Before the Overseas Basing Commission

Testimony Global Politics

Before the Overseas Basing Commission

September 1, 2004 11 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

Statement of Jack Spencer, Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security at The Heritage Foundation, before the Overseas Basing Commission on September 1, 2004

President George W. Bush announced on August 16, 2004, that the United States will alter its overseas basing infrastructure in the coming years. This realignment of forces could affect up to 70,000 servicemen currently stationed abroad and nearly as many dependants. The President should be applauded for this decision, which will advance America's national security.

America's global basing infrastructure must be transformed for several reasons:

1. The current base structure was developed to defend against a largely static and predictable enemy-the Soviet Union-which no longer exists;

2. Today's threats-in stark contrast to those during the Cold War-are dynamic and unpredictable, and demand flexibility that is currently lacking;

3. A flexible basing structure will promote adaptability in a world of diverse political, strategic, and diplomatic interests;

4. America's commitment to regional stability can no longer be measured by manpower alone;

5. A more efficient global basing infrastructure will free manpower resources and help to alleviate personnel strains;

6. Evolving military technology allows the United States to apply greater amounts of military force over greater distances in shorter periods of time; and

7. Diversifying basing infrastructure throughout vital regions will allow the United States to surge capability to crisis areas.


Defense Transformation Needs Global BRAC

The transformation debate often focuses on military platforms, investments, and operational concepts. All of these are important; wrong decisions on any of these fronts would lead to major setbacks. However, before transformation can fully succeed, the Pentagon must make the best use of its scarce resources and create an environment that invites and supports change. Global BRAC sets a good example in this regard and increases overall flexibility.

Relying on an infrastructure meant to support a Cold War force perpetuates the status quo. In other words, the current basing systems was developed to support a force geared toward a large, predictable, static enemy. Continuing to rely on this infrastructure will likely result in greater investments in capabilities that work best with that infrastructure. We see this now with huge investments in tactical aircraft and very little funding for long-range bomber investment.

Alternatively, changing the military overseas basing system to reflect the strategic and technological realities of the current century will help the rest of the Department of Defense to make similar changes. For example, current basing assumes that America's tactical/short-range-centric platforms and capabilities will be adequate to respond to future threats. In reality, the United States must be prepared to move capability over long distances. A basing infrastructure that reflects this future will more easily facilitate the programmatic changes necessary to make that long-range force possible.

Global Base Realignment and Closure Facilitates Joint Operations and Interoperability with Friends and Allies.

Perhaps the most critical element of defense transformation is the continued effort to achieve greater cooperation, or jointness, among the services. Restructuring the Department of Defense's support infrastructure-much as the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 restructured the Pentagon bureaucracy-will compel the services to work together more closely.

One of the ways to advance this cause is to create an overseas basing infrastructure that puts a premium multi-mission training and on joint operations among the services as well as with friends and allies.

Global BRAC is a necessary step to further this cooperation among the services.

Encroachment and Over Regulation Is a Growing Problem at Home and Abroad

Expanding suburbs and exurbs and restrictive regulations are encroaching on many of America's bases at home and abroad, and the result has been and will be reduced training opportunities for the armed forces and reduced readiness. This is inconsistent with future military requirements, which demand more opportunities to train, not fewer.

At home, environmental regulation and lawsuits claiming that noise and other nuisances associated with military activity are having a detrimental effect on surrounding residential areas have already begun to interfere with the armed forces' day-to-day operations. Installations, such as California's Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin, have already been forced to curtail their activities significantly in deference to environmental regulations.

A similar dynamic has emerged abroad where training has become more difficult in many host nations. Germany, for example, has severely limited America's ability to fly helicopters at night, conduct live-fire exercises, and conduct training maneuvers in heavy, tracked vehicles. Bases in new host nations with fewer environmental regulations could provide new training opportunities.

Countries in Eastern Europe, for example, have attractive basing opportunities. The Taszar air base in Hungary, which was used by U.S. forces to conduct operation into the Balkans, could be upgraded and expanded. Bulgaria offers Black Sea access with its ports of Varna and Burgas and air bases such as Dobritch in the Northeast and Kroumovo in the South. The Czech Republic, as well as other nations, offers a variety of basing options.

As the Global BRAC process moves forward, the United States should put a high priority on bases that are only minimally affected by nearby growth and environmental regulations and that are unlikely to be adversely affected in the future.

Global BRAC Can Increase Efficiency and Save Money

Today, maintaining excess base infrastructure at home and abroad is draining much-needed resources. Although saving money and improving efficiency should not drive the Global BRAC process, they should play a major role. Indeed, a characteristic of a transformed force is that it also is much more efficient.

To maximize efficiency on the battlefield, the Pentagon must begin by improving efficiency in its support structures. This efficiency will free up dollars that can be reinvested to help the Department of Defense achieve the rapid deployment capabilities that it seeks and build in the flexibility needed to respond to threats as they emerge in the future.

However, efficiency must not supercede military value. Part of the value that bases add to the force is providing surge capacity if the nation ever requires a large increase in military capabilities due to a rapid change in the security environment. Nevertheless, the requirement for surge capacity should not be used as an indiscriminate excuse not to close a particular base. It is simply a factor that should be considered in the Global BRAC process.


If implemented properly, defense transformation, should decrease America's reliance on overseas basing in the long-term. A transformed military should be able to fight from long distances, surge manpower and capabilities within short time frames, and apply large quantities of military force globally with little warning. These attributes would allow the United States to keep a much larger percentage of its force at home without decreasing its commitment to the security of regions of vital national import.

This does not, however, eliminate the need to maintain overseas bases in the short-term. Because transformation has only begun and the vast percentage of U.S. platforms and programs arguably do not reflect a transformational agenda, the United States will still depend on an overseas presence in the foreseeable future. Even in the longer-term, so long as the U.S. maintains global interests, it will likely have significant requirements for overseas bases.

So while it is unclear what America's basing requirements will be decades from now, it is clear that the current basing infrastructure reflects a by-gone era. It requires updating both in terms of the location and the type of bases.

America's European bases are home to over 116,000 troops, their 125,000 dependents, and 45,000 support personnel, plus their dependents. Because troops are stationed at these bases for years rather then on a rotational basis, this large civilian complement is necessary. But it means that the U.S. government must also provide support services for thousands of non-military personnel.

New bases will likely be smaller and maintain rotational forces. As the Army continues its efforts to develop self-deployable and modular brigades and lessens its reliance on much larger divisions, these bases will likely be geared more toward brigade-size forces. Deployments may resemble the old Reforger exercises (1969-1988), which demonstrated America's ability to move at least three brigades from the United States to Europe in short order. Smaller bases will also foster the mobility and strategic agility of America's forces. Small bases and rotational forces will, by their very natures, facilitate the lighter and more mobile force that is the Pentagon's aim.

South Korea could be a model for this future force. Equipment and infrastructure there remain on base, while troops rotate in and out on yearlong assignments. Families can stay at home because the troops are there for only short durations. While over 37,000 troops are stationed in South Korea, just over 4,000 dependents and 25,000 civilian support personnel join them. New bases could also be based on the deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the United States maintains over 3,000 troops on six-month rotations with virtually no dependents. In either case, the United States would have the flexibility to ramp up capabilities as needed.

Principles for Future Restructuring

The United States should adhere to four principles to ensure that force-restructuring decisions advance the national interests of both the United States and its allies:

1. Strategically, a base must advance America's overall objectives. The highest priority for any restructuring of America's bases must be to advance America's strategic objectives. These objectives include nurturing existing alliances and friendships; preventing a hostile power from dominating the Pacific, Europe, or the Middle East; and ensuring access to regional natural resources. Committing to regional stability and increasing geostrategic flexibility will facilitate these objectives. Moreover, bases situated to advance U.S. strategic objectives will be better prepared to take on emerging missions-such as anti-terrorism, infrastructure protection, and contraband interdiction-when appropriate.

 With the increasing need for global operability, bases in the heart of Germany, for example, alone no longer serve the strategic purpose they did during the Cold War. Central Europe is no longer the fault line for future military conflict, and America's European basing structure should reflect that reality. Given that flashpoints for future conflict are likely to revolve around the Pacific, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and North Africa, establishing forward positions in closer geographical proximity to those regions would demonstrate America's commitment to the long-term security of the region. It would also allow the U.S. to respond rapidly to crises in those regions.

Furthermore, restructuring America's military bases overseas would increase its geostrategic flexibility. Currently, the United States is too dependent on a few countries. Developing a presence in other nations in vital regions would decrease America's dependence on Turkey, for example, and therefore ease pressure on that vital American ally. It is important that Ankara, situated in a very tough neighborhood, not be the sole pressure point when the U.S. projects forces eastward and southward from Europe. The political situation inside Turkey might force even a generally sympathetic regime in Ankara to resist America using Turkey as a jumping-off point, as has happened over Iraq. Basing in Bulgaria and Romania would shift some of the burden away from a hard-pressed American friend.

Taking that example further, basing in Bulgaria and Romania would provide Turkey, which will remain a key ally, the diplomatic cover it may need to help the United States by emphasizing such actions are regional in nature and not solely a case of the U.S.'s advancing its parochial interests through military means.

2. Operationally, a base must improve America's ability to respond to current threats as well as facilitate and enhance America's ongoing military transformation. Although global base restructuring may be costly, there are opportunities to take advantage of existing infrastructure in new host nations. For example, Soviet-era bases are available throughout Eastern Europe. While most would require significant improvements, some nations have already begun to upgrade them. Other nations in vital regions of the world will offer similar options. Furthermore, due to less stringent environmental regulations than those found in nations such as Germany, these bases would allow fuller training regimens, improving military readiness. And proximity to potential hot spots will make it easier for the United States to respond to crises and facilitate interoperability among America's likely allies.

Most importantly, operational restructuring should help alleviate some of the manpower issues that currently hinder the force. Decreased support requirements will free more troops for combat missions. And creating a base infrastructure abroad that reflects current national security requirements will facilitate efficient use of available resources.

3. Politically, the decision to maintain an existing base or open a new one must not be driven by political differences; yet, it must take into consideration the evolving political realities of the 21st century. Restructuring should not be seen as a response to countries that opposed the war with Iraq. While fissures have emerged over the war, the United States must reaffirm that it values its traditional alliances, especially those with its European and Asian friends, and ensure that its restructuring efforts will benefit all. The United States must also stress that its commitment to a region's or nation's security cannot be judged my manpower alone. Technology allows the United States to project greater force with fewer soldiers than in the past.

That said, political realities must be acknowledged. For example, certain members of the German parliament attempted to limit American use of German airspace during the liberation of Iraq. Luckily, their efforts failed. If it had succeeded, it would have severely impeded U.S. operations. While the effort amounted to little, its very existence should demonstrate the problems with a heavy reliance on too few basing areas. In a world of rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and global terrorist networks, America's ability to act decisively and quickly with coalitions of the willing depends on the critical word "willing."

On the other hand, Bulgaria and Romania opened their airspace unconditionally and offered use of their land and sea ports to U.S. forces during the Afghanistan conflict. Similar cooperation among Eastern European friends is ongoing in the war in Iraq.

Establishing a presence in new countries would also create a solid foundation for new relationships. Many potential host countries still have vivid memories of oppression by vicious dictators. A credible American presence in those countries would help to put the past behind them and to move on with new relationships. The security provided by this close military relationship would also allow these nations to fulfill their economic potential in the 21st century, similar to how America's security umbrella eased economic development in much of the world in the 20th century.

An American presence would also be hugely positive for the United States. The relationship would solidify a long-term friendship with many past adversaries and have a positive economic impact on the U.S. economy. Most important, however, is that it would advance America's national security.

4. Economically, base structure decisions must not be driven by cost concerns but should embrace economic prudence. Some argue that moving bases would be prohibitively expensive. While there are costs involved, cost concerns should not prohibit realignment if it enhances overall national security. Furthermore, by establishing smaller bases manned by rotational forces, the United States would not continue to incur the costs of maintaining the large, sprawling bases and family support infrastructure that were appropriate during the Cold War.

Critics of realignment argue that former host nations will lose out economically, but this is the same tired argument so often made against domestic base closings. While the U.S. presence in some countries may decrease, those nations will gain access to large swaths of usable and valuable terrain. As communities in the United States have found, land formerly occupied by bases can be put to economically productive use, especially where growth is already encroaching on existing bases. Besides that, the fact is that the U.S. Department of Defense is not a jobs program.


There would be no compelling reason to redeploy global forces if it were not beneficial to all parties involved. Most importantly, however, force realignment will advance America's national security. For a variety of political, military, and strategic reasons, base restructuring is in America's interests. The world has entered a new era, and it is well past time for U.S. global force structure to reflect this reality.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom