Does Overseas Basing Make Sense for Today’s Military?

U.S. Navy aircraft from Carrier Air Wing 5 perform a formation flight in front of Mount Fuji, Japan, April 12, 2007. Nine squadrons are assigned to the air wing and embarked aboard USS Kitty Hawk. The squadrons operate from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan. Kitty Hawk operates out of Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan. Photo Courtesy U.S. Navy.

Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. Vine, David. Metropolitan Books, 2015.


The national security strategy of the United States since World War II has included overseas basing as a strategic deterrence, first to counter the rising Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China and more recently in the Middle East. There were valid arguments for maintaining military bases in Europe and Asia after the Second World War. However, in the 21st Century should the U.S. invest billions to maintain hundreds of overseas bases that endure because of 19th and 20th Century threats?

Vine asks a number of tough questions and builds a strong argument against the U.S. investment in the extensive range of bases it maintains overseas.

David Vine Ph.D., in his latest book Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, builds on his earlier book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia to look at the issue from a broader global perspective which he argues has made the U.S. less secure. Vine’s first book focuses on U.S. and British joint efforts to move the island’s indigenous people from the small coral island located in the Indian Ocean, so that it could be used as a strategic airbase, prepositioning port and intelligence collection site by the two nations. Diego Garcia did not have many of the issues that he discusses in Base Nation. As an example, the base has remained an unaccompanied tour and supporting families on the base is not an issue and without a local population, aircraft noise is not a concern shared by bases in Europe.

Vine asks a number of tough questions and builds a strong argument against the U.S. investment in the extensive range of bases it maintains overseas. Do overseas bases enhance the security of the United States? Have the bases become targets for terrorist attacks? Have they negatively impacted the host nation’s security by inevitably making the host country a target? Is it ethical for the U.S. to work with dictators and criminals for basing rights? What damage has the “blowback” of American service members criminal activity (drugs, rape, and prostitution) had on the “camp towns” in the host nations? Lastly, are the bases worth the monetary price to American taxpayers as well as the economic effect of U.S. dollars being spent overseas rather than supporting the domestic economy by spending defense dollars at home?

Ramstein Air Force Germany is one of the mega-bases which resemble medium state side cities. It is an anchor for bases in the Kaiserslautern military community.

Vine offers a brief history of overseas basing and makes the correlation of overseas basing to the frontier army forts which moved westward as America expanded from the original thirteen states. He dubs Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan as “the prophet” of U.S. overseas basing using Thayer’s argument “that great powers require strong navies capable of projecting a country’s commercial shipping and opening foreign markets to trade.” Overseas bases and coaling stations emerged as ships moved from sail to steam power and bases were established in many countries, China and the Latin American “Banana Republics,” to protect American commercial interests.

I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. Major General Smedley Butle, USMC Retired 1933

The United States military maintains hundreds of bases overseas (with 170 golf courses) that range from mega bases which Vine calls “Little Americas” to small shared use facilities which he calls “Lily Pads” and were described in 2001 by a former defense department official as having “no flag, no forward presence, no family.” To avoid semantics Vine defines “bases as any place, facility, or installation used regularly for military purposes of any kind.”

U.S. Air Force Security Force and a “juicy girl” outside Osan AFB. In 2014 the Department of Defense prohibited servicemembers from paying for the girls’ services.

Vine uses several chapters to discuss the grim side of overseas basing: the corruption involved in working with many foreign governments, working with criminals like the Italian Mafia in contracting for base services, and lastly the criminal element associated with sex and drug use in the camp towns that surround the bases. How should these issues be applied to U.S. strategic security? These are the subject for another discussion — especially the conduct of service members stationed abroad.

The Department of Defense budget with continuing resolutions, sequestering, and reimbursable costs from host countries makes obtaining a true cost for overseas basing nearly impossible.

Trying to account for the number of bases and their true cost is very difficult if not impossible since some bases may be included in a “black budget” to protect classified missions or they may be operated by foreign nations, international security organizations (NATO), or by other U.S. agencies (CIA). Vine gives examples of problems in tabulating the Pentagon expenditures for overseas basing. He found bases where money is budgeted to maintain a base but does not have any corresponding cost for service members to be assigned, or a civilian work force, or vice versa. The Department of Defense budget with continuing resolutions, sequestering, and reimbursable costs from host countries makes obtaining a true cost for overseas basing nearly impossible.

To protect the U.S. from overseas threats and to carry on its current operations, it is imperative that the armed services have access to overseas bases. Congress and the Pentagon agree that the locations need to be based on today’s threat. The 2005 Overseas Basing Commission reported, “The expansion of cooperative security locations (CSL) and forward operating sites (FOS) in key strategic locations around the globe adds to operational flexibility, preserves a presence abroad, and serves to strengthen alliance relationships… The U.S. overseas bases structure must serve both in the near term and for decades to come. ”

Is it time for the U.S. to move from the “Little America” bases to the smaller bases that do not have the facilities to support families and long-term deployments? Vine concludes that as the British Empire faded it gave up its bases from a position of weakness. He argues the U.S. has a “politically challenging list of proposals. But proclaiming that things can never change is a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

“It is critical that the steps be taken in such a way that at any point in the process U.S. security is stronger, not weaker.” Overseas Basing Commission

The U.S cannot afford to maintain today’s forces as they are currently based. Basing should be determined on current and projected threats and should not be justified by legacy treaties or security agreements. The conundrum that defense planners face is determining where the next hot spot appear. In the early 1990s the U.S. closed its installations in the Philippines and today is talking with the Philippine government about basing ships and planes on its old locations to counter the growing Chinese threat in the South China Sea.

Vine — an anthropologist — views the issue from multiple facets and not just the schema of a national security. He debunks some economic estimates that the local economies depend solely on the U.S. presence and would collapse without American spending. He looks hard at the societal issues caused by drugs, bars, and sex that affect local people and breed corruption. In contrast to Vine’s writings, the plethora of government and think-tank studies and reports look predominately at the issue from the military or economic impact on the U.S.

Base Nation should be read by those that want to look beyond the black and white of economic studies and threat projections to see the human costs of continuing to spend billions to maintain the current structure. Though many may disagree with the status of overseas bases, it is not a problem that has lacked the government’s attention. Congress and this and past administrations have issued reports and studies, and some bases have closed. However, in Washington nothing happens fast.

Can the security of the United States and the American taxpayer afford the wait?


Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader.


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