by Karl-Heinz Peil
published in German July 4th, 2021 on Telepolis
(A copy is available here: https://visualbases.org/2021-07-04_kp-telepolis/)
Automatic translation by deepl.com, edited by the author. Concerning links and sources have a look to the original publication.
US military bases worldwide: from the big bootprint to invisibility
To depict the global US military presence, the roughly estimated number of 800 military bases in foreign countries and (own) overseas regions has been circulating for years. This is usually used to strikingly illustrate the character of the US empire, which is also referred to as “power projection”. However, this term can be misleading, since military bases are not only about provocatively perceptible, but also about (almost) invisible military presence. The total number mentioned is also questionable, but indispensable for comparison purposes.
If we look at the number of foreign military bases of all the other states in the world, they only account for a little more than five per cent. The difference is even more serious if one subtracts the share of the NATO states Great Britain and France from this remainder. Of course, the main question is why Germany and Japan are the world leaders in terms of the official number of US military bases. While in the case of Japan this question answers itself in view of the US military escalation in the Far East, for Germany this can only be explained to a limited extent by the new NATO confrontation with Russia.
More important is Germany’s logistical hub function for the global US military presence. This requires an understanding of the strategic concepts behind the global US military presence, which spans some 80 countries around the world. This handy combination of numbers – 800 military bases in 80 countries – comes from David Vine, professor of anthropology in Washington, who has presented these developments and backgrounds with three book publications in 2009, 2015 and 2020.
In his first book, Island of Shame, he discusses the US military’s Strategic Island Concept. This is based in principle on a number of deals made by US governments with the former British Empire, dating back to 1940. At that time, US President Roosevelt made a deal that provided for the delivery of urgently needed warships – still from the time of the First World War – in the war against Germany in exchange for the surrender of islands of the British Empire.
From the point of view of the time, this resulted in a classic win-win situation: Congress was left out of it, since it was still officially staying out of the war in Europe, while Great Britain, which was almost bankrupt due to the war, received weapons free of charge.
This was the first strategic step of the USA towards a worldwide presence with military bases, which was continuously expanded after the Second World War. In his last book, “The United States of War”, David Vine deals once again with this deal and his own admission that he himself had long underestimated its epoch-making effect. After all, the Second World War led to thousands of (temporary) US bases, which is why this deal received little historical attention.
In his first book, David Vine discusses in detail the takeover of Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean, but strategically ideally located for the US military, via a lease agreement with the British, which was concluded in 1968 with a term of 50 years. The collateral damage caused by the necessary expulsion of about 2000 locals was consciously accepted.
Through his contacts with the displaced people of Diego Garcia, David Vine also became a political activist, as he still campaigns for their rights today. This struggle also takes place through legal channels, via positive decisions on the right of return, most recently in 2019 by the International Court of Justice, which also reminded the UK to return the island to Mauritius, which is necessary under international law.
The Pentagon’s 50 per cent accounting
A second US author who focuses on US military bases abroad is Nick Turse, a journalist and political activist in New York. He specialises in research based on the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act, giving him some insights into the grey areas of Pentagon accounting. An early 2019 post by him on the US website Counterpunch is titled “Bases, Bases, everywhere … Except in the Pentagon’s Report”.
If the total number of US military bases could still be described as speculative only with reference to David Vine, Nick Turse is the one who has intensively checked this number and made it plausible. Both authors have independently examined the Pentagon’s official “Base Structure Report – BSR”. (Relevant excerpts from it can be accessed here and here). In his first book mentioned above, David Vine still mentions the number of about 1,000 US military bases worldwide with reference to the BSR for the financial year 2007.
Above all, however, the current reduction to 800 must take into account that since 2001 the official number of “installations” or “sites” in Germany has fallen from 325 to 119. To simplify, it can therefore be said that Germany accounts for the largest share of the now significantly reduced total number of US military bases worldwide. However, the actual number is not verifiable. Thus, in addition to 87 “sites” listed by name, 32 “other sites” are also listed.
A detailed examination shows some inconsistencies and a lack of logic, which can only be dealt with here by way of example. For example, the US hospital in Landstuhl is included with five individual “sites”. Also included in the BSR are sites of the national military with a strategic US presence. This is why, for example, the Bundeswehr airbase in Büchel with the US nuclear weapons stored there is listed, but not the Volkel military airbase in the Netherlands, for which the same applies.
The fact that Volkel is not mentioned as a site of US nuclear weapons for nuclear sharing within NATO is not a state secret, but information that is freely accessible via Wikipedia articles. The military airbase Kleine Brogel in Belgium, where US nuclear weapons are also stored, is listed in the BSR.
On the other hand, if you look at it from a different angle, you come across something strange: in the satellite images that can be viewed via Google Earth, the nuclear weapons depot there is one of the few military installations where the current satellite images (but not the historical images) are pixelated. On the other hand, a subtle censorship in the presentation of military installations on Google Earth is that, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, only completely outdated satellite images can be seen.
The non-official stationing locations of combat drones in Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, can be easily viewed with current satellite images, and the comparison with historical images provides a good impression of US activities in recent years. In purely practical terms, however, this presupposes that one knows the geo-coordinates of these locations.
The fact that these can be easily determined is thanks to a project that has been developed and updated for several years on the basis of a collaboration with Openstreetmap and Wikimedia. In the OpenStreetBrowser, “military layers” are visible as a map display from a certain zoom level if they are switched on as a display option.
Military restricted areas and partially existing plain text designations are almost 100 per cent present there. Using the geo-coordinates, this can then be easily matched with satellite images in Google Earth. But back to the BSR: Until the end of 2017 (for the financial year 2018), the BSR appeared annually and has since disappeared into oblivion. An enquiry by the author to David Vine as to the reasons resulted in a terse answer: Donald Trump.
The fact that he cut the official Pentagon accounting from 50 per cent to zero has probably less to do with political calculation than with his peculiarities in running the presidency as well as his real estate empire. If one takes a closer look at the BSR, it clearly has the character of a real estate report, with details of individual areas, owned and rented buildings, as well as the resulting size gradings.
Such transparency was probably at odds with Trump’s business practices as a real estate mogul. However, true Pentagon transparency would not consist of an up-to-date and comprehensive real estate report, but of the complete naming and military classification of military sites. Officially, the Pentagon distinguishes between four categories, the most important of which is called “Main operating base (MOB)”.
The subordinate military bases in regions with war operations are called “Forward operating base”. The somewhat synonymous terms “forward operating site” and “forward operating location” are used to designate those locations where troops are rotated or held in reserve for replenishment as required. However, the scope, source references and topicality of such designations are very thin, which is also evident, for example, from articles in the English- and German-language Wikipedia, where one is otherwise excellently informed about military bases with overviews and individual articles.
The Africom in Stuttgart and Water Lilies in Africa
Even more opaque is the fourth category with the official designation “Cooperative security location (CSL)”. As with the previous category, the term “base” is consistently avoided here. In his book “Base Nation”, David Vine, referring to his own conversations with US military personnel, describes their character as follows: “No flag, no forward presence, no families”. This means: no “power projection”, no “Little America” of civilian infrastructure and little or no visible US military.The latter is unproblematic insofar as more and more military tasks are being outsourced to civilian service providers anyway. Instead of the abbreviation CSL, there is another, semi-official and unofficial transcription: Lily pads (water lilies). These serve as a metaphor here because of their property that frogs can move unobtrusively on them, leaping from leaf to leaf without leaving a footprint. According to David Vine, the lily pad strategy is a further development of the “strategic islands” in that in both cases the aim is to prevent local resistance to the US military presence or to ensure that it does not reach critical mass due to the isolated location of the military bases. Lily Pads are usually hidden on the outskirts of civilian airports or at national military sites.
This principle has particular relevance for Africa. In 2008, the US regional command Africom was established in Stuttgart. This determination was preceded by a search for locations in Africa itself. However, none of the countries with which corresponding negotiations were conducted was willing to accept it as a host country. However, to conclude from this that Stuttgart would therefore be an embarrassing solution leads to a fallacy.
To do this, one must understand the criteria used by the US military to acquire new locations for military bases over the past 20 years. According to David Vine’s research, the Lily Pad strategy became official in 2009 at the latest, away from the main theatres of war, Afghanistan and Iraq, where a large number of larger military bases existed at times.
In his 2015 book Base Nation, David Vine estimates that at least 50 such sites have been successfully acquired, mainly in Africa. Of course, one learns very little from official announcements about operational sites in Africa, which are controlled by Africom in Stuttgart.
However, the Africom commander has been regularly reporting to the US Senate for several years about the military activities he directs. In the published (partial) 2020 report of General Townsend, who had taken over the post six months earlier, it says, for example, in bold print: “U.S. Africa Command’s operations are a bargain for America … a small prevention that amounts to only a few cents on every dollar of our defence spending.”
Similar sentiments can be found in the corresponding report for 2021, but what is striking in the comparison of the two reports is that when it comes to naming strategic rivals, Russia has now become less relevant compared to China. Giving little space to this two countries is clearly Africom’s self-defined core strategic task.
Officially (according to the BSR), US military bases in Africa are only present in Djibouti and Kenya. David Vine, on the other hand, assumes – mainly based on Nick Turse’s research – that there are at least 40 countries in Africa where a US military presence can be assumed. The meanwhile numerous stationing sites for combat drones are also not “bases” according to the definition of the US military, but only “forward operating sites” in the fight against terrorism.
However, these sites are limited to relatively few countries such as Djibouti, Niger, Mali and Tunisia. The question therefore remains as to what interests most African countries have in the US military presence via Lily Pads, especially against the background that in the economic cooperation of these countries the USA is increasingly losing ground to China and Russia, which is indeed seen by Africom as the main problem. In this regard, David Vine refers to the “core competence” in which the USA is still the world leader.
In order to improve the efficiency of the national military, the respective rulers in Africa are happy to bring US military personnel into the country as trainers, whose main occupation is to train their own personnel anyway. This can easily be done via Lily Pads and does not require a high-level military mission such as the EU mission in Mali (EUTM) with strong Bundeswehr participation.
It should only be noted in passing that the current US withdrawal from Afghanistan does not in any way mean an end to the war, but only the end of the on-site presence with military bases, according to the corresponding announcement by US President Joe Biden on 15 April. In practical terms, this means a shift to covert operations from micro-locations and drone bases outside the country and an expanded Lily Pad strategy. (See also the article by Helmut Scheben in Infosperber of 17 June 2021: “Afghanistan: The high-tech war will continue”).
Germany: from frontline state to logistical hub
Between 2002 and 2004, a fundamental change took place in the deployment of US troops in Germany. This included not only a drastic reduction in stationing locations (practically as a “second wave” after the reductions up to the mid-1990s). Above all, there was a concentration of resources in Rhineland-Palatinate and there again in the greater Kaiserslautern area with the expansion of Ramstein Air Base. This was also accompanied by the relocation of the Rhein-Main Air Base, located at Frankfurt Airport, to Ramstein (transport aircraft) and Spangdahlem (fighter jets).
In the archway of the former main entrance to the Rhein-Main Air Base was the text addition “Gateway to Europe”, symbolising the character of the air base in the decades of East-West conflict until 1989. New functions after the relocation to Ramstein Air Base were first revealed in 2012 by former US drone pilot Brandon Bryant and in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Without the satellite relay station (as a technical gateway) at Ramstein, the global US drone war would be technically unfeasible, they agreed.
In 2015, this led to the founding of the campaign “Stop Ramstein Air Base” with the focus on the activities of the US military using the technical infrastructure on German soil, which are contrary to international law and the Basic Law. Probably aware of this dependency on Ramstein and the unwanted attention from the German peace movement, the US military therefore began in 2017 to build a parallel facility of this kind at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily.
The current satellite image shows that this facility with an identical set-up as in Ramstein is now probably available. This function would therefore not necessarily have to be located in Ramstein any more than, for example, the headquarters of the US missile defence system, which is installed in Poland and Romania. On the other hand, Ramstein is indispensable as a logistics centre for supplying forward military bases worldwide.
For example, the German-language Wikipedia on the US Air Base near Agadez in Niger, which was established a few years ago, reads: “The military airfield, Base aérienne 201, was inaugurated in August 2019 with a flight of a C-130J from Ramstein. Since then, the US has been using drones here, among other things.”
Not only combat drones, but also US fighter jets can only operate worldwide if they can be kept in the air for as long as possible. That is why a squadron of refuelling aircraft is stationed at Ramstein Air Base. When one speaks of Ramstein Air Base, a “Little America” because of the civilian infrastructure there, one must also include the entire military infrastructure in the region, with several US Army barracks in Kaiserslautern, what is probably the US military’s largest ammunition depot in Miesau, the US hospital in Landstuhl and the Baumholder military training area.
The toxic materials depot in Germersheim on the Rhine, which is operated by the Defense Logistic Agency (DLA), is also an essential part of the logistics chain. A local citizens’ initiative is fighting against its major expansion because of the considerable environmental and health risks.
Even actual disused areas and areas urgently needed for urban development, such as the Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, have been blocked by the US military for logistical purposes since 2015, in this case because of the war manoeuvres in Eastern Europe. Civilian facilities should not be overlooked either, such as Hahn Airport in Hunsrück, whose use by the US military is meticulously documented by a local citizens’ initiative on its homepage.
Vine points out another important aspect in “Base Nation”: In contrast to other (main) stationing countries of the US military in Europe, such as Italy in particular, Germany has an optimal infrastructure with military training areas. Mention must also be made of the airspace in the greater Kaiserslautern region as Germany’s largest fighter jet training zone.
Worldwide resistance is growing
Around the world, there are many locations with military bases where there is well-documented resistance. The motives are very different. Mostly, environmental and health impacts play a role, such as aircraft noise from (very loud) old transport planes, fighter jet training zones and helicopters. Other significant burdens are extremely strong electromagnetic radiation from radar installations and the contamination of surface waters with pollutants such as, above all, PFAS extinguishing foams.
The accumulated contaminants in the soil from PFAS, mineral oils and paraffin, on the other hand, will only have an effect decades later as time bombs in the groundwater and thus for the drinking water supply, unless costly remediation is undertaken. Protests become political when civilian facilities are used by the US military, such as Shannon Airport in politically neutral Ireland.
Mass protests are most common in Okinawa. In August 2018, 70,000 people demonstrated against the environmentally destructive relocation of the US Air Base Futenma to the coastal strip of Henoko. Jon Mitchell, a British journalist who has lived in Okonawa for 10 years, has uncovered the full drama of military-induced environmental and health impacts, primarily through systematic use of the US Freedom of Information Act, and published it at the end of 2020 in his book Poisoning the Pacific – The US Military’s secret dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange.
But it is another question which triggers will lead to a resounding and successful resistance. In Okinawa, for example, protests have been raised mainly after violent crimes committed by US soldiers have gone unpunished due to the status of troops.
From the US perspective, there are completely different approaches. Vine, as keynote speaker at a US peace movement convention in Baltimore in January 2018, pointed to the decline of public infrastructure in the US as exemplified by the dilapidated public transport system and the progressive failure of heating systems in schools in winter temperatures. He contrasted this with the excellent infrastructure of US military bases abroad, such as medical care at Guantánamo Bay, which US taxpayers could only dream of.
This monetary view could also be applied in Germany to the Kaiserslautern military region. There, the largest US military hospital abroad is located in Landstuhl, which was built in the 1950s and has been continuously modernised since then. Although this is still modern by general standards, a new US hospital is currently being built directly opposite the air base (with further cuts already made in the nature reserve there), for which almost 1 billion US dollars have been budgeted, of which German taxpayers are paying about 15 per cent as planning costs.
The reason given at the time (in 2010) was that war casualties would have to be brought quickly and directly to the operating table. The US hospital in Landstuhl is less than 10 km away as the crow flies, but can only be reached by public roads, although there is also a helicopter landing pad.
The new US hospital in Weilerbach is only separated from the air base by a public road. To ensure that this does not stand in the way of a lightning-fast transition from the air base, a new gate is being built at the same time as the hospital, with a winding road layout, bridge construction and complex checkpoints.
Unfortunately, a comprehensive picture of this frightening gigantomania cannot be obtained from satellite images – where, however, the US military’s consumption of space can be seen – but is best obtained directly on site. The Stop Ramstein Air Base campaign participated in the “International Day of Action against Military Bases” on 30 April with a bicycle marathon around the air base, where these kilometre-long checkpoints (with bypasses for war casualties), oversized with winding access roads and barriers, could not be overlooked.
This is also a reason why several bicycle star rides to the air base are planned this time during the upcoming days of action in the week from 5 to 11 July, where one can get an idea of the dimensions of this military logistics hub.
The author is the operator of the database and visualisation tool VisualBases, which was created on behalf of the Stop Ramstein Air Base campaign for the annual International Congress against Military Bases in Kaiserslautern.