US overseas bases: fewer is not necessarily cheaper

BETWEEN now and 1994, the United States will renegotiate military base arrangements with Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the Philippines, Kenya, Oman, Greece, and Turkey, and will probably be drawn into new base negotiations in Honduras, Panama, Thailand, New Zealand, and Bahrain. The US overseas basing structure is rapidly becoming smaller, more fragile, and more expensive every year, perhaps to the point that it cannot support the military strategies it is supposed to facilitate.

This situation stems from several developments: diverging views among the US and some of the host countries about their strategic interests; a demanding US military strategy; and a leaner, more cost-effective basing system. The first two trends lie at the heart of public discussion of national security. But the third is less understood, perhaps because it has a beneficial ring. An overseas basing structure trimmed of redundant facilities is, after all, a worthy goal for those who spend the taxpayer's dollars.

By and large, US officials have met that goal. Today, the number of bases stands at about a third of what existed 40 years ago, and 25 percent fewer than during the Vietnam conflict. The US has abandoned or dismantled all the base sites it once maintained in nearly 70 other nations or territories. Of the nearly 1,500 base sites that have been dismantled, about two-thirds were dropped because improved transportation technology made them redundant.

But during the last decade, dropping bases from the system has not saved much money. Streamlining the overseas system has made base sites in places like the Philippines, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey emerge as key links in the global basing system. The leaders of these nations understand this and use it to drive a hard bargain when base access comes up for discussion, particularly when they are unconvinced that keeping the bases on their territory is in their strategic interest. This helps explain why overseas basing costs have risen despite a decline in the number of bases.

Two costs are associated with overseas basing: money spent on building, improving, and maintaining the base; and money spent to buy access to those facilities.

Payments for the first come out of the Pentagon budget and now run at about $3 billion a year. These expenditures have been fairly stable since the early 1980s. Payments for the second come mostly through those foreign assistance funds. Currently, these costs amount to about $2 billion a year. But they have been rising fairly rapidly over the last decade. In 1975, they ran at roughly $200 million, rising to about $1 billion by 1980. Between 1980 and 1987, these annual ``permit'' costs have doubled. Given rumblings about compensation for bases in the Philippines, Spain, and Greece, these payments could double again by the mid-1990s.

If these trends are continued, foreign assistance funds will be devoted to only two purposes: supporting the Camp David accords and obtaining base access in Spain, the Philippines, Greece, Turkey, and Portugal. This is not a prospect the next administration would welcome, and either President Bush or President Dukakis would be compelled to do something about it.

There are four ways of coping. The first is to accept the rise in permit costs. Two billion dollars a year to maintain access to important facilities overseas is small compared with the roughly $85 billion a year that goes to maintain the forces that depend on overseas basing to meet their peacetime and wartime missions.

The real problem with permit costs is the channel through which they are paid - security and foreign assistance. The foreign assistance program, which is unlikely to expand to absorb the increases in permit costs, is supposed to be a flexible instrument of foreign policy. The pending increases in base permit costs threaten to eliminate that flexibility. So why not accept the idea of ``rent,'' as suggested by the Filipinos, and pay for it out of the defense budget?

A second approach is to reestablish basing redundancy. If the rise in basing costs is due to the negotiating leverage that the absence of redundancy brings, why not undercut that leverage by reestablishing alternatives?

A third solution is to accelerate the development of technologies that can compensate for overseas basing. If the forces that now use the bases can bring military power to bear faster, over greater distances and with more precision, they won't need the bases.

A fourth is to change military strategies. Clearly, it is the commitment to defend oil flowing out of the Gulf that adds value to basing in the Philippines, Spain, and the other nations that are accounting for the rise in access costs. So why not reduce that commitment?

The problem is that none of these paths are particularly good. ``Rent'' smacks of basing allowed on foreign soil because the regimes there make money off of it, not because they share the goals and interests of the US. A pecuniary foundation for overseas bases is not a firm one. While there are some clear alternatives to the bases in the Philippines or Spain, those alternatives - like Taiwan or Morocco, for example - are not all good. Improved technology promises less dependency on overseas basing, but there is nothing on the horizon that is likely to reduce the need for overseas basing soon enough to avoid the crunch of the next round of base access negotiations. And dropping the Gulf commitments to save money on overseas basing seems to be a case of cart before the horse; that decision should be made on other grounds if it should be made at all.

So we have a true security dilemma unveiling. It would be interesting and important to see how the two contenders for the privilege of coping with the dilemma think about it.

James R. Blaker is a senior adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy analysis.

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