Consider the benefits of closing excess bases abroad
Special to Stars and Stripes January 29, 2023
Rumblings of a potential deal to cap defense spending has triggered furious debate on Capitol Hill. Progressives and fiscal conservatives alike worry about a ballooning Pentagon budget that grows closer to $1 trillion, while defense hawks like Liz Cheney cry out that even a single cent cut would “weaken our national defense” and cause the country to “suffer.”
However, there is a first step toward compromise that could satisfy both sides by freeing up resources for the military without increasing the top line budget: Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). This process allows the military to redirect money from obsolete installations toward more strategic needs.
Suggesting base closure is often the fastest way to get kicked out of a congressional office. Domestic military bases are key drivers of local economic activity and any politician interested in reelection is understandably paranoid about closure threats. Approximately 348,000 civilian and military residents are employed across the 30 military bases of California, the home state of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Buried within the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act is a now-regular prohibition that states “nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an additional Base Realignment and Closure round.”
What’s the solution to this resistance? Start with America’s enormous footprint abroad instead. According to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the United States has approximately 750 military base sites in 80 countries. Cutting down this number is an obvious move to realize economic savings, reduce security liabilities and even improve diplomatic relationships.
This sprawling constellation costs taxpayers $55 billion a year. That’s more than double the generous amount of security assistance that Washington has provided Ukraine since the outbreak of war in February.
Beyond saving dollars, dramatically slimming down overseas bases also means fewer liabilities. Military installations on foreign soil are often irresistible targets, as evidenced by the rocket attacks on American bases in Iraq in 2021 and in Syria in 2022.
Closing foreign bases even provides diplomatic benefits. American bases are often aggravating to local populations, causing protest movements that put partner governments like Japan or Italy in difficult positions. Removing some of these bases may help Washington improve relations and provide leverage in other negotiations.
Can America really reduce its massive footprint overseas without compromising necessary security capabilities? It can, and has done so successfully in the recent past. As noted by Mike Sweeney of Defense Priorities, the United States maintained only two installations in the entire Middle East region between 1971 and 1991. Despite the lack of major bases, America was able to support Israel during the Yom Kippur War and fight the Tanker War against Iran using a mix of assets based in the continental U.S. and novel tactics like sea bases on mobile barges.
To be fair, there are certainly bases at home that could also be categorized as unstrategic sinkholes of spending. However, Congress has stonewalled every single attempt by the Department of Defense to realign domestic bases since the last BRAC round in 2005.
Secretaries of defense often complain to Congress that an estimated 19% of DOD infrastructure is excess and that those resources could be repurposed toward more important uses. If the Pentagon is serious about the need to free up funds, working with Congress to eliminate some of the hundreds of bases on foreign soil first will go a long way to building trust and achieving tangible progress on this front.
Weighing the costs and benefits of each base abroad will also force a long overdue conversation about how to define America’s national interests. Behind every basing decision is an assumption, and maintaining a dynamic military requires constantly questioning both expenses and assumptions. A clear-eyed assessment of which American aims are realistic and which (if any) foreign bases truly serve these aims will lead to a smaller risk profile abroad and increased savings at home.
No amount of base closures will solve a mounting national debt crisis on its own, but closing foreign bases should be a meaningful first step. A successful BRAC round for overseas installations will show lawmakers that the Pentagon is sincere about using every penny as wisely as possible before asking for more and can distinguish necessities from luxuries when preparing the force structure that tomorrow’s challenges demand.
Andrew C. Jarocki is a master’s student at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He has written for The National Interest, Realist Review and DefenseNews.