The overseas hub for America’s “war on terror” is the massive Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany. Nearly ignored by US media, Ramstein serves crucial functions for drone warfare and much more. It’s the most important Air Force base abroad, operating as a kind of grand central station for airborne war—whether relaying video images of drone targets in Afghanistan to remote pilots with trigger fingers in Nevada, or airlifting special-ops units on missions to Africa, or transporting munitions for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Soaking up billions of taxpayer dollars, Ramstein has scarcely lacked for anything from the home country, other than scrutiny.
Known as “Little America” in this mainly rural corner of Germany, the area now includes 57,000 US citizens clustered around Ramstein and a dozen smaller bases. The Defense Department calls it “the largest American community outside of the United States.” Ramstein serves as the biggest Air Force cargo port beyond US borders, providing “full spectrum airfield operations” along with “world-class airlift and expeditionary combat support.” The base also touts “superior” services and “exceptional quality of life.” To look at Ramstein and environs is to peer into a faraway mirror for the United States; what’s inside the frame is normality for endless war.
Ramstein’s gigantic Exchange store (largest in the US military) is the centerpiece for an oversize shopping mall, just like back home. A greeting from the Holy Family Catholic Community at Ramstein tells newcomers: “We know that being in the military means having to endure frequent moves to different assignments. This is part of the price we pay by serving our country.” Five American colleges have campuses on the base. Ellenmarie Zwank Brown, who identifies herself as “an Air Force wife and a physician,” is reassuring in a cheerful guidebook that she wrote for new arrivals: “If you are scared of giving up your American traditions, don’t worry! The military goes out of its way to give military members an American way of life while living in Germany.”
That way of life is contoured around nonstop war. Ramstein is the headquarters for the US Air Force in Europe, and the base is now pivotal for using air power on other continents. “We touch a good chunk of the world right from Ramstein,” a public-affairs officer, Maj. Tony Wickman, told me during a recent tour of the base. “We think of it as a power-projection platform.” The scope of that projection is vast, with “areas of responsibility” that include Europe, Russia, and Africa—104 countries in all. And Ramstein is well-staffed to meet the challenge, with over 7,500 “active duty Airmen”—more than any other US military base in the world except the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Serving the transport needs of war efforts in Iraq and Syria (countries hit by 28,675 US bombs and missiles last year) as well as in many other nations, Ramstein is a central pit stop for enormous cargo jets like the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster. The Ramstein base currently supports “fifteen different major combat operations,” moving the daily supply chain and conducting urgent airlifts. Last July, when Ankara gave Washington a green light to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base for launching airstrikes in Syria, vital equipment quickly flew from Ramstein to Incirlik so F-16s could start bombing.