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.
Most tourists think of Italy as the land of Renaissance art, Roman antiquities and, of course, great pizza, pasta and wine. Few think of it as a land of US bases. But Italy’s fifty-nine Pentagon-identified “base sites” top that of any country except Germany (179), Japan (103), Afghanistan (100 and declining) and South Korea (89).
Publicly, US officials say there are no US military bases in Italy. They insist that our garrisons, with all their infrastructure, equipment and weaponry, are simply guests on what officially remain “Italian” bases designated for NATO use. Of course, everyone knows that this is largely a legal nicety.
No one visiting the new base in Vicenza could doubt that it’s a US installation all the way. The garrison occupies a former Italian air force base called Dal Molin. (In late 2011, Italian officials rebranded it “Caserma Del Din,” evidently to try to shed memories of the massive opposition the base has generated.) From the outside, it might be mistaken for a giant hospital complex or a university campus. Thirty-one box-like peach-and-cream-colored buildings with light red rooftops dominate the horizon, with only the foothills of the Southern Alps as a backdrop. A chain link fence topped by razor wire surrounds the perimeter, with green mesh screens obscuring views into the base.
If you manage to get inside, however, you find two barracks for up to 600 soldiers each. (Off base, the Army is contracting to lease up to 240 newly built homes in surrounding communities.) Two six-floor parking garages that can hold 850 vehicles, and a series of large office complexes, some small training areas, including an indoor shooting range still under construction, as well as a gym with a heated swimming pool, a “Warrior Zone” entertainment center, a small PX, an Italian-style café and a large dining facility. These amenities are actually rather modest for a large US base. Most of the newly built or upgraded housing, schools, medical facilities, shopping and other amenities for soldiers and their families are across town on Viale della Pace (Peace Boulevard) at the Caserma Ederle base and at the nearby Villaggio della Pace (Peace Village).
A Pentagon Spending Spree
Beyond Vicenza, the military has been spending mightily to upgrade its Italian bases. Until the early 1990s, the US air base at Aviano, northeast of Vicenza, was a small site known as “Sleepy Hollow.” Beginning with the transfer of F-16s from Spain in 1992, the Air Force turned it into a major staging area for every significant wartime operation since the first Gulf War. In the process, it has spent at least $610 million on more than 300 construction projects (Washington convinced NATO to provide more than half these funds, and Italy ceded 210 acres of land for free.) Beyond these “Aviano 2000” projects, the Air Force has spent an additional $115 million on construction since fiscal year 2004.
Not to be outdone, the Navy laid out more than $300 million beginning in 1996 to construct a major new operations base at the Naples airport. Nearby, it has a thirty-year lease on an estimated $400 million “support site” that looks like a big-box shopping mall surrounded by expansive, well-manicured lawns. (The base is located in the Neapolitan mafia’s heartland and was built by a company that has been linked to the Camorra.) In 2005, the Navy moved its European headquarters from London to Naples as it shifted its attention from the North Atlantic to Africa, the Middle East and the Black Sea. With the creation of AFRICOM, whose main headquarters remain in Germany, Naples is now home to a combined US Naval Forces Europe–US Naval Forces Africa. Tellingly, its website prominently displays the time in Naples, Djibouti, Liberia and Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, Sicily has become increasingly significant in the “Global War on Terror” era, as the Pentagon has been turning it into a major node of US military operations for Africa, which is less than 100 miles away across the Mediterranean. Since fiscal year 2001, the Pentagon has spent more on construction at the Sigonella Naval Air Station—almost $300 million—than at any Italian base other than Vicenza. Now the second-busiest naval air station in Europe, Sigonella was first used to launch Global Hawk surveillance drones in 2002. In 2008, US and Italian officials signed a secret agreement formally permitting the basing of drones there. Since then, the Pentagon has put out at least $31 million to build a Global Hawk maintenance and operations complex. The drones provide the foundation for NATO’s $1.7 billion Alliance Ground Surveillance system, which gives NATO surveillance capabilities as far as 10,000 miles from Sigonella.
Beginning in 2003, “Joint Task Force Aztec Silence” has used P-3 surveillance planes based at Sigonella to monitor insurgent groups in North and West Africa. And since 2011, AFRICOM has deployed a task force of around 180 marines and two aircraft to the base to provide counterterrorism training to African military personnel in Botswana, Liberia, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia and Senegal.
Sigonella also hosts one of three Global Broadcast Service satellite communications facilities and will soon be home to a NATO Joint Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance deployment base and a data analysis and training center. In June, a US Senate subcommittee recommended moving special operations forces and CV-22 Ospreys from Britain to Sicily, since “Sigonella has become a key launch pad for missions related to Libya, and given the ongoing turmoil in that nation as well as the emergence of terrorist training activities in northern Africa.” In nearby Niscemi, the Navy hopes to build an ultra high frequency satellite communications installation, despite growing opposition from Sicilians and other Italians concerned about the effects of the station and its electromagnetic radiation on humans and a surrounding nature reserve.
Amid the build-up, the Pentagon has actually closed some bases in Italy as well, including those in Comiso, Brindisi and La Maddalena. While the Army has cut some personnel at Camp Darby, a massive underground weapons and equipment storage installation along Tuscany’s coast, the base remains a critical logistics and pre-positioning center enabling the global deployment of troops, weapons and supplies from Italy by sea. Since fiscal year 2005, it’s seen almost $60 million in new construction.
And what are all these bases doing in Italy? Here’s the way one US military official in Italy (who asked not to be named) explained the matter to me: “I’m sorry, Italy, but this is not the Cold War. They’re not here to defend Vicenza from a [Soviet] attack. They’re here because we agreed they need to be here to do other things, whether that’s the Middle East or the Balkans or Africa.”
Location, Location, Location
Bases in Italy have played an increasingly important role in the Pentagon’s global garrisoning strategy in no small part because of the country’s place on the map. During the Cold War, West Germany was the heart of US and NATO defenses in Europe because of its positioning along the most likely routes of any Soviet attack into Western Europe. Once the Cold War ended, Germany’s geographic significance declined markedly. In fact, US bases and troops at Europe’s heart looked increasingly hemmed in by their geography, with US ground forces there facing longer deployment times outside the continent and the Air Force needing to gain overflight rights from neighboring countries to get almost anywhere.
Troops based in Italy, by contrast, have direct access to the international waters and airspace of the Mediterranean. This allows them to deploy rapidly by sea or air. As Assistant Secretary of the Army Keith Eastin told Congress in 2006, positioning the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Dal Molin “strategically positions the unit south of the Alps with ready access to international airspace for rapid deployment and forced entry/early entry operations.”
And we’ve seen the Pentagon take advantage of Italy’s location since the 1990s, when Aviano Air Base played an important role in the first Gulf War and in US and NATO interventions in the Balkans (a short hop across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). The Bush administration, in turn, made bases in Italy some of its “enduring” European outposts in its global garrisoning shift south and east from Germany. In the Obama years, a growing military involvement in Africa has made Italy an even more attractive basing option.
“Sufficient Operational Flexibility”
Beyond its location, US officials love Italy because, as the same military official told me, it’s a “country that offers sufficient operational flexibility.” In other words, it provides the freedom to do what you want with minimal restrictions and hassle.
Especially in comparison to Germany, Italy offers this flexibility for reasons that reflect a broader move away from basing in two of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations, Germany and Japan, toward basing in relatively poorer and less powerful ones. In addition to offering lower operating costs, such hosts are generally more susceptible to Washington’s political and economic pressure. They also tend to sign “status of forces agreements”—which govern the presence of US troops and bases abroad—that are less restrictive for the US military. Such agreements often offer more permissive settings when it comes to environmental and labor regulations or give the Pentagon more freedom to pursue unilateral military action with minimal host country consultation.
While hardly one of the world’s weaker nations, Italy is the second most heavily indebted country in Europe, and its economic and political power pales in comparison to Germany’s. Not surprisingly, then, as that Pentagon official in Italy pointed out to me, the status of forces agreement with Germany is long and detailed, while the foundational agreement with Italy remains the short (and still classified) 1954 Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement. Germans also tend to be rather exacting when it comes to following rules, while the Italians, he said, “are more interpretive of guidance.”
War + Bases = $
The freedom with which the US military used its Italian bases in the Iraq War is a case in point. As a start, the Italian government allowed US forces to employ them even though their use for a war pursued outside the context of NATO may violate the terms of the 1954 basing agreement. A classified May 2003 cable sent by US Ambassador to Italy Melvin Sembler and released by WikiLeaks shows that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government gave the Pentagon “virtually everything” it wanted. “We got what we asked for,” wrote Sembler, “on base access, transit, and overflights, ensuring that forces…could flow smoothly through Italy to get to the fight.”
For its part, Italy appears to have benefited directly from this cooperation. (Some say that shifting bases from Germany to Italy was also meant as a way to punish Germany for its lack of support for the Iraq War.) According to a 2010 report from Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, “Italy’s role in the war in Iraq, providing 3,000 troops to the US-led effort, opened up Iraqi reconstruction contracts to Italian firms, as well as cementing relations between the two allies.” Its role in the Afghan War surely offered similar benefits. Such opportunities came amid deepening economic troubles, and at a moment when the Italian government was turning to arms production as a major way to revive its economy. According to Jane’s, Italian weapons manufacturers like Finmeccanica have aggressively tried to enter the US and other markets. In 2009, Italian arms exports were up more than 60 percent.
In October 2008, the two countries renewed a Reciprocal Defense Procurement Memorandum of Understanding (a “most favored nation” agreement for military sales). It has been suggested that the Italian government may have turned Dal Molin over to the US military—for free—in part to ensure itself a prominent role in the production of “the most expensive weapon ever built,” the F-35 fighter jet, among other military deals. Another glowing 2009 cable, this time from the Rome embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Dibble, called the countries’ military cooperation “an enduring partnership.” It noted pointedly how Finmeccanica (which is 30 percent state-owned) “sold USD 2.3 billion in defense equipment to the US in 2008 [and] has a strong stake in the solidity of the US-Italy relationship.”
Of course, there’s another relevant factor in the Pentagon’s Italian build-up. For the same reasons American tourists flock to the country, US troops have long enjoyed la dolce vita there. In addition to the comfortable living on suburban-style bases, around 40,000 military visitors a year from across Europe and beyond come to Camp Darby’s military resort and “American beach” on the Italian Riviera, making the country even more attractive.
The Costs of the Pentagon’s Pivots
Italy is not about to take Germany’s place as the foundation of US military power in Europe. Germany has long been deeply integrated into the US military system and military planners have designed it to stay that way. In fact, remember how the Pentagon convinced Congress to hand over $600 million for a new base and related construction in Vicenza? The Pentagon’s justification for the new base was the Army’s need to bring troops from Germany to Vicenza to consolidate the 173rd brigade in one place.
And then, last March, one week after getting access to the first completed building at Dal Molin and with construction nearly finished, the Army announced that it wouldn’t be consolidating the brigade after all. One-third of the brigade would remain in Germany. At a time when budget cuts, unemployment and economic stagnation for all but the wealthiest have left vast unmet needs in communities around the United States, for our $600 million investment, a mere 1,000 troops will move to Vicenza.
Even with those troops staying in Germany, Italy is fast becoming one of several new pivot points for US warmaking powers globally. While much attention has been focused on President Obama’s “Asia pivot,” the Pentagon is concentrating its forces at bases that represent a series of pivots in places like Djibouti on the horn of Africa and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, Bahrain and Qatar in the Persian Gulf, Bulgaria and Romania in Eastern Europe, Australia, Guam and Hawai’i in the Pacific and Honduras in Central America.
Our bases in Italy are making it easier to pursue new wars and military interventions in conflicts about which we know little, from Africa to the Middle East. Unless we question why we still have bases in Italy and dozens more countries like it worldwide—as, encouragingly, growing numbers of politicians, journalists and others are doing—those bases will help lead us, in the name of American “security,” down a path of perpetual violence, perpetual war and perpetual insecurity.
Ann Jones reminds the world that we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan.