Ground crew transport weapons for an Italian F-16 Fighting Falcon at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani in the southern Italian island of Sicily. (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
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The Pentagon has spent the last two decades plowing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for US military power. Especially since the start of the “Global War on Terror” in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of US forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launching pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
At bases in Naples, Aviano, Sicily, Pisa and Vicenza, among others, the military has spent more than $2 billion on construction alone since the end of the Cold War—and that figure doesn’t include billions more on classified construction projects and everyday operating and personnel costs. While the number of troops in Germany has fallen from 250,000 when the Soviet Union collapsed to about 50,000 today, the roughly 13,000 US troops (plus 16,000 family members) stationed in Italy match the numbers at the height of the Cold War. That, in turn, means that the percentage of US forces in Europe based in Italy has tripled since 1991 from around 5 percent to more than 15 percent.
Last month, I had a chance to visit the newest US base in Italy, a three-month-old garrison in Vicenza, near Venice. Home to a rapid reaction intervention force, the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) and the Army’s component of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the base extends for a mile, north to south, dwarfing everything else in the small city. In fact, at over 145 acres, the base is almost exactly the size of Washington’s National Mall, or the equivalent of around 110 American football fields. The price tag for the base and related construction in a city that already hosted at least six installations: upwards of $600 million since fiscal year 2007.
There are still more bases, and so more US military spending, in Germany than in any other foreign country (save, until recently, Afghanistan). Nonetheless, Italy has grown increasingly important as the Pentagon works to change the make-up of its global collection of 800 or more bases abroad, generally shifting its basing focus south and east from Europe’s center. Base expert Alexander Cooley explains: “US defense officials acknowledge that Italy’s strategic positioning on the Mediterranean and near North Africa, the Italian military’s antiterrorism doctrine, as well as the country’s favorable political disposition toward US forces are important factors in the Pentagon’s decision to retain” a large base and troop presence there. About the only people who have been paying attention to this build-up are the Italians in local opposition movements like those in Vicenza who are concerned that their city will become a platform for future US wars.