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The cost of an empire

Five expensive, controversial US military bases (that aren’t in Iraq or Afghanistan).

US soldiers at Manas air base
U.S. servicemen sit inside a C-17 Globemaster waiting to take off for Afghanistan at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, Feb. 13, 2009. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

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BANGKOK, Thailand — If you spin a globe and randomly point to a country, there’s a one-in-five chance the U.S. military runs a piece of the nation underneath your finger.

The U.S. Defense Department has real estate in 46 countries and American territories, adding up to a whopping 837 overseas locations. It manages roughly 1,300 square miles, a combined area considerably larger than Rhode Island. Throw in bases within the territories and 50 states and you’ve got Ohio.

Beyond massive complexes in Germany, Japan and South Korea, there are little-known holdings scattered around the planet: an old Dutch mine, a communications tower on Australia’s west coast and an army sniper range in Djibouti.

How much does overseeing this sprawling foreign footprint really cost? The exact cost of managing troops, bases, fleets and materiel overseas is difficult to determine. The think tank Foreign Policy in Focus estimates at least $250 billion.

But that doesn’t factor in the political price. Though protected by American might, even Japan and the Philippines have questioned U.S. troops’ presence there as a slight to their sovereignty. Lesser allies like Ecuador and Uzbekistan have even evicted U.S. bases in recent years.

Here’s a look at five U.S. military bases that have proven costly and controversial.

Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia
Location: Extremely remote island in the Indian Ocean
Real Estate: 595 buildings on 7,000 acres.
Value: $2.6 billion*

How is it useful?

Diego Garcia is an American military strategist's dream. Located in an abyss of ocean 1,200 miles south of India, it's close enough to the Middle East to launch B-2 bombing runs into Afghanistan. It's also within flying distance to Africa and near enough to Asia to intimidate China. But its distant location ensures against the threat of counter-attack and offers a safe haven for refueling aircraft carriers and bombers. There's little threat of being kicked out, as the barely inhabited island is owned by the U.K.

Why is it criticized?

The U.S. and U.K. governments have used almost all of the tiny island for military facilities. This involved clearing out the 1,000-plus native inhabitants, who claim they were rounded up, shipped to British island territories and dumped possessionless into slums. Their appeals are tangled up in Britain's legal system. Diego Garcia is also alleged to house secret CIA prisons for American enemies, though the island's remoteness makes that claim extremely difficult to investigate.

Incirlik Air Base
Location: Southern Turkey
Real Estate: 675 buildings on 3,300 acres
Value: $1.7 billion

How is it useful?

More than any base outside Afghanistan and Iraq, this Mediterranean air field has proven indispensable in fighting America’s 21st century wars. First established in the aftermath of World War II, Incirlik saw little action before the Sept. 11 attacks. It has since become a core launching pad for U.S. refueling missions and troop movements into neighboring Iraq. The base also hosts dozens of nuclear bombs, potentially deterring Iran from any future nuclear strike.

Why is it criticized?

The base’s nukes are a sore point not just for Iran but for Russia, which also lies within striking range. The Cold War-era gravity bombs, more primitive than modern cruise missile warheads, are not believed to be immediately deployable. But they continue to rankle Russia and impede negotiations to nuclear proliferation. The base has occasionally soured U.S.-Turkish relations as well. In 2003, Turkey’s leaders resisted U.S. pressure to launch direct strikes into Iraq from Incirlik. Some Middle Eastern nations also resent a majority Muslim nation’s pivotal role in the American-led war.