The cost of an empire

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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.

Naval Station Guantanamo Bay
Location: Cuba
Real Estate: 1,400 buildings on 28,800 acres
Value: $2.6 billion

Why is it useful?

Acquired through the Spanish-American War, this base is a refueling stop, a logistics hub for Caribbean anti-narco missions and a launchpad for “migrant ops,” which involves picking up islanders on creaky U.S.-bound vessels. However, the outpost is most valuable as a maximum security prison for “war criminals” and other detainees. Its various detention areas — some open-air, some air-conditioned — can hold more than 1,200 prisoners, notably major Al Qaeda figureheads.

How is it criticized?

Guantanamo’s critics have turned its name into a byword for American human rights abuse, an image the base has confronted with its latest slogan: “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent.” The Red Cross claims that U.S. personnel's treatment of inmates there — allegedly including beatings and loud music exposure — is “tantamount to torture.” President Barack Obama has suggested moving prisoners to a high-security facility in Illinois and a former adviser to Sen. Ted Kennedy proposes transforming the camp into a relief center for Haitians affected by the recent earthquake.


Transit Center at Manas
Location: Near Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek
Real Estate: An estimated 37 acres of land and 200-plus facilities, all leased
Value: $63 million annual rent

Why is it useful?

U.S. troops pouring in or out of Afghanistan are likely to pass through this busy hub, which is a quick flight away from the war zone. Built amidst the run-up to the Afghanistan conflict, the base is an expansion of the Kyrgyzstan capital’s once-sleepy international airport. Unlike in other nations, the Kyrgyz government permits the U.S. to launch bombers, fighter jets and gunships from its soil.

How is it criticized?

The Transit Center’s clunky name — re-branded last year from the more militant-sounding Manas Air Base — is a reflection of its political sensitivity. A former soviet state, Kyrgyzstan has faced extreme pressure from Russia to rid itself of an American base. This imposition was sweetened by a recent $2 billion Russian loan. Kyrgyz leaders parlayed this bickering between foreign powers into cash when the U.S. agreed last year to quadruple the base’s rent to $63 million. Still, a violent April coup in the nearby capital may have realigned the country’s leadership in favor of Russia. Aggravating anti-U.S. sentiment is a U.S. airman’s 2006 fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz civilian and a female officer’s bizarre and poorly substantiated account of being kidnapping by locals.

Kadena Air Base
Location: Okinawa, a southern Japanese island
Real Estate: 1,850 buildings on nearly 11,000 acres
Value: $6.4 billion

Why is it useful?

Occupied after brutal fighting in World War II, Okinawa is the heart of the U.S. military’s power in Asia. The island hosts most of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Kadena, the Pacific’s largest American military complex, is home to an aerial attack, special forces and intelligence gathering squadrons. If conflict erupted in Taiwan or the Koreas, and the U.S. decided to strike, the base would play a crucial role in carrying out those missions.

How is it criticized?

Under a long-standing, post-war agreement, Japan actually pays the U.S. about $2 billion each year to host American forces. Many Japanese are weary of paying this bill and crowds flock to rallies in favor of the military’s ouster. The U.S. has agreed to relocate 8,000 troops to Guam, a Pacific island and U.S. territory. But even that reduction will be paid for by $6 billion in Japanese funds. Their anger is compounded by several high-profile rape charges, including a marine’s 2008 conviction for “abusive sexual conduct” perpetrated against a 14-year-old girl.

*Represents U.S. military’s estimated cost of replacing facilities in today’s economy. Does not include deployed aircraft, vehicles or ships.