Overseas Bases in Budget Crosshairs

The Pentagon wants a smaller foreign footprint, and deficit-weary lawmakers will be only too happy to oblige.

U.S. foreign military bases and installations are under the gun in more ways than one.

Pressure to cut the deficit and trim the $550-billion annual defense budget will spur a consolidation of possibly several dozen military installations in far-flung places during the next three to five years. Savings, which will take a few years to realize because of cleanup and closing costs, could be $10 billion to $20 billion annually, depending on the number and size of installations ultimately cut.

The U.S. maintains 702 foreign military installations in 63 countries, although the bulk of the personnel and equipment stationed abroad are in Germany and South Korea. Overseas bases (opens in new tab) run the gamut, from the heavily used Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany, to little-used chemical storage yards in Italy.

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In total, there are 44,900 buildings on overseas installations and about 190,000 active duty personnel plus thousands of spouses, dependents, civilian defense workers and contractors. Much of the maintenance at bases is contracted out, and even some smaller bases can be business jewels for international suppliers of required food and services.

Trimming the number of foreign bases is seen as an easy sell in Congress. In a time of high deficits and with the armed forces strained by overseas commitments, lawmakers are starting to say (opens in new tab) that foreign allies, especially in Europe, should pick up more of the tab for global security work. Cutting overseas bases is also easier politically than axing pricey U.S.-based weapons programs, which would cost jobs, or further trimming domestic military bases important to local economies.

In addition, several foreign bases are seen as holdovers from the Cold War and of limited value in countering emerging threats or in the global antiterrorism effort. Particulars about overseas base closings will probably emerge early next year from the Obama administration and later be considered by military oversight committees in Congress.

Defense experts point to some bases as likely candidates for closing or significant paring back: Kadena Air Base, Camp Butler Marine Corps Base and Torii Army Station, all in Okinawa, Japan; a joint U.S. Navy and Air Force facility in St. Mawgan, Cornwall, England; an Army airfield in Heidelberg, Germany, and Army stations in Stuttgart and Schweinfurt, Germany. Also, a large Army garrison in Schinnen, the Netherlands, the U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay in Crete, Greece, and an Air Force base in Aviano, Italy.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter