Unveiling the Shadows: Uncovering the Realities of U.S. Overseas Military Bases in 2023

By Mohammed Abunahel, World BEYOND War, May 30, 2023

The presence of U.S. military bases overseas has been a subject of concern and debate for decades. The United States attempts to justify these bases as necessary for national security and global stability; however, these arguments often lack conviction. And these bases have uncounted negative impacts which have become increasingly apparent. The danger posed by these bases is closely connected to their number, as the United States now has an empire of military bases where the sun never sets, spanning over 100 countries and estimated to be around 900 bases, according to a Visual Database Tool created by World BEYOND War (WBW). So, where are these bases? Where are  U.S. personnel deployed? How much does the United States spend on militarism?

I argue that the exact number of these bases is unknown and unclear, since the main resource, the Department of so-called Defense (DoD) reports are manipulated, and lack transparency and credibility. DoD intentionally aims to provide incomplete details for many known and unknown reasons.

Before jumping into details, it is worthy defining: what are the overseas U.S. bases? Overseas bases are distinct geographic locations located outside the U.S. border, which might be owned by, leased to, or under the jurisdiction of the DoD in the form of lands, islands, buildings, facilities, command and control facilities, logistics centres, parts of airports, or naval ports. These locations are generally military facilities established and operated by the U.S. military forces in foreign countries to deploy troops, conduct military operations, and project U.S. military power in key regions around the world or to store nuclear weapons.

The United States’ extensive history of constant war-making is closely connected to its vast network of overseas military bases. With approximately 900 bases scattered across more than 100 countries, the U.S. has established a global presence unparalleled by any other nation, including Russia or China.

The combination of the United States’ extensive history of war-making and its vast network of overseas bases paints a complex picture of its role in making the world unstable. The long record of war-making by the United States further underscores the significance of these overseas bases. The existence of these bases indicates U.S. readiness to launch a new war. The U.S. military has relied on these installations to support its various military campaigns and interventions throughout history. From the shores of Europe to the vast expanses of the Asia-Pacific region, these bases have played a crucial role in sustaining U.S. military operations and ensuring U.S. dominance in global affairs.

According to the Costs of War project at Brown University,  20 years after the event of 9/11, the U.S. has spent $8 trillion on its so-called “global war on terror.” This study estimated a cost of $300 million a day for 20 years. These wars have directly killed an estimated 6 million people.

In 2022, the U.S. spent $876.94 Billion on its military, which makes the U.S. the largest military spender in the world. This spending is almost equivalent to the spending of eleven countries on their military, namely: China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, Germany, France, Korea (Republic of), Japan, Ukraine, and  Canada; their total spending is $875.82 billion. Figure 1 illustrates the top spender countries in the world. (For more details, please see WBW’s Mapping Militarism).

Another danger lies in the U.S. deployment of its military personnel around the world. This deployment involves the necessary actions to transfer military personnel and resources from their home base to a designated location. As of 2023, the number of U.S. personnel deployed in foreign bases is 150,851 (This number does not include the largely Navy personnel in Armed Forces Europe or Armed Forces Pacific or all “special” forces, CIA, mercenaries, contractors, participants in certain wars (Syria, Ukraine, etc.) Japan has the highest number of U.S. military personnel  in the world followed by Korea (Republic of) and Italy, with 69,340, 14,765 and 13,395, respectively, as can be seen in Figure 2. (For more details, please see Mapping Militarism).

The presence of U.S. military personnel in foreign bases has been associated with several negative impacts. Wherever there is a base, there have been instances where U.S. soldiers are accused of committing crimes, including cases of assault, rape, and other offenses.

Moreover, the presence of military bases and activities can have environmental consequences. Military operations, including training exercises, can contribute to pollution and environmental degradation. The handling of hazardous materials and the impact of military infrastructure on local ecosystems can pose risks to the environment and public health.

According to a Visual Database Tool created by World BEYOND War, Germany has the highest number of U.S. bases in the world followed by Japan and South Korea, with 172, 99 and 62, respectively, as can be seen in Figure 3.

Based on DoD reports, the U.S. military base sites can be broadly classified into two main categories:

  • Large bases: a base/military installation located in a foreign country, that is larger than 10 acres (4 hectares) or worth more than $10 million. These bases are included in the DoD reports, and it is believed that each of these bases has more than 200 US military personnel. More than half of the U.S. overseas bases are listed under this category.
  • Small bases: a base/military installation located in a foreign country, that is smaller than 10 acres (4 hectares)or has a value of less than $10 million. These locations are not included in the DoD reports.

In the Middle East, the Al Udeid Air Base is the largest U.S. military installation. The United States maintains a significant military presence in the Middle East. This presence is characterized by the deployment of troops, bases, and various military assets throughout the region. Key countries hosting U.S. military installations in the region include Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, the U.S. Navy operates naval assets in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

Another example is Europe. Europe is home to at least 324 bases, mostly located in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. The largest hub for U.S. troops and military supplies in Europe is Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Furthermore, in Europe itself, the U.S. has nuclear weapons in seven or eight bases. Table 1 provides a glimpse into the location of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, specifically focusing on several bases and their bomb counts and details. Notably, The United Kingdom’s RAF Lakenheath held 110 U.S. nuclear weapons until 2008, and the U.S. is proposing to keep nuclear weapons there again, even as Russia follows the U.S. model and proposes to keep nukes in Belarus. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base stands out also with a bomb count of 90, consisting of 50 B61-3 and 40 B61-4.

Country Base Name Bomb Counts Bomb Details
Belgium Kleine-Brogel Air Base 20 10 B61-3; 10 B61-4
Germany Buchel Air Base 20 10 B61-3; 10 B61-4
Germany Ramstein Air Base 50 50 B61-4
Italy Ghedi-Torre Air Base 40 40 B61-4
Italy Aviano Air Base 50 50 B61-3
Netherlands Volkel Air Base 20 10 B61-3; 10 B61-4
Turkey Incirlik Air Base 90 50 B61-3; 40 B61-4
United Kingdom RAF Lakenheath ? ?

Table 1: U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe

The establishment of these U.S. military bases around the world has a complex history intertwined with geopolitical dynamics and military strategies. Some of these physical installations originated from land acquired as spoils of war, reflecting the outcomes of historical conflicts and territorial shifts. The continued existence and operation of these bases rely on collaborative agreements with host governments, which, in some instances, have been associated with authoritarian regimes or oppressive governments that derive certain benefits from the presence of these bases.

Unfortunately, the establishment and maintenance of these bases have often come at the cost of local populations and communities. In many cases, people have been displaced from their homes and lands to make way for the construction of military installations. This displacement has had significant social and economic consequences, depriving individuals of their livelihoods, disrupting traditional ways of life, and eroding the fabric of local communities.

Moreover, the presence of these bases has contributed to environmental challenges. The extensive land use and infrastructure development required for these installations have led to the displacement of agricultural activities and the loss of valuable farmland. Additionally, the operations of these bases have introduced considerable pollution into local water systems and the air, posing risks to the health and well-being of nearby communities and ecosystems. The unwelcome presence of these military installations has often strained relations between the host populations and the occupying forces — the United States — fueling tensions and concerns about sovereignty and autonomy.

It is important to acknowledge the complex and multifaceted impacts associated with these military bases. The creation and continued existence have not been without significant social, environmental, and political consequences for the host countries and their inhabitants. These issues will continue as long as these bases exist.

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