We were standing in front of a massive 145-acre construction site for a "little America" rising in Vicenza, an architecturally renowned Italian city and UNESCO world heritage site near Venice. This was Dal Molin, the new military base the US Army has been readying for the relocation of as many as 2,000 soldiers from Germany in 2013.
Since 1955, Vicenza has also been home to another major US base, Camp Ederle. They're among the more than 1,000 bases the United States uses to ring the globe (with about 4,000 more in the 50 states and Washington, D.C.). This complex of military installations, unprecedented in history, has been a major, if little noticed, aspect of US power since World War II.
During the Cold War, such bases became the foundation for a "forward strategy" meant to surround the Soviet Union and push US military power as close to its borders as possible. These days, despite the absence of a superpower rival, the Pentagon has been intent on dotting the globe with scores of relatively small "lily pad" bases, while continuing to build and maintain some large bases like Dal Molin.
Americans rarely think about these bases, let alone how much of their tax money—and debt—is going to build and maintain them. For Dal Molin and related construction nearby, including a brigade headquarters, two sets of barracks, a natural-gas-powered energy plant, a hospital, two schools, a fitness center, dining facilities, and a mini-mall, taxpayers are likely to shell out at least half a billion dollars. (All the while, a majority of locals passionately and vocally oppose the new base.)p>
How much does the United States spend each year occupying the planet with its bases and troops? How much does it spend on its global presence? Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1 billion a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170 billion. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of "the Global War on Terror" in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.
How Much Do We Spend?
By law, the Pentagon must produce an annual " Overseas Cost Summary" (OCS) putting a price on the military's activities abroad, from bases to embassies and beyond. This means calculating all the costs of military construction, regular facility repairs, and maintenance, plus the costs of maintaining one million US military and Defense Department personnel and their families abroad—the pay checks, housing, schools, vehicles, equipment, and the transportation of personnel and materials overseas and back, and far, far more.
The latest OCS, for the 2012 fiscal year ending September 30th, documented $22.1 billion in spending, although, at Congress's direction, this doesn't include any of the more than $118 billion spent that year on the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe.
While $22.1 billion is a considerable sum, representing about as much as the budgets for the Departments of Justice and Agriculture and about half the State Department's 2012 budget, it contrasts sharply with economist Anita Dancs's estimate of $250 billion. She included war spending in her total, but even without it, her figure comes to around $140 billion—still $120 billion more than the Pentagon suggests.
Wanting to figure out the real costs of garrisoning the planet myself, for more than three years, as part of a global investigation of bases abroad, I've talked to budget experts, current and former Pentagon officials, and base budget officers. Many politely suggested that this was a fool's errand given the number of bases involved, the complexity of distinguishing overseas from domestic spending, the secrecy of Pentagon budgets, and the "frequently fictional" nature of Pentagon figures. (The Department of Defense remains the only federal agency unable to pass a financial audit.)
Ever the fool and armed only with the power of searchable PDFs, I nonetheless plunged into the bizarro world of Pentagon accounting, where ledgers are sometimes still handwritten and $1 billion can be a rounding error. I reviewed thousands of pages of budget documents, government and independent reports, and hundreds of line items for everything from shopping malls to military intelligence to postal subsidies.
Wanting to err on the conservative side, I decided to follow the methodology Congress mandated for the OCS, while also looking for overseas costs the Pentagon or Congress might have ignored. It hardly made sense to exclude, for example, the health-care costs the Department of Defense pays for troops on overseas bases, spending for personnel in Kosovo, or the price tag for supporting the 550 bases we have in Afghanistan.
In the spirit of "monitoring the construction," let me lead you on an abbreviated account of my quest to come up with the real costs of occupying planet Earth.
Although the Overseas Cost Summary initially might seem quite thorough, you'll soon notice that countries well known to host US bases have gone missing-in-action. In fact, at least 18 countries and foreign territories on the Pentagon's own list of overseas bases go unnamed.
Particularly surprising is the absence of Kosovo and Bosnia. The military has had large bases and hundreds of troops there for more than a decade, with another Pentagon report showing 2012 costs of $313.8 million. According to that report, the OCS also understates costs for bases in Honduras and Guantánamo Bay by about a third or $85 million.
And then other oddities appear: in places like Australia and Qatar, the Pentagon says it has funds to pay troops but no money for "operations and maintenance" to turn the lights on, feed people, or do regular repairs. Adjusting for these costs adds an estimated $36 million. As a start, I found:
$436 million for missing countries and costs.
That's not much compared to $22 billion and chump change in the context of the whole Pentagon budget, but it's just a beginning.
At Congress's direction, the Pentagon also omits the costs of bases in the oft-forgotten US territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. This is strange because the Pentagon considers them "overseas." More important, as economist Dancs says, "The United States retains territories... primarily for the purposes of the military and projecting military power." Plus, they are, well, literally overseas.
Conservatively, this adds $3 billion in total military spending to the OCS.
However, there are more quasi-US territories in the form of truly forgotten Pacific Ocean island nations in "compacts of free association" with the United States—the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. Ever since it controlled these islands as "strategic trust territories" after World War II, the US has enjoyed the right to establish military facilities on them, including the nuclear test site on the Bikini Atoll and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site elsewhere in the Marshalls.
This comes in exchange for yearly aid payments from the Office of Insular Affairs, adding another $571 million and yielding total costs of:
$3.6 billion for territories and Pacific island nations.
Speaking of the oceans, at Congress's instruction, the Pentagon excludes the cost of maintaining naval vessels overseas. But Navy and Marine Corps vessels are essentially floating (and submersible) bases used to maintain a powerful military presence on (and under) the seas. A very conservative estimate for these costs adds another $3.8 billion.
Then there are the costs of Navy prepositioned ships at anchor around the world. Think of them as warehouse-bases at sea, stocked with weaponry, war materiel, and other supplies. And don't forget Army prepositioned stocks. Together, they come to an estimated $604 million a year. In addition, the Pentagon appears to omit some $861 million for overseas "sealift" and "airlift" and "other mobilization" expenses. All told, the bill grows by:
$5.3 billion for Navy vessels and personnel plus seaborne and airborne assets.
Also strangely missing from the Cost Summary is that little matter of health-care costs. Overseas costs for the Defense Health Program and other benefits for personnel abroad add an estimated $11.7 billion yearly. And then there's $538 million in military and family housing construction that the Pentagon also appears to overlook in its tally.
So too, we can't forget about shopping on base, because we the taxpayers are subsidizing those iconic Walmart-like PX ( Post Exchange) shopping malls on bases worldwide. Although the military is fond of saying that the PX system pays for itself because it helps fund on-base recreation programs, Pentagon leaders neglect to mention that the PXs get free buildings and land, free utilities, and free transportation of goods to overseas locations. They also operate tax-free.
While there's no estimate for the value of the buildings, land, and utilities that taxpayers provide, the exchanges reported $267 million in various subsidies for 2011. (Foregone federal taxes might add $30 million or more to that figure.) Add in as well postal subsidies of at least $71 million and you have:
$12.6 billion for health care, military and family housing, shopping and postal subsidies.
Another Pentagon exclusion is rent paid to other countries for the land we garrison. Although a few countries like Japan, Kuwait, and South Korea actually pay the United States to subsidize our garrisons—to the tune of $1.1 billion in 2012—far more common, according to base expert Kent Calder, "are the cases where the United States pays nations to host bases."