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Empire: The Pentagon Can Barely Keep Track of Its Thousands of Bases

A count of U.S. bases abroad would be a tiny first step in the necessary process of downsizing the global mission -- and we don't even have that.
 
 
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The United States has 460 bases overseas!  It has 507 permanent bases!  What is the U.S 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 U.S. military bases and even part of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest. 

There are more than 1,000 U.S. 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.

Keeping Count

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military sites in foreign nations and U.S. territories abroad.  This figure does not include small foreign sites of less 10 acres or those that the U.S. military values at less than $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 U.S. 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 U.S. territories and you have an impressive total.  And yet, it isn’t close to the full story.

 
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