As politicians in Washington, D.C. struggle to avoid the looming specter of sequestration, a series of automatic federal spending cuts, the Pentagon is seeking ways to handle cuts in military spending. The U.S. has a number of longstanding and expensive security commitments all around the world. Most Americans are familiar with the large U.S. military presence in countries such as Germany, South Korea and Japan. However, the response to the 9/11 attacks shifted America’s strategic priorities away from Europe and toward some relatively obscure places in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. As a result, U.S. troops are currently deployed to more than 150 countries, some of which might come as a surprise to some people.
Made up of 33 islands, the tiny Kingdom of Bahrain is strategically located in the Persian Gulf next to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Naval base NSA Bahrain is the home of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the 5th Fleet, with 2,700 sailors and other military personnel engaged in many support missions. (All estimates of troop levels in this story use U.S. Department of Defense figures from September 2012.) The NSA Bahrain complex transferred from British to U.S. control in 1970, but Bahrain took on a new importance after 9/11, playing a critical role supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and then Operation Iraqi Freedom. This naval base is only 120 miles from Iran’s western border across the gulf, so it would play a key role supporting operations if tensions escalate with Iran. With much of the world’s oil passing through the Persian Gulf, the region is a focal point for U.S. forces. American troops are also stationed in Qatar (806 U.S. troops), Saudi Arabia (284), Egypt (280), the United Arab Emirates (191) and several other Middle Eastern countries.
Almost 170 U.S. military personnel are stationed at Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. base dedicated to conducting operations in the Horn of Africa that stretches along the continent’s east coast. This trouble spot includes Somalia and Yemen, two countries that have been staging sites for al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups for years. Since 2001 this former French Foreign Legion outpost has quietly expanded from 100 to 500 acres. This expansion made room for modern flight operations to support an increasing number of drone operations in the region. As al-Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain footholds in several north and central African countries, U.S. troops in Djibouti are expected to play an increasing role in anti-terrorism operations.
Although Latin America has not been a high-profile part of U.S. foreign policy during the last decade, Honduras has quietly become a key ally in fighting the drug war. There are large ungoverned areas of Honduras where cocaine cartels can grow, process and ship cocaine to markets around the world. A third of the drugs headed to America pass through Honduras, so both countries agreed something had to be done. The result: Joint Task Force-Bravo. About 400 U.S. soldiers, along with DEA agents, are stationed at Honduras’ Soto Cano Air Base to work with Honduran military and police units. The U.S. forces are implementing lessons learned fighting al-Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan and Iraq. One major tactic is to establish forward operating bases for Honduran military forces in areas once controlled by drug cartels. The American personnel act as force multipliers, providing important training, intelligence and logistical support. It’s worth noting that U.S. personnel in the Honduras have also participated in many search and rescue and humanitarian operations in Central America following disasters.
Few people realize that a remote part of Australia plays a vital role in U.S. national security. Around 350 U.S. personnel quietly occupy what is known as the Pine Gap Satellite Tracking Station in the middle of the continent. This signals intelligence facility monitors various communications traffic, making it an important part of America’s intelligence gathering efforts. The Pine Gap facility is believed to control the surveillance satellites that pass over Russia, China and the Middle East. Although the base has been in operation since 1970, it expanded after the end of the Cold War. Australia’s growing importance as a key player in America’s Pacific strategy made headlines when President Barack Obama announced plans in 2011 to deploy Marine Corps units to train with the Australian military.
This island city-state in Southeast Asia is home to Paya Lebar Air Base, which hosts about 150 Navy, Air Force, Marine and Army personnel. Since 1991 this Republic of Singapore Air Force facility has been used as a refueling and staging point and is home to the 497th U.S. Air Force Combat Training Squadron. The storied squadron partners with the RSAF in exercises in the region, although it has taken on tactical missions; in 1998, it helped support the ordered evacuation of U.S. workers in Indonesia. The air base has also hosted Air Force One several times in recent years. While Singapore has figured in American strategic calculations for more than 20 years, its importance to international commerce dates to the 19th century. Long before Singapore built Paya Lebar Air Base, Britain’s East India Co. arrived and in 1819 built a trading post. This outpost helped facilitate the lucrative commerce between Southeast Asia and Europe. Singapore is situated in the middle of some of the world’s most heavily trafficked sea-lanes, so it should continue to be a strategic site for the U.S. military.