The United States Department of Defense recently announced further reductions of personnel in Europe and the closing of 15 more bases. Also involved was some transfers and reorganizing which will result in two F-35 fighter squadrons replacing several F-15 squadrons. Most of the reductions are in Britain and Portugal and will mean 2,000 fewer military and civilian personnel in Europe. This will save the United States about $500 million a year.
Despite U.S. sharp reductions in American troops overseas and hundreds of overseas bases closed since 1991, the savings have not been as large as some expected, in part because the billions of dollars a year in local country contributions disappeared as the American troops left. It still costs the United States over $10 billion a year to maintain overseas bases. This does not include the cost of paying American troops in these bases but rather the expense of maintaining the bases and paying the thousands of local civilians. Most of these base expenses are incurred in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
While the cost of maintaining troops overseas is high, it’s not as high as stated. The American troops would be paid and maintained wherever they were, as would the base employees, and duty in Europe was always seen as a recruiting tool. The tours there were three years and you could bring your family.
Perhaps the biggest loss to American taxpayers was that American troops overseas spent most of their pay overseas. This cost a lot of American jobs, and a vibrant example of that could be seen when American units were sent to Afghanistan or Iraq for a year, and the businesses around their U.S. bases suffered economically for as long as the troops were away. Fortunately, the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq could not do much shopping while overseas and spent most of their unused pay when they got home.
But for most American troops overseas, the main additional cost to the government is travel. The troops are moved inexpensively, usually on chartered aircraft, but it is still expensive to move them back and forth. There’s also the additional expense of shipping ammunition and new equipment. Although in places like Europe and East Asia, a lot of equipment can be purchased locally.
As several hundred thousand American troops left since the end of the Cold War, the host countries, especially Germany, complained about the lost (local civilian) jobs. This apparently led the U.S. to not demand fair compensation for the improvements to the bases returned to German ownership. U.S. officials were accustomed to complaints like this in the United States but had to be reminded that Germans don’t vote in the U.S. and to think of American taxpayers who do. The U.S. lost over a billion dollars just in undervalued property given back without fair compensation. In addition, U.S. Department of Defense officials did not demand inflation and other cost increases in running remaining bases. The U.S. apparently felt it was best not to haggle and just get the troops back to the U.S. as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Meanwhile the establishment of new American bases in Eastern Europe follows many East European countries joining NATO. Many of original American bases in Europe were established when a growing number of U.S. combat units arrived in the 1950s, to confront Russian forces nassing in Eastern Europe. That American force went from two corps and over six divisions (18 combat brigades) during the Cold War, to the current four brigades (which are also subject to duty in distant combat zones, like the Middle East, Afghanistan or East Europe). During the Cold War, there were over 300,000 U.S. troops in Western Europe, now it's about 32,000, and headed for 30,000 by 2017. Most of the troops went back to the United States or their units were disbanded. But some of departed American troops are moving east, where they will man bases that are largely support facilities. These make it easier to move American forces into the Middle East, Central Asia or South Asia. Or to Eastern Europe to defend the many new NATO members there.