July 28, 2015 9:45am
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.