How the Pentagon Came to Own the Earth, Seas, and Skies
by Nick Turse
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on a proposal, championed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in exchange for bipartisan Congressional support for the long-term (read: more or less permanent) garrisoning of that country. The troops are to be tucked away on "large bases far from Iraq’s major cities." This plan sounded suspiciously similar to one revealed by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt in the New York Times on April 19, 2003, just as U.S. troops were preparing to enter Baghdad. Headlined "Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq," it laid out a U.S. plan for:
a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to…. perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.
Shortly thereafter, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, denied any such plans: "I have never, that I can recall, heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed in any meeting…" – and, while the bases were being built, the story largely disappeared from the mainstream media.
Even with the multi-square mile, multi-billion dollar, state-of-the-art Balad Air Base and Camp Victory thrown in, however, the bases in Gates’ new plan will be but a drop in the bucket for an organization that may well be the world’s largest landlord. For many years, the U.S. military has been gobbling up large swaths of the planet and huge amounts of just about everything on (or in) it. So, with the latest Pentagon Iraq plans in mind, take a quick spin with me around this Pentagon planet of ours.
Garrisoning the Globe
In 2003, Forbes magazine revealed that media mogul Ted Turner was America’s top land baron — with a total of 1.8 million acres across the U.S. The nation’s ten largest landowners, Forbes reported, "own 10.6 million acres, or one out of every 217 acres in the country." Impressive as this total was, the Pentagon puts Turner and the entire pack of mega-landlords to shame with over 29 million acres in U.S. landholdings. Abroad, the Pentagon’s "footprint" is also that of a giant. For example, the Department of Defense controls 20% of the Japanese island of Okinawa and, according to Stars and Stripes, "owns about 25 percent of Guam." Mere land ownership, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.
In his 2004 book, The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson opened the world’s eyes to the size of the Pentagon’s global footprint, noting that the Department of Defense (DoD) was deploying nearly 255,000 military personnel at 725 bases in 38 countries. Since then, the total number of overseas bases has increased to at least 766 and, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, may actually be as high as 850. Still, even these numbers don’t begin to capture the global sprawl of the organization that unabashedly refers to itself as "one of the world’s largest ‘landlords.’"
The DoD’s "real property portfolio," according to 2006 figures, consists of a total of 3,731 sites. Over 20% of these sites are located on more than 711,000 acres outside of the U.S. and its territories. Yet even these numbers turn out to be a drastic undercount. For example, while a 2005 Pentagon report listed U.S. military sites from Antigua and Hong Kong to Kenya and Peru, some countries with significant numbers of U.S. bases go entirely unmentioned — Afghanistan and Iraq, for example.
In Iraq, alone, in mid-2005, U.S. forces were deployed at some 106 bases, from the massive Camp Victory, headquarters of the U.S. high command, to small 500-troop outposts in the country’s hinterlands. None of them made the Pentagon’s list. Nor was there any mention of bases in Jordan on that list –or in the 2001-2005 reports either. Yet that nation, as military analyst William Arkin has pointed out, allowed the garrisoning of 5,000 U.S. troops at various bases around the country during the build-up to the war in Iraq. In addition, some 76 nations have given the U.S. military access to airports and airfields — in addition to who knows where else that the Pentagon forgot to acknowledge or considers inappropriate for inclusion in its list.
Even without Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the more than 20 other nations that, Arkin noted in early 2004, were "secretly or quietly providing bases and facilities," the available statistics do offer a window into a bloated organization bent on setting up franchises across the globe. According to 2005 documents, the Pentagon acknowledges 39 nations with at least one U.S. base, stations personnel in over 140 countries around the world, and boasts a physical plant of at least 571,900 facilities, though some Pentagon figures show 587,000 "buildings and structures." Of these, 466,599 are located in the United States or its territories. In fact, the Department of Defense owns or leases more than 75% of all federal buildings in the U.S.
According to 2006 figures, the Army controls the lion’s share of DoD land (52%), with the Air Force coming in second (33%), the Marine Corps (8%) and the Navy (7 %) bringing up the rear. The Army is also tops in total number of sites (1,742) and total number of installations (1,659). But when it comes to "large installations," those whose value tops $1,584 billion, the Army is trumped by the Air Force, which boasts 43 mega-bases compared to the Army’s 39. The Navy and Marines possess only 29 and 10, respectively. What the Navy lacks in big bases of its own, however, it more than makes up for in borrowed foreign naval bases and ports — some 251 across the globe.
Land and large installations, however, are not all that the Defense Department owns. Until relatively recently, the U.S. Navy operated its own dairy, complete with a herd of Holsteins. Even though it did get rid of those cows in 1998, it kept the 865-acre farm tract in Gambrills, Maryland, and now leases it to Horizon Organic Dairy.
While it doesn’t have a dairy, the Army still operates stables — such as the John C. McKinney Memorial Stables where many of the 44 horses from its ceremonial Caisson Platoon live. It also has a big farm (the Large Animal Research Facility). In fact, the Pentagon owns hundreds of thousands of animals — from rats to dogs to monkeys. In addition to an unknown number of animals used for unexplained "other purposes," in 2001 alone, the DoD utilized 330,149 creatures for various types of experimentation.
Then, there’s the equipment the DoD owns, loads of it. For instance, it is the unlikely owner of "over 2,050 railcars, know[n] as the Defense Freight Rail Interchange Fleet." The DoD also reportedly ships 100,000 sea containers each year and spends $800 million annually on domestic cargo, primarily truck and rail shipments. And when it comes to trucks, the Army, alone, has a fleet of 12,700 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks (huge, eight-wheeled vehicles used to supply ammunition, petroleum, oils, and lubricants to other combat vehicles and weapons systems in the field) and 120,000 Humvees. All told, according to a 2006 Pentagon report, the DoD had a total of at least "280 ships, 14,000 aircraft, 900 strategic missiles, and 330,000 ground combat and tactical vehicles."
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the DoD’s largest combat support agency (with operations in 48 of the 50 states and 28 foreign countries) boasts: "If America’s forces eat it, wear it, maintain equipment with it, or burn it as fuel…. DLA probably provides it." In fact, the DLA claims that it "manages" some 5.2 million items and maintains an inventory, in its Defense Distribution Depots (which stretch from Italy and Japan to Korea and Kuwait), valued at $94.1 billion.
The DLA runs the Defense National Stockpile Center (DNSC) which stores 42 "strategic and critical materials" — from zinc, lead, cobalt, chromium, and mercury (more than 9.7 million pounds of it in 2005) to precious metals such as platinum, palladium, and even industrial diamonds — at 20 locations across the U.S. With a stockpile valued at over $1.5 billion and $5.7 billion in sales of excess commodities since 1993, the DNSC claims that there is "no private sector company in the world that sells this wide range of commodities and materials."
All told, the Department of Defense owns up to having "[o]ver $1 trillion in assets [and] $1.6 trillion in liabilities." This is, no doubt, a gross underestimate given the DoD’s historic penchant for flawed book-keeping and the fact that, according to a study by its own inspector general, it cannot even account for at least $1 trillion dollars in money spent — or perhaps, according to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as much as $2.3 trillion. Cooking the books and stashing cash is fitting enough for an American organization, in the age of Enron, that thinks of itself not just as a government agency but, in its own words, as "America’s oldest company, largest company, busiest company and most successful company." In fact, on its website, the DoD makes the point that it easily bests Wal-Mart, Exxon-Mobil, and General Motors in terms of budget and staff.
It’s Got the Whole World in Its Hands
In addition to assembling a dizzying array of assets, from tungsten to tubas — in 2005 alone, it spent more than $6 million on sheet music, musical instruments, and accessories — the Pentagon owns a great deal of housing: 300,000 units worldwide. By its own admission, it is also a slumlord par excellence — with an inventory of "180,000 inadequate family housing units." According to the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Installations & Environment):
Approximately 33 percent of all [military] families live on-base, in housing that is often dilapidated, too small, lacking in modern facilities — almost 49 percent (or 83,000 units) are substandard.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s own home, the Pentagon, bests the Sultan of Brunei’s Istana Nurul Iman palace, the largest private residence in the world — 3,705,793 to 2,152,782 square feet of occupiable space. The DoD likes to boast that the Pentagon is "virtually a city in itself" — with 30 miles of access highways, 200 acres of lawn space. It includes a five-acre center courtyard, 17.5 miles of corridors, 16 parking lots (with an estimated 8,770 parking spaces), seven snack bars, two cafeterias, one dining room, a post office, "credit union, travel agency, dental offices, ticket offices, blood donor center, housing referral office, and 30 other retail shops and services," a chapel, a heliport, and numerous libraries. Moreover, says the DoD, the Pentagon consumed a huge portion of its natural environment, its concrete reportedly contains "680,000 tons of sand and gravel from the nearby Potomac River."
In value, the Pentagon’s other properties are almost as impressive. The combined worth of the world’s two most expensive homes, the $138 million 103-room "Updown Court" in Windlesham, Surrey in the United Kingdom and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s $135 million Aspen ski lodge don’t even come close to the price tag on Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, located on a small island off the coast of St. Helena (the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death). It has an estimated replacement value of over $337 million. Other high-priced facilities include Camp Ederle in Italy at $544 million; Incirlik Air Base in Turkey at almost $1.2 billion; and Thule Air Base in Greenland at $2.8 billion; while the U.S. Naval Air Station in Keflavik, Iceland is appraised at $3.4 billion and the various military facilities in Guam are valued at more than $11 billion.
Still, to begin to grasp the Pentagon’s global immensity, it helps to look, again, at its land holdings — all 120,191 square kilometers which are almost exactly the size of North Korea (120,538 square kilometers). These holdings are larger than any of the following nations: Liberia, Bulgaria, Guatemala, South Korea, Hungary, Portugal, Jordan, Kuwait, Israel, Denmark, Georgia, or Austria. The 7,518 square kilometers of 20 micro-states — the Vatican, Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Maldives, Malta, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Seychelles, Andorra, Bahrain, Saint Lucia, Singapore, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Tonga — combined pales in comparison to the 9,307 square kilometers of just one military base, White Sands Missile Range.
While it has been setting up hundreds of bases across the globe to support ongoing wars, the Pentagon has also been restructuring its forces in an effort to reduce troop levels at old Cold War mega-bases and close down less strategically useful sites. Does this mean less Pentagon control in the world?
Don’t bet on it. In fact, the U.S. military is exploring long-term options to dominate the planet as never before. Previously, the DoD has only maintained a moving presence on the high seas. This may change. The Pentagon is now considering — and planning for — future "sea-basing." No longer just a ship, a fleet, or "prepositioned material" stationed on the world’s oceans, sea-bases will be "a hybrid system-of-systems consisting of concepts of operations, ships, forces, offensive and defensive weapons, aircraft, communications and logistics." The notion of such bases is increasingly popular within the military due to the fact that they "will help to assure access to areas where U.S. military forces may be denied access to support [land] facilities." After all, as a report by the Defense Science Board pointed out, "[S]eabases are sovereign [and] not subject to alliance vagaries." Imagine a future where the people of countries at odds with U.S. policies suddenly find America’s "massive seaborne platforms" floating just outside their territorial waters.
With a real-estate portfolio that includes the earth and the sea, the sky would, quite literally, be the limit for the DoD. According to Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired’s "Danger Room" blog, the "U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan" of 2004 outlined what "analysts call the most detailed picture since the end of the Cold War of the Pentagon’s efforts to turn outer space into a battlefield…. the report makes U.S. dominance of the heavens a top Pentagon priority in the new century." As the U.S. military’s outer-space policy statement puts it, "Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power."
When you’re focused on effectively controlling a planet, the idea of occupying Iraq, a country about the size of the state of California, for the next decade or five, must seem like a small thing. In practice, however, the global landlord on the Potomac has found property values in Iraq steep indeed. As all now know, it has been fought to a standstill there by modest-sized bands of guerillas lacking air power, sea power, or high-tech spy satellites in outer space. The Pentagon may be landlord to massive swaths of the globe, but from Vietnam to Laos, Beruit to Somalia, U.S. forces have also found themselves evicted by neighborhood residents from properties they were prepared to consider their own. The question remains: Will Iraq be added to the list of permanently occupied territories and take on the look of long-garrisoned South Korea as Secretary of Defense Gates and President Bush have urged — or will it be added to a growing list of places that have effectively resisted paying the rent on Planet Pentagon?
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, is due out in the American Empire Project Series by Metropolitan Books in 2008.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt