The United States has 460 bases overseas! It has 507 permanent bases! What is
the US doing with more than 560 foreign bases? Why does it have 662 bases
abroad? Does the United States really have more than 1,000 military bases
across the globe?
In a world of statistics and precision, a world in which "accountability" is
now a Washington buzzword, a world where all information is available at the
click of a mouse, there's one number no American knows. Not the president. Not
the Pentagon. Not the experts. No one.
The man who wrote the definitive book on it didn't know for sure. The Pulitzer
Prize-winning New York Times columnist didn't even
come close. Yours truly has written numerous articles on US military bases and
even part of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest.
There are more than 1,000 US military bases dotting the globe. To be specific,
the most accurate count is 1,077. Unless it's 1,088. Or, if you count
differently, 1,169. Or even 1,180. Actually, the number might even be higher.
Nobody knows for sure.
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 than 10 acres (4 hectares)
or those that the US military values at less than US$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 ISAF. "There are less
than 10 NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization[ bases in Afghanistan," he
wrote in an October 2010 e-mail. "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
e-mail, "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
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 e-mails 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 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. Kristof, who came up with a count of
100 more than that, didn't respond to an e-mail 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 e-mail 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