Lily Pads

American military extends its reach worldwide

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 

Base Nation

The Investigative Reporting Workshop is publishing an excerpt here from "Base Nation," by David Vine, which chronicles the growth of the U.S. military into new corners of the globe with the help of small, often secretive “lily pad” bases in more than 40 countries (out of a total of around 80 countries hosting bases of all sizes) and as diverse as Aruba, Kenya and Thailand. Vine is an associate professor of anthropology at American University. You can learn more or purchase the book here. 

Since at least the decolonization era of the 1950s, U.S. officials have feared the kind of protest increasingly seen in places like Vieques, Puerto Rico and Okinawa, Japan. Planners covet safe, worry-free bases insulated from opposition, military constraints and the danger of eviction. They want bases free of the kinds of restrictions the military faced during the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1970s, when several European allies prevented the use of their bases and airspace to support Israel, and again in the lead-up to the second invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Turkey and other European countries limited the use of U.S. bases on their soil. A Pentagon official explained in a 2009 presentation that the new aim is to “lighten U.S. foreign footprints to reduce friction with host nations” and avoid offending “host nation and regional sensitivities.”1 

Avoidance of local populations, publicity and potential opposition is the new goal. And to achieve it, the Pentagon is increasingly turning to small, covert sites scattered around the globe — the “cooperative security locations” frequently referred to simply as “lily pads.”

Some of the attractiveness of the lily pad strategy, with its relative shift from large bases to smaller ones, has clearly been the lower costs involved, especially in the face of Pentagon budget cuts. Most lily pads are located in economically and politically weak countries that are more easily influenced by the economic benefits and political payoffs promised by bases, and where labor and other operating costs are lower than in countries like Germany, Italy and Japan. Poorer countries’ less stringent environmental regulations also make operations cheaper and easier.

U.S. military creates smaller bases in more countries

Even though the U.S. military has fewer bases than it did at the end of the Cold War, it has increasingly inserted itself into new corners of the globe with the help of small, often secretive "lily pad" bases. Today, there are bases in about 80 countries and U.S. terrorities — roughly twice as many as in 1989.


Research by David Vine;
Graphic by Kelly Martin, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Thanks to lily pads’ low costs, many military planners also like the idea of building new bases in as many nations as possible — what the Pentagon calls “redundant capabilities and access.”2 

With a big collection of small bases joining a smaller number of main operating bases like Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Camp Humphreys in South Korea, planners hope “to respond rapidly to crises and contingencies anywhere in the world” by turning from one country to another if a host denies use of a U.S. base in wartime (as Turkey and other European countries did to varying degrees in the lead-up to the second invasion of Iraq in 2003).3 

Maintaining larger numbers of bases also increases the challenge for any potential adversary who wants to target American bases in wartime. And the relatively low costs of lily pads mean that if a host country ever evicts one, the financial damage is far smaller than the losses at bases like Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.

Lily pads have also grown in popularity as some military planners, on both the right and left of the political spectrum, have challenged one of the traditional rationales for maintaining large numbers of bases overseas: deployment speed. According to a Bush administration study, for example, because of technological advancements in airlift and sealift, deploying troops to a conflict from most overseas bases saves little if any time compared to deploying from domestic bases.4 

More and more military analysts are thus concluding that maintaining stores of weapons and supplies overseas — what the military calls “pre-positioning” — is more important than having tens of thousands of troops there, with the attendant costs to support them and their families. Most lily pads can serve this pre-positioning function while also offering, like somewhat bigger forward operating sites, “surge capacity” to expand easily and rapidly in order to accommodate much larger numbers of troops and weaponry in a crisis. A 2005 exercise, for example, showed how hundreds of U.S. troops from Illinois could deploy to a lily pad in Bulgaria run by KBR and local contractors.5

More broadly, the lily pad strategy is a critical part of what many are calling a “new way of war” for the United States, aimed at maintaining U.S. global dominance amid growing economic and geopolitical competition from China, the European Union and rising powers such as Russia and India. The days of hundreds of bases and hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan may be over, but the development of lily pad bases in places like Honduras, the Philippines and Niger is a warning that — whether we realize it or not — the military is increasingly inserting itself into new areas of the world and into new conflicts, with potentially disastrous consequences.


Of all the U.S. military personnel I met during my travels, Army Lt. Col. Frank Duffy may have been the only one to suggest a meal at a restaurant that was not a U.S. chain. Instead, he recommended we meet for pupusas, the corn-and-cheese-based Salvadoran specialty popular among Hondurans. (“Frank Duffy” is a pseudonym; like other military personnel in Honduras, he asked me not to use his real name.)

As we ate during the summer of 2011, I asked Duffy about reports of “new U.S. bases” in the country. The Pentagon had recently invested around $4 million in small military facilities, including forward-operating locations, a counternarcotics facility, a safe house and a team room and range.6 The Pentagon had also bought more than $48 million in fuel for “various military locations” in Honduras.7 

Although the money invested is tiny compared to the overall military budget, many have been asking what the military is once again doing in the jungles of Central America. The suspicion is that the “Honduran” bases the U.S. military is helping to upgrade or create in remote parts of the country are actually new American lily pads.

Duffy told me matter-of-factly that Southern Command has been providing the Honduran military with funding for some time. And, he said, it continues to fund “bases that have missions in our best interest.”

“What’s that mean?” Duffy continued. Switching into the monotone register often used to utter official bureaucratic phrases, he said that these are missions to “detect, monitor and interdict as much illicit [material] as possible.” The aim is to “disrupt trafficking” by building up the Honduran navy and its bases, “some in remote areas along the coast.”

“Is there a U.S. presence at these bases?” I probed.

Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Duffy paused. We “investigate the safety and efficiency of the people operating these facilities,” he replied in the same exaggerated monotone. Then, looking straight into my eyes, he asked, “Does it sound like I’m being too careful?”

I didn’t know what to say. Duffy broke the silence by adding that it’s a “pretty insignificant amount of money in the scheme of things.” The Honduran armed forces doesn’t even have enough gas to patrol its waterways or food to feed its troops, he explained. So what we’re funding is the construction of basic things like docks, barracks, spare parts. 

“Are there agreements outlining what access U.S. forces have to the facilities?” I asked.

“The answer to your question is yes,” Duffy said. “End-use monitoring. There’s always a requirement to allow end-use monitoring” to ensure facilities are being used properly. 

“But do U.S. military personnel use or have access to these bases?”

What you need to do, Duffy said, in what initially felt like a non sequitur, is go back to the 1980s to look at the bases the United States provided for Honduras. Or look at the city of Trujillo, he said. It has a U.S. Navy hospital from World War II. That’s “cool,” he added with emphasis.

“So is there a U.S. presence at these facilities like there was in the '80s?” I asked, referring to the era of Central America's civil wars when the military turned Honduras into its hub for supporting right wing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Nicaraguan Contras. 

“There’s no U.S. presence,” Duffy said abruptly, seeming to bristle at the word “presence,” which for the military often implies permanence. “And let’s be clear, there are no U.S. bases in Honduras,” he said. Then he leaned forward over the table and stared at me, unblinking, for several long seconds, until I finally looked away.

Training grounds

The next time I met Duffy, we had breakfast at a local McDonald’s. Given that it was the Fourth of July, he thought it appropriate enough. 

“Let me ask a… direct question,” I said hesitatingly, looking for a way around the Pentagon’s linguistic façade. “There are no U.S. military bases in Honduras. But are there any U.S. military facilities or installations in Honduras?”

“No,” Duffy replied curtly, looking down, his eyes locked to the table. 

“Is there a U.S. presence at any of the Honduran bases?” I asked.

“We have teams that are very limited — I shouldn’t say ‘limited.’ It’s on a case by case basis,” he demurred. “Three, four, five weeks at a time.” For example, an Air Force team might be there for “six weeks… living and working with” the Hondurans, he said. 

There are “no other troops that are permanently” there, Duffy said. Though, he added, there are some “special ops cases” where they’re on site for “four to six months.” 

In April 2012, Southcom revealed to The New York Times more or less what Duffy couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say to me the previous summer. The Times revealed the military had built at least three remote “forward operating bases,” including one at a former Contra base.8 

U.S. officials said the new lily pads are officially “under Honduran command.” They said the bases allow Honduran and U.S. forces to combat drug traffickers more effectively in isolated, unpopulated parts of the country.9 

“Each site supports two-week rotations for 55 people,” the Times reported, with “spartan but comfortable barracks,” fuel supplies and gas and solar generators. Most of the personnel appear to be Honduran troops and U.S special operations trainers.10  

In total, the military now has regular access to at least 12 bases, training ranges and other military facilities in Honduras. Unlike in almost every other country where the U.S. has bases and troops, there is no status of forces agreement in Honduras governing the American military presence. Instead, under the 1982 bilateral agreement, the U.S. military has nearly unrestricted access to all of Honduras’s military facilities. 

Many of these facilities have been built or upgraded without public notice. At least one facility has been built via “exercise-related construction,” recalling methods used to evade congressional authority over base construction in Honduras in the 1980s.

In one sense, there’s little news here: The Pentagon has been building infrastructure, as well as providing weaponry and equipment, for the poorly resourced Honduran military since at least the 1930s.11 

What is new, however, is the presence of U.S. troops at a growing number of bases in isolated parts of the country on a de facto permanent basis. Duffy said there is “no U.S. presence,” but he later acknowledged that teams of U.S. forces — some “limited” in size and others larger — are spending weeks or months at a time at the bases to provide training. He later told me there were more than 100 training events in fiscal year 2011 alone. Another military official in Honduras explained, “We almost always have a few trainers in the country. But it’s not really by design.” They’re simply cycling in and out “for different needs,” he said.

Except that it’s precisely by design that there’s a constant rotation of mobile training teams and advisers at the new bases and other facilities. Since at least 2008, the Pentagon has acknowledged its attempts to create “permanent” deployments of special operations forces worldwide.12 

In Honduras, the frequent training rotations, often by special operations forces, mean the U.S. military has an increasing presence in a growing swath of the country. The need to conduct “end use monitoring” for new bases, and for the new equipment and weapons provided to the Honduran military and police, similarly justifies the widespread deployment of U.S. forces.13 

A 2009 U.S. embassy cable from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, released by Wikileaks details how international exercises and frequent medical missions and other “humanitarian” events have also done much the same. In La Moskitia, the isolated Atlantic coast region that has become a major drug transit point, for example, the United States has used such activities as an excuse to establish “military presence,” collect intelligence and conduct surveillance.14

When troops deploy for a humanitarian activity such as providing dental care or vaccinations, “its primary purpose is not to treat poor people,” Duffy explained to me when we met in Washington, D.C., in 2013. “It’s not to train host nation medical people. The primary purpose is for U.S. personnel to practice, to get training in preparing for deployment.” Pentagon budget documents tell a similar story, explaining that humanitarian operations help “maintain a robust overseas presence” and provide “access to regions important to U.S. interests."15

Of course, Duffy said, diplomacy goes on so Hondurans don’t think you’re coming to take advantage of them. You need to show them “your people are going to get benefits. Your doctors are going to get benefits. Your local politicians are going to get benefits,” in the form of donated equipment or construction. 

But from the viewpoint of the U.S. military, much of what troops need to do with their time is deploy to conduct training in realistic scenarios. “That’s why the U.S. has been so good at wars,” Duffy said. “To be able to do it, you’ve got to practice it.” And Honduras provides a good place to practice. So you take units from the States, explained Duffy, you “deploy, build something” — whether a military facility or a school — and when you leave it behind, “it’s a sign of goodwill on our part.”

“But again you don’t advertise that to the host nation. You say the primary purpose is to work together.” 

Replacing Subic and Clark

A similar mixture of lily pads, training and exercises has also allowed the military to make a remarkable return to the Philippines, within barely a decade of the 1992 eviction of U.S. bases from the country. 

As a prelude to the lily pads to come, U.S. negotiators first signed a “visiting forces agreement” with the Philippines in 1996 that allowed U.S. troops back into the country for a variety of military exercises and training. The Philippines Senate ratified the agreement in 1999.

By 2003, the U.S. military was participating in 18 such exercises a year; U.S. troops outnumbered Filipino troops in the largest exercise.

Soon, there were more than 30 exercises per year. By 2006 there were 5,500 U.S. troops involved, almost twice as many as in the 2,800-person Filipino contingent.

By 2008, the 6,000 Americans were three times the number of Filipinos.16 Relatively quickly, the exercises had become a way to hide the near-permanent deployment of large numbers of U.S. troops involved in counterinsurgency operations. The journalist Robert D. Kaplan reports hearing that top Pentagon civilians “hated the fact that they had to hide such troop insertions under the cover of annual exercises."17

The Filipino security analyst Herbert Docena explains, “U.S. military strategists consider these training exercises as a way of securing on-again, off-again, but continuous access to the country where they are training.”

He quotes former Pacific Command commander Admiral Thomas Fargo as saying, “Access over time can develop into habitual use of certain facilities by deployed U.S. forces with the eventual goal of being guaranteed use in a crisis, or permission to pre-position logistics stocks and other critical material in strategic forward locations.”

Indeed, a separate 2002 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement gave U.S. forces the right to pre-position weapons and equipment, build structures and organize full logistical services in the country. A 2001 agreement also provided access to Philippines airspace, airfields, sea lanes and harbors; U.S. naval vessels now make near constant port visits. As in Honduras, medical and humanitarian activities have offered additional opportunities to train U.S. troops in regions where they might one day be involved in combat, while at the same time wining locals’ trust and creating local intelligence networks.18 

Soon, U.S. troops had regained access to Subic Bay and Clark. A 2014 agreement allows a still larger U.S. presence. Negotiators have released few details, but talks appear to have revolved around the question of Filipino access to “temporary” facilities built by U.S. troops on Philippines soil. Both governments insist the agreement will respect Philippines sovereignty and create no U.S. “bases.” Still, some Filipinos are challenging that assessment and asking whether the plan violates the country’s constitutional ban on foreign military bases.19 

Military facilities in the Philippines that Filipino troops might not be able to visit certainly sound like foreign bases, raising doubts about promises made in 2001 by Pentagon official Ray DuBois that the Philippines would maintain sovereignty over any bases occupied and that there would be no large, permanent contingent of U.S. troops.

Together, this complex of lily pads, exercises, port visits, medical activities and access agreements means, as Docena says, that the U.S. military now has “everything — and arguably more — than it had in Subic and Clark.” Only now, it has this broad presence “without the economic and political costs of maintaining large garrison-like bases that can serve as visible symbols for the opposition."20

A continent of lily pads

Nowhere has the arrival of lily pads been more striking than in Africa. There, the same developments going on in Honduras and the Philippines are happening on a continental scale. 

Until recently, the Pentagon had paid little attention to Africa. Before the creation of an Africa Command (Africom) in 2007, there was no command strictly responsible for Africa. The continent was essentially an afterthought overseen by the European Command. The largest U.S. military involvement in Africa came in the early 1990s, when the Pentagon deployed more than 25,000 troops as part of UN humanitarian operations in Somalia. After U.S. soldiers took heavy casualties in Mogadishu in 1993, there was a rapid retreat from the country and from any thought of sending U.S. troops into African combat.

However, nine days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials began inquiring about creating a base in Djibouti. It would be near the strategic entrance to the Persian Gulf and within striking distance of the Middle East and much of Africa. A little more than a year later, hundreds of troops started arriving at Camp Lemonnier, a base adjacent to a French installation dating to French colonial rule. The cost: just $30 million a year and a Voice of America radio transmitter.21 Within a few years, there were more than 4,000 troops at the 600-acre base and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and annual spending.22  

The pace of military activities in Africa accelerated further after President George W. Bush established Africom. He said Africom “will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth."23 

Many in Africa, and elsewhere, were less enthusiastic. No fewer than 17 countries, including the continental powers South Africa and Nigeria, expressed explicit opposition to Africom. With the exception of Liberia, no country offered to host the command. Given the criticism from other nations and civil society organizations, its headquarters remained in Stuttgart, Germany. Many saw Africom as little more than 19th-century Western colonialism rebooted — a plan for the domination of African oil and other resources, cloaked in the language of humanitarianism. Many U.S. critics also feared that the command represented the militarization of foreign policy and development aid, with Africom set to usurp many of the roles played by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.24  

Since then, Africom has downsized some of its planned diplomatic and humanitarian roles. With the command headquarters still in Germany, Africom representatives have insisted to me and others that Camp Lemonnier is the only U.S. base on the continent. They say any other facility is “temporary.” An Africom representative declined to provide a list of facilities occupied by U.S. forces citing “operational security and force protection reasons” and “the request of our host nation partners."25  

While the command’s secrecy makes getting a full picture difficult, evidence suggests that Africom’s on-the-ground expansion has been rapid and broad. A 2014 article in the U.S. Army’s magazine Army Sustainment identified nine forward operating locations in the Horn of Africa alone.26 

Likewise, a series of Washington Post reports have shown that since 2007, the Pentagon has quietly created “about a dozen air bases” in countries including Niger, Chad, Ethiopia and the Seychelles for drones and surveillance operations over Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.27 

In Burkina Faso, special operations forces are using part of the Ouagadougou international airport for “high-risk activities” in Africa’s Sahel. In Mauritania, the military has used a forward operating base to conduct periodic surveillance operations of Tuareg rebels in nearby Mali. The military also had a lily pad in Mali until a 2012 coup forced a withdrawal.28  

In Mombasa, the military is using at least six buildings at two Kenyan bases, while the Navy has spent at least $10 million to upgrade a small base in Manda Bay.29 There are special operations outposts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and two in the Central African Republic.30 

In 2013, investigative journalist Nick Turse reported U.S. deployments at six “austere locations” and seven classified cooperative security locations on the continent, including one in Entebbe, Uganda, used to track Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Around 100 U.S. special operations forces had been deployed since 2012 as part of the hunt for Kony.31  

In Burundi and outside of Kampala, Uganda, at the Singo Training School, U.S. contractors and military advisers have been training African soldiers as part of a more than $500 million U.S. effort to train and equip African Union troops fighting in Somalia.32 

Since 2001, the military’s presence on the continent has grown from a few hundred to what is now, on any day, likely between 7,000 and 11,000 U.S. troops.

Africom has also deployed around two dozen military advisers directly into Somalia to lead efforts to defeat the country’s al-Qaeda-linked group, al-Shabab. The military has pursued a covert war in the country and launched raids to capture and extradite at least two al-Shabab fighters to the United States.33 

The CIA has secretly had a permanent presence for several years. For operations in Somalia and Yemen, the military has also positioned an “afloat forward staging base” in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Djibouti and used nearby navy vessels to shell Somalia.34 There are likely several hundred special operations troops involved in undisclosed wars and conflicts throughout the North Africa’s Sahel-Sahara region.

“It may be reasonably assumed,” the independent nonprofit Oxford Research Group concluded about the total U.S. military presence, “that much more is happening than has yet been disclosed and there will be more to come.”35   

Elsewhere, the Navy has quite openly been making port calls in West Africa with a floating base it uses to provide training and other “engagement” activities to local forces.36 

In 2013, U.S. aircraft transported almost 1,000 Burundian troops to quell violence in the Central African Republic.37 

There are fuel bunkers for U.S. aircraft and naval vessels in countries including Cameroon, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania. At African airports, U.S. forces have signed 29 agreements providing refueling rights; at least 22 airports in 19 countries are already providing fuel.38 Government contracting documents show the military soliciting several private firms to provide airlift services for forces in Africa and rapid base construction services on a contingency basis across East and West Africa.39  

According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, the military also has access to small, shared cooperative security locations in Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Zambia.40 Officials appear to have considered or negotiated for additional cooperative security locations in at least Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Nigeria and São Tomé and Príncipe. In Liberia, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, Africom has built or improved host nation coast guard and maritime operations facilities.41 

When the military mobilized to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in the fall of 2014, it began building a network of health and military logistics facilities.42 They included 17, 100-bed “Ebola treatment units” and a field hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, and an “intermediate staging base” in Dakar, Senegal. While many portrayed the military’s reaction to Ebola as pure altruism, months before the Ebola deployment, the Pentagon already had plans to build three to five new bases on the continent as well as an intermediate staging base in West Africa — that is, like the one now in Dakar, Senegal.43 

When I asked an Africom spokesperson if the command will seek another intermediate staging base in West Africa, Benjamin Benson replied in an email that the Command “is exploring options at several locations that would allow for staging in the event of crisis.”44 

In total, since late 2001, the military has spent around $30 billion or more on a growing military infrastructure as well as other military aid and programs in Africa.

This infrastructure includes 19 lily pads in around 17 countries; access to an additional eight or more “cooperative security locations” without any permanent U.S. presence; jet and naval fuel storage at 28 or more locations in at least 20 countries; the construction or upgrading of scores of host country military facilities; and the expansion of several large bases in Europe to support operations in Africa.

Since 2001, the military’s presence on the continent has grown from a few hundred to what is now, on any day, likely between 5,000 and 8,000 U.S. troops.45 

While the military’s power in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East significantly exceeds that in Africa, the Pentagon’s presence on the continent now tops that in Latin America and the Caribbean —long declared by U.S. leaders to be “America’s backyard.”46 

The military is now operating in at least 49 of the 54 African countries. It may be operating in every single one.47  

Stockpiling lily pads

One African lily pad location that has been under consideration appears to be São Tomé and Príncipe, the tiny island nation off the oil-rich west coast of West Africa. Around 2002, high-ranking military officials and U.S. senators suddenly started visiting São Tomé.

Gen. Charles Wald, then deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, said publicly that São Tomé could become “another Diego Garcia.” Other U.S. officials said there was neither the time nor the budget to carry out such a grand plan amid two wars. But, they said, São Tomé might make a good location for a lily pad.48  

Fradique de Menezes, the president of São Tomé at the time, told Portuguese television that he “received a call from the Pentagon to tell me that the issue [was] being studied.” What he described sounded a lot like a lily pad: “It is not really a military base on our territory, but rather a support port for aircraft, warships and patrol ships.”49 

The sudden interest in one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world stems from the petroleum found beneath the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere in West Africa. Since the turn of the century, the region has become an increasingly important source of global energy supplies, and may have even larger undiscovered reserves. Several U.S. companies, including ExxonMobil and Noble Energy, have won oil exploration concessions in the Gulf. Although recent U.S. oil production has caused a drop in imports from West Africa, a few years ago, the Council on Foreign Relations was suggesting that sub-Saharan Africa was “likely to become as important as a source of U.S. energy imports as the Middle East.”50 

In addition to the prospective West African oil riches, East Africa is also growing in importance as a source of oil and gas, and North Africa continues to be a large supplier. (And beyond its natural resources, Africa represents a vast and largely untapped consumer market — one of the few remaining over which corporations can compete.) Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of many a “new scramble for Africa” has begun, with the United States, China, the EU, Russia and others all eager to secure their access to the continent.

Amid the scramble, Africa appears to be following the basing trajectory of the Middle East and, more recently, the Caspian Sea region, where the U.S. military has also tried to create a base infrastructure.51  

The difference is that because of political and financial constraints, the Pentagon can’t build major new bases in Africa, the way it has done at Diego Garcia or in many of the Persian Gulf states. Without this freedom, the Pentagon is using a growing collection of lily pads and other forms of military presence in its bid for regional control.

A new way of war

Far beyond Africa, the 19th century scramble for the continent has now gone global. Indeed, as the United States and rising powers like China, Russia and Brazil find themselves locked in an increasingly intense competition, the struggle for economic and geopolitical supremacy has spread to resource-rich lands in South and East Asia, in Central and South America and beyond. 

The Chinese government has generally pursued this competition and the challenge of securing oil, resources, and markets by using its economic might — that is, by dotting the globe with strategic investments and development projects, such as a planned canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama Canal.52 

The U.S. government, by contrast, has focused relentlessly on using military might as its trump card regionally and globally — that is, by dotting the planet with lily pads, troops and other forms of military power. 

Pentagon officials dream of nearly limitless flexibility, the ability to react with remarkable rapidity to developments anywhere on Earth, and thus something approaching complete military control over the entire planet.

“Forget full-scale invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland,” Nick Turse has written of the strategy that many are calling America’s “new way of war.”

“Instead, think: Special operations forces working on their own but also training or fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies)... the militarization of spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of cyber-attacks and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized ‘civilian’ government agencies.”53 

We can add to this list nominally humanitarian missions that clearly serve military intelligence, patrol, and “hearts and minds” functions; the rotating deployment of U.S. forces around the globe coupled with port visits and other long-standing “showing the flag” demonstrations of U.S. military might; expansion of joint military exercises; the growing use of military contractors; and regular training provided by permanently deployed special operations forces, who give the military de facto “presence” worldwide.

Plus lots and lots of lily pads.

Indeed, lily pads and other bases are in many ways at the heart of this new way of war. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, many military strategists have come to believe the neoconservative mantra that “the whole world is a battlefield.”54 

They anticipate a future of endless small-scale interventions in which a large, geographically dispersed collection of bases will always be primed for instant operational access. Pentagon officials dream of nearly limitless flexibility, the ability to react with remarkable rapidity to developments anywhere on Earth, and thus something approaching complete military control over the entire planet.

Deepening ties

Lily pads are about more than military dominance alone. They are also a kind of back door to introduce into host countries a range of military tools and activities whose ultimate ends are as much political and economic as they are martial. Because of the contact and negotiations that lily pads generally require, they provide an opportunity to deepen ties between the U.S. and foreign militaries.

A lily pad can lead to increased training and humanitarian assistance activities, which can lead to military exercises, which can lead to arms sales and much more. Southcom commander Gen. Charles Wilhelm admitted as much when he talked with a top Salvadoran general about creating a new lily pad air base. “We realize, in a diplomatic sense, this plan is for counterdrug only,” Wilhelm said. “As a practical matter, all of us know that this agreement will give us a superb opportunity to increase the contact with all our armed forces in a variety of ways.”55  

One result is the growing incorporation of foreign military leaders and foreign militaries into the U.S. military structure. Military officials talk in terms of “interoperability,” but the hierarchical nature of these relationships is clear enough. Foreign militaries eventually become, if not proxy armies, at least functional adjuncts or extensions of the U.S. military.56 

Indeed, the aim is increasingly to get “them” to do most of the fighting, and lily pads have become one of several tools to push other militaries in that direction. 

Importantly, these deepening military ties involve highly unequal relationships, in which U.S. leaders can offer their counterparts various “gifts” — including, for example, sophisticated and expensive equipment and weapons, or prestigious training opportunities in the United States.

To militaries like Honduras’s, which is almost completely dependent on international donors for its equipment, such gifts are deeply significant.57  

But like most gifts, these come with obligations and a certain degree of expected loyalty. The obligation-laden relationships can later bear fruit for U.S. military leaders — when, for example, they want to gain valuable intelligence from their high-ranking counterparts, or to shape decisions about another country’s arms purchases or military policy.

“You identify officers and senior NCOs [noncommissioned officers],” former Bush administration official Ray DuBois explained to me, “and you make friends with them when they are sergeants and captains… so when they are colonels and generals you have relationships with them.” These relationships, DuBois continued, “are sources of information,” and “you may be able to influence the country’s procurement policies so they will buy U.S. equipment.” 

The anthropologist Lesley Gill describes how the training of Latin American military leaders at the infamous School of the Americas has “secured their collusion” in U.S. military and geopolitical strategy “to a considerable degree.” By building relationships with military leaders and exposing them to U.S. doctrine and U.S. power, the school “bound them closer to the United States, opened them to greater manipulation… and preempted military assistance from other states that might challenge U.S. dominance.”58 

Relationships built around lily pads and other military activities do much the same, offering possibilities to sway foreign governmental decisions on matters far beyond things military alone. 

Much like the patrol bases that helped “open” China to trade in the 19th century, lily pads can thus help advance U.S. business interests. They provide privileged U.S. access to overseas markets, resources and investment opportunities. They create stability for the regular working of capitalism. And they solidify political alliances. A lily pad “has an influence by virtue of its presence,” DuBois said. “A political impact.” Through these intertwined and growing political, economic and military ties, the U.S. military ultimately helps to deepen the dependence of countries such as Honduras on the United States. 

For the first time in the post-Cold War era, in places like Central and South America, U.S. political and economic dominance is being called into question as a growing number of countries are asserting their independence or gravitating toward China and other rising powers. In response, U.S. officials hope that the relationships built by lily pads and other military activities will bind entire governments as closely as possible to the U.S. military and the rest of the United States — and so to continued U.S. political-economic hegemony.

Dangerous lilies

Relying on smaller bases may at first sound smarter and more cost-effective than maintaining huge bases that have often caused anger in places like Okinawa, the Philippines and Vicenza, Italy. But the "lily pad" language can be misleading. By design or otherwise, small bases can quickly grow into behemoths. When the Navy originally asked congress in the late 1960s for funding for a secretive base on the Indian Ocean island Diego Garcia, officials presented the base to Congress as an "austere communications facility"; within a few decades, it grew into a multibillion-dollar base.59 

Similarly, the 2002 Philippines deployment has grown into multiple lily pads, pier and airfield construction and a return to Clark and Subic Bay.60 

By 2006, Robert D. Kaplan found that at least one lily pad had transformed from a “grim, spartan camp… with an air of impermanence” into one “with proper walkways and creature comforts that befit a more hardened, permanent arrangement.”61 

Because lily pads are generally designed for rapid expansion, they often offer a nucleus from which larger bases can easily grow, with costs tending to snowball accordingly. Like other bases, as a rare Vietnam War-era Senate investigation found, lily pads can take on lives of their own through bureaucratic tendencies toward inertia and expansion.62 

This is especially dangerous because the strategy of building small bases in as many nations as possible also guarantees collaboration with a significant number of despotic, corrupt and murderous regimes. As we have seen, bases small and large have tended to provide legitimacy for and help prop up undemocratic regimes while interfering with efforts to encourage political and democratic reform. (Opponents may also use the bases to rally nationalist sentiment and violent opposition against ruling regimes and the United States.)

As the U.S. military cooperates with local militaries to create lily pads, it becomes increasingly likely that Americans will become involved in local conflicts and political struggles about which U.S. leaders know little and whose victims are often innocent civilians.

In Africa and other poorer parts of the globe, where struggles over resources have often led to corruption, repression and violence, strengthening local militaries can also encourage ruling regimes to use them against opponents. It likewise can encourage opponents to see military force as the only way to claim a share of a country’s wealth and political power, increasing the possibility of coups and instability.63 Notably, the 2012 coup in Mali was carried out by a soldier who had received extensive U.S. training. 

Although lily pads seem to promise insulation from local opposition, over time even small bases have harmed local communities and often led to anger and protest movements. Crashes at drone bases in Djibouti and the Seychelles have already caused local apprehension and opposition. Military personnel operating from a lily pad in Colombia have committed rape. In Ecuador, U.S. Coast Guard counternarcotics operations sank several fishing vessels and may have been responsible for the deaths of fishers aboard at least one boat. And in Australia’s Cocos Islands, where U.S. officials have considered a lily pad, some locals fear they might suffer the same fate that befell the Chagossian people exiled to make way for the base on Diego Garcia.64 

Finally, a proliferation of lily pads only accelerates the militarization of large swaths of the globe. Like real lily pads, which are actually aquatic weeds, bases have a way of reproducing uncontrollably.65 Bases can beget bases and spur “base races” with other nations, heightening military tensions and discouraging diplomatic solutions to conflicts.66 

David Vine

David Vine, associate professor of anthropology at American University, is author of "Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World" (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt 2015). He is also the author of "Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia." 



[1]U.S. Department of Defense, “Global Defense Posture & International Agreements Overview,” slide presentation, April 27, 2009, 6.

[2]Ibid., 9.

[3]Ibid., 3. Two principles that have guided the acquisition and maintenance of large numbers of overseas bases since World War II still appear to be at work today.  They are “redundancy” — the more bases, the safer the nation — and “strategic denial” — preventing supposed enemies from using a territory by denying them access — both of which hold that even if the military has little interest in using a base or a territory, it should acquire as many as possible for every possible contingency and almost never cede its acquisitions.

[4]Cited by Raymond F. DuBois in Center for Strategic and International Studies, “2010 Global Security Forum: What Impact Would the Loss of Overseas Bases Have on U.S. Power Projection?” transcript, Federal News Service, May 13, 2010. 

[5]David C. Chandler Jr., “‘Lily-pad Basing Concept Put to the Test,” Army Logistician, March-April 2005, 11-13.

[6]John Lindsay-Poland, “Pentagon Building Bases in Central America and Colombia Despite Constitutional Court Striking Down Base Agreement,” Fellowship of Reconciliation, blog, Jan. 27, 2011,; “Honduras and the U.S. Military,” Fellowship of Reconciliation, blog, Sept. 21, 2011,

[7]U.S. Department of Defense, Contract Announcement, Defense Logistics Agency, Washington, D.C., April 25, 2009,; Contract Announcement, Defense Logistics Agency, Washington, D.C., Jan. 15, 2009,

[8]Thom Shanker, “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras,” The New York Times, May 5, 2012, A1,

[9]Ibid., A1.

[10]Ibid., A14.

[11]Library of Congress, “Honduras: United States Military Assistance and Training,” Country Studies Series, Federal Research Division, Washington, D.C.,

[12]Kathleen H. Hicks, “Transitioning Defense Organizational Initiatives: An Assessment of Key 2001-2008 Defense Reforms,” report, Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2008, 13.

[13]Thanks to John Lindsay-Poland for making this point.

[14]The unpublicized multiagency campaign also outlined a “public-private partnership” involving a major real estate development firm, General Electric, and humanitarian aid groups (including one directed by the son of Undersecretary of State Maria Otero). Hugo Llorens, “Mission Integrated Strategy to Fight Crime and Illicit Trafficking in La Mosquitia,” cable no. 09TEGUCIGALPA353, Tegucigalpa, May 15, 2009,

[15]U.S. Department of Defense, “Operations and Maintenance, Fiscal Year (FY) 2014,” 69-72.

[16]Herbert Docena, “The US Base in the Philippines,”, February 20, 2012,; Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, “Philippines—Security and Foreign Forces,” May 14, 2009.

[17]Robert D. Kaplan, "Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground" (New York: Vintage Departures, 2007), 315.

[18]Ibid., 154. 

[19]Carmela Fonbuena, “PH, US ‘Close’ to Signing Military Deal,”, Feb. 5, 2014,; “PH, US Bases Access Talks Reach ‘Impasse,’”, Nov. 6, 2013,

[20]Docena, “US Base in the Philippines.” 

[21]Amedee Bollee, “Djibouti: From French Outpost to US Base,” Review of African Political Economy 30, No. 97 (2003): 481-484.

[22]Lauren Ploch, “Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa,” Congressional Research Service, report, Washington, D.C., July 22, 2011, 9, 13. On the 4,000 figure: Benjamin A. Benson email to author, Nov. 13, 2014. 

[23]George W. Bush, “President Bush Creates a Department of Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa,” press release, Feb. 6, 2007,

[24]Catherine Besteman, “Counter AFRICOM,” in The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, or Notes on the Militarization of America, edited by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists Steering Committee (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009), 118-21.

[25]Benson email to author. See also, Nick Turse, “The Classic Military Runaround: Your Tax Dollars at Work Keeping You in the Dark,” TomDispatch, July 7, 2013,

[26]Akil R. King, Zackary H. Moss, and Afi Y. Pittman, “Overcoming Logistics Challenges in East Africa,” Army Sustainment, January-February 2014, 30. 

[27]Craig Whitlock, “U.S. Expands Secret Intelligence Operations in Africa,” The Washington Post, June 13, 2012,; Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, “U.S. Building Secret Drone Bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2011,; Craig Whitlock, “Contractors Run U.S. Spying Missions in Africa,” The Washington Post, June 14, 2012,

[28]Whitlock, “U.S. Expands”; Craig Whitlock, “Mysterious Fatal Crash Provides Rare Glimpse of U.S. Commandos in Mali,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2012,

[29]Shashank Bengali, “U.S. Military Investing Heavily in Africa,” The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 20, 2013.

[30]Nick Turse, “The Pivot to Africa,” TomDispatch, Sept. 5, 2013,

[31]Craig Whitlock, “U.S. to Airlift African Troops to Central African Republic,” The Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2013,

[32]Craig Whitlock, “U.S. Trains African Soldiers for Somalia Mission,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2012,  

[33]Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Somalia: Reported US Covert Actions 2001-2014,” website, Feb. 22, 2012, Whitlock, “U.S. Trains African Soldiers”; Richard Reeve and Zoë Pelter, “From New Frontier to New Normal: Counter-terrorism Operations in the Sahel-Sahara,” London: Remote Control Group/Oxford Research Group, August 2014, 25. 

[34]Jeremy Scahill, “The CIA's Secret Sites in Somalia,” The Nation, Dec. 10, 2014 [August 1-8, 2011],; Reeve and Pelter, 25.

[35]Reeve and Pelter, “New Frontier to New Normal,” 2, 4.

[36]Ploch, “Africa Command,” 22-23. 

[37]Whitlock, “U.S. to Airlift African Troops.”

[38]Turse, “The Pivot to Africa”; Reeve and Pelter, 22. 

[39]See, e.g., Guy Martin, “AAR Awarded US military African Airlift Contract,” DefenceWeb, Dec. 4, 2013,; Lalit Wadha, “The Society of American Military Engineers,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, powerpoint presentation, April 12, 2013; see also Reeve and Pelter on contracts.  

[40]Ploch, “Africa Command,” 10; C. Johnson, Nemesis, 147-148; Cooley, Base Politics, 238, 242. 

[41]Carter Ham, Statement of General Carter Ham, USA Commander United States Africa Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 7, 2013. 

[42]Brady Dennis and  Missy Ryan, “Fewer U.S. Troops Than Initially Planned Will Be Deployed against Ebola in West Africa,” The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2014,

[43]Claudette Roulo, “DoD Brings Unique Capabilities to Ebola Response Mission, Official Says,” DOD News, Nov. 12, 2014,; see also Reeve and Pelter, “New Frontier to New Normal.”

[44]Benson email to author. 

[45]Paul McLeary, “US Deployments to Africa Raise a Host of Issues,” Defense News, May 3, 2014,, citing 5,000-8,000. See also, Rick Rozoff, “Pentagon's Last Frontier: Battle-Hardened Troops Headed To Africa,” Op-ed News, June 12, 2012,

[46]The total troop size at the two largest bases in Latin America, Guantánamo Bay and Soto Cano, totals around 2,500-4,000 at most. Small numbers of troops are deployed elsewhere in Latin America. U.S. Department of Defense, “Total Military Personnel and Dependent End Strength, As of: June 30, 2014.” 

[47]Turse, “The Pivot to Africa”; Oscar Nkala and Kim Helfrich, “US Army Looking to Contractors for African Operations,” DefenceWeb, September 17, 2013, Some members of Congress favor an even larger presence. In its fiscal year 2015 national defense bill, the House asked the Pentagon to increase the U.S. presence and “achieve the associated basing and access agreements to support such forces across the Continent of Africa.” 

[48]Paul C. Wright, “U.S. Military Intervention in Africa: The New Blueprint for Global Domination,” Global Research, Aug. 20, 2010,; Voice of America, “São Tomé Sparks American Military Interest,” Oct. 28, 2009,

[49]BBC News, “US Naval Base to Protect São Tomé Oil,” BBC, Aug. 22, 2002,

[50]James Bellamy Foster, “A Warning to Africa: The New U.S. Imperial Grand Strategy,” Monthly Review 58, no. 2 (2006),

[51]Michael Klare and Daniel Volman, “America, China and the Scramble for Africa’s Oil,” Review of African Political Economy 33, no. 108 (2006): 298-302.

[52]Randal C. Archibold, “China Buys Inroads in the Caribbean, Catching U.S. Notice,” The New York Times, April 7, 2012,

[53]Nick Turse, “The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global War Special Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare,” TomDispatch, June 14, 2012,

[54]Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 4. 

[55]Priest, The Mission: Waging Wars and Keeping Peace with America's Military (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 206.

[56]Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 235-237.

[57]Peter J. Meyer, “Honduras-U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service report, Feb. 5, 2013, 14.

[58]Gill, School of the Americas, 235.

[59]David Vine, "Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia" (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), chapter 6. 

[60]Robert D. Kaplan, "Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military" (New York: Vintage Departures, 2005), 167.

[61]Kaplan, Hog Pilots, 319.

[62]U.S. Senate Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, “United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad,” 2433-34.

[63]Klare and Volman, “America, China and the Scramble,” 306; Sandra T. Barnes, “Global Flows: Terror, Oil, and Strategic Philanthropy,” African Studies Review 48, no. 1 (2005): 11.

[64]Samantha Hawley, “Cocos Islands: US Military Base, Not in Our Lifetime,” PM, March 28, 2012,; Pauline Bunce, “The Riddle of the Islands: Australia’s Oft Forgotten Indigenous Island Community,” Arena Magazine 128 (2014):  36-38. 


[66]Robert E. Harkavy, "Strategic Basing and the Great Powers, 1200-2000" (London: Routledge, 2007), chapter 6.