sites like the "covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi," exposed by Jeremy Scahill in the Nation magazine, and one or more airfields run by employees of the private security contractor Blackwater (now renamed Xe Services). While the Department of Defense's personnel tally indicates that there are well over a hundred troops deployed in Pakistan, it counts no bases there.
Similarly uncounted are the US Navy's carrier strike groups, flotillas that consist of massive aircraft carriers, the largest warships in the world, as well as a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers, an attack submarine, and an ammunition, oiler, and supply ship. The US boasts 11 such carriers, town-sized floating bases that can travel the world, as well as numerous other ships, some boasting well over 1,000 officers and crew, that may, says the Navy, travel "to any of more than 100 ports of call worldwide" from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro.
"The ability to conduct logistics functions afloat enables naval forces to maintain station anywhere," reads the Navy's Naval Operations Concept: 2010. So these bases that float under the radar should really be counted, too.
A Bang, A Whimper, and the Alamo of the Twenty-First Century
Speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans, and Related Agencies early last year, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn referenced the Pentagon's "507 permanent installations." The Pentagon's 2010 Base Structure Report, on the other hand, lists 4,999 total sites in the US, its territories, and overseas.
In the grand scheme of things, the actual numbers aren't all that important. Whether the most accurate total is 900 bases, 1,000 bases or 1,100 posts in foreign lands, what's undeniable is that the US military maintains, in Chalmers Johnson's famous phrase, an empire of bases so large and shadowy that no one—not even at the Pentagon—really knows its full size and scope.
All we know is that it raises the ire of adversaries like al Qaeda, has a tendency to grate on even the closest of allies like the Japanese, and costs American taxpayers a fortune every year. In 2010, according to Robyn, military construction and housing costs at all US bases ran to $23.2 billion. An additional $14.6 billion was needed for maintenance, repair, and recapitalization. To power its facilities, according to 2009 figures, the Pentagon spent $3.8 billion. And that likely doesn't even scratch the surface of America's baseworld in terms of its full economic cost.
Like all empires, the US military's empire of bases will someday crumble. These bases, however, are not apt to fall like so many dominos in some silver-screen last-stand sequence. They won't, that is, go out with the "bang" of futuristic Alamos, but with the "whimper" of insolvency.
Last year, rumbling began even among Washington lawmakers about this increasingly likely prospect. "I do not think we should be spending money to have troops in Germany 65 years after World War II. We have a terrible deficit and we have to cut back," said Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank. Similarly, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas announced, "If the United States really wants to assure our allies and deter our enemies, we should do it with strong military capabilities and sound policy—not by keeping troops stationed overseas, not siphoning funds from equipment and arms and putting it into duplicative military construction."
Indeed, toward the end of 2010, the White House's bipartisan deficit commission—officially known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—suggested cutting US garrisons in Europe and Asia by one-third, which would, in their estimation, save about $8.5 billion in 2015.
The empire of bases, while still at or close to its height, is destined to shrink. The military is going to have to scale back its foreign footholds and lessen its global footprint in the years ahead. Economic realities will necessitate that. The choices the Pentagon makes today will likely determine on what terms its garrisons come home tomorrow. At the moment, they can still choose whether coming home will look like an act of magnanimous good statesmanship or inglorious retreat.
Whatever the decision, the clock is ticking, and before any withdrawals begin, the US military needs to know exactly where it's withdrawing from (and Americans should have an accurate sense of just where its overseas armies are). An honest count of US bases abroad—a true, full, and comprehensive list—would be a tiny first step in the necessary process of downsizing the global mission.
Nick Turse is an investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. His website is NickTurse.com. To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Turse discusses how to count up America's empire of bases, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.