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US overseas bases: fewer is not necessarily cheaper

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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.

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