Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The Scope of U.S. Global Military Presence

by Micah Zenko
April 30, 2013

In the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012, Congress included a routine reporting requirement, “The Secretary of Defense shall commission an independent assessment of the overseas basing presence of United States forces.” That report—with twelve authors—was published yesterday by RAND: “Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces: An Assessment of the Relative Costs and Strategic Benefits.” It is, by far, the most impressive and comprehensive study of the scope, benefits, risks, costs, and consequences of America’s global military presence. Many citizens and policymakers are unaware of the number of troops stationed overseas to execute U.S. defense strategy: recent Pentagon data lists over 172,000 U.S. servicemembers on permanent or rotational deployments around the world (not including the 66,000 troops in Afghanistan).

To learn more about what U.S. servicemembers are doing, what alleged security benefits accrue from this, what impact this has on allies and adversaries, and what it costs taxpayers, I highly recommend this important Rand study. In particular, see chapter one for the location and size of military bases in the major theaters. A few other highlights that stood out:

While the U.S. overseas posture does contribute to deterring potential adversaries and assuring friends and allies, it does not mean that all overseas facilities and forward capabilities can be justified on this basis; they are not all equally important in this regard. (xxi)

Political access cannot be guaranteed in advance, even when formal agreements exist, but there are factors that are likely to influence access decisions, such as the level of overlapping threat perception and interest, host-nation domestic public opinion about the conflict and the U.S. role in the conflict, and the perceived likelihood of reprisals. Moreover, some of these negative factors are more likely to influence the decisionmaking of unstable host nations. For example, if a host government faces significant internal instability, this could lead to a politically constrained view of acceptable U.S. access. (xxiii)

We found that there are annual recurring fixed costs to having a base open, ranging from an estimated $50 million to about $200 million per year, depending on service and region, with additional variable recurring costs depending on base size. (xxv)

In Europe and the Asia-Pacific region due to higher allowances related to the cost of living, higher permanent-change-of-station move costs, and the need to provide schools more comprehensively, with the incremental overseas cost per person varying widely from about $10,000 to close to $40,000 per year. (xxv)

The United States first established permanent overseas bases after its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As a result of this conflict, the United States acquired a number of territories in the Far East and the Caribbean, and it constructed military bases for the defense of some of these possessions and to enable U.S. forces to project power into these regions. Yet until World War II, domestic public opinion, interservice disagreements, and the restrictions that the United States agreed to in the Washington Naval Conference’s Five Power Treaty constrained the size of the peacetime U.S. military presence overseas. (6)

Figure 2.16 illustrates the application of this method. It provides an examination of the number of MQ-9s [drones] required to maintain a single 24/7 orbit as the distance from the originating base increases. In doing so, it shows that beyond 1,000 nm, the number of MQ-9s needed increases rapidly and ultimately becomes impractical or prohibitive. The most efficient range, requiring a system of four MQ-9s, is shown in the green region; the yellow region shows the range in which two systems are required; and the red shows where more than two systems are required. The line becomes vertical where it is no longer practical to fly a mission from a base. These thresholds are first-order approximations, meant to be representative of what a military planner might desire in terms of distance from a support base to an operation to avoid putting an undue strain on the force. (67)

As depicted in Figure 2.17, the current U.S. posture provides locations for efficient MQ-9 operations covering Europe, the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia. The circles show the coverage zone from available bases, including access-only bases, with the darkness of the circle reflecting the number of overlapping zones in an area (see legend). (67)

In general, a nation’s decision to grant the United States contingency access will be context-dependent. In part, this calculus will rest on the type of operation the United States wants to conduct and against whom, in addition to the expected duration of the mission. Contingency access, therefore, is not a simple yes or no question. Host nations may authorize the United States to use bases on their territory for certain types of operations but prohibit others. For instance, host nations may be more likely to permit non-lethal operations to be conducted from their territory compared with combat operations. Some nations may balk at allowing the United States to use certain types of platforms or weapons from their territory. Traditionally, bombers and nuclear weapons have been particularly sensitive issues. (109)

In this regard, an assessment of previous attack methods can be instructive. An unpublished RAND report assessed violent extremist attacks on military targets between 2000 and early 2009. Of those 1,800 incidents, only about 20 percent were against military facilities (see Figure 5.4). The rest were against military personnel outside of those facilities. As these data included incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were numerous attacks on personnel in vehicles through IEDs (33 percent), as well as in exposed locations (43 percent), and only a small fraction occurred in nonmilitary structures (5 percent) (116)

Drawing on those sources, we find that the United States makes payments of about $30 million annually to Djibouti.  The $30 million payment to Djibouti is made in consideration for the access to and use of the areas and facilities described in the Arrangement in Implementation of the ‘Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Djibouti on Access to and Use of Facilities in the Republic of Djibouti’ of February 19, 2003, Concerning the Use of Camp Lemonier and Other Facilities and Areas in the Republic of Djibouti and its annexes. Under the terms of that implementing arrangement, any payments made by the United States to Djibouti, consistent with the land lease of 2003, would be credited against the $30 million. By comparison, a recent press report notes that Djibouti, which hosts France’s largest military base in Africa, receives another $36.75 million per year in rent payments from that country. (156)

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