The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump says U.S. is bankrolling Asian allies’ defense. That’s not really true.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has repeatedly said that the United States is spending “billions” of dollars defending other countries, notably Japan and South Korea.

“We pay billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, to support other countries that are, in theory, wealthier than we are,” the Republican presidential front-runner told The Washington Post in an interview about his foreign policy.

Questioned about his “hundreds of billions” claim, Trump quickly reverted to simple billions. He named Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea as the recipients of that largesse.

Asked by the New York Times whether he would be willing to withdraw U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea if those countries did not increase their payments to cover the costs of those troops, Trump said: “I would be willing to do it.... We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this.”

The United States has numerous military bases in Japan and South Korea — and 54,000 and 28,500 troops in each, respectively — to guard against the threat of North Korea and keep China in check. President Obama has made “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific a key U.S. policy priority.

So how much do these bases really cost? Well, no one disputes that maintaining a large military presence abroad costs serious money.

But in Japan and South Korea at least, local taxpayers bear a huge chunk of the burden. Plus, the savings to the United States from closing the bases would be minimal unless the military units were entirely disbanded, experts say.

“There have been numerous studies done looking at how to save costs by bringing troops back to the United States, but almost all of them have shown that only by decommissioning the units altogether would we save money,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security.

So, let’s take a look at some figures.

Construction costs

A breakdown from the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command that was released last year said the four biggest military construction projects in the region would cost $37 billion to build — but that the U.S. taxpayer would foot only $7 billion of that bill.

The cost of Camp Humphreys, the mega-base being built in South Korea, is pegged at $10.8 billion. The South Korean government is paying $10 billion, with the United States picking up the remaining $800 million, according to Pacific Command figures.

Then there are the two Marine Corps air stations being built in Japan. The Japanese government is picking up 94 percent of the $4.8 billion tab for construction at Iwakuni and taking on all of the $12.1 billion cost for the expanded base on Okinawa.

Surprisingly, the Japanese government is also funding a large chunk of the cost of moving 4,800 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Tokyo will contribute $3.1 billion, or just over one-third of the total cost, which the Pacific Command says is “unprecedented for a U.S. territory.”

Running bases

A 2013 Rand report for the Defense Department found that it cost $50 million to $200 million a year to run a base, depending on service and region.

Having fewer, larger bases would create efficiencies and reduce costs, but it makes almost no difference whether those larger bases are in the United States or overseas. “The fixed costs per base do not appear to be systematically higher overseas, with the exception of the Air Force bases, compared with facilities in the United States,” Rand said.

The report estimated that modest reductions in the Asia-Pacific region, including some of the Marine Corps forces and an Air Force base and wing, could produce some savings — about $450 million a year — while maintaining regional security.

But this could unnerve Japan and South Korea. “Concerted efforts to explain to allies how security could still be provided would have to be made, with some risk of not fully assuring key U.S. allies in the region,” the Rand report said.

Support for personnel

Both South Korea and Japan help fund the U.S. presence in their countries.

It costs the United States $10,000 to $40,000 a year more to have a GI abroad (excluding in war zones) than at home, meaning it costs $2 billion to $8 billion a year to keep 200,000 uniformed personnel abroad, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent rebuttal to claims that overseas bases cost too much.

“Even adding in annualized costs for new construction projects leaves the grand total well under $20 billion — real money, to be sure, but a modest fraction of America’s nearly $600 billion annual defense budget, and a bargain if having bases abroad strengthens deterrence,” O’Hanlon wrote.

Japan pays about $1.7 billion a year to support the stationing of U.S. troops in the country, while South Korea pays almost $900 million, about 40 percent of the total cost. Their contributions rise with inflation.

If these troops were withdrawn and a conflict broke out in the region, having to mobilize military units from scratch would cost more than would be saved by closing bases, says Cronin of CNAS.

“This doesn’t mean we need everything to stay the same, but it’s our forward engagement policy that helps the U.S. deter conflict from breaking out,” he said. “The only thing worse than forward engagement is disengagement. That would be much more costly for the U.S.”

Other benefits

Trump's arguments echo those made by people such as conservative historian and former army officer Andrew Bacevich and David Vine of American University, both of whom say that U.S. bases abroad cause more trouble than good.

But the military says the U.S. presence in Asia is good not just for the host nations, which think that having a large number of forces on the ground is important for deterrence, but also for the United States.

Announcing the most recent cost-sharing agreement with Japan, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Japan’s contributions to the alliance with the United States were important to both nations.

“We both derive significant strategic benefit out of it,” Davis said. “The alliance has served us well for decades, and we’re glad it’s going to continue to be positioned going forward for success.”

O’Hanlon of Brookings agrees.

“Having forces based where they can fight directly — such as Air Force and Army units in Korea, or Air Force and Navy units in Japan, as well as the broader Middle East — is hugely beneficial should a crisis erupt,” he wrote.

“No one is looking for war with Russia, but we also need to be sure President Vladimir Putin knows that the United States remains committed to the security of its treaty allies, for the sake of sound deterrence,” he said, referring to U.S. bases in Europe.

This post has been updated.