Cover: Access Granted

Access Granted

Political Challenges to the U.S. Overseas Military Presence, 1945–2014

Published Nov 21, 2016

by Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jennifer Kavanagh


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Research Questions

  1. What access problems has the United States faced?
  2. How severe have these problems been?
  3. How have access problems changed over time?
  4. How can the United States, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, counter these political threats to access?

While the U.S. military depends on access to overseas bases to project military power around the globe both in peacetime and during contingencies, it has faced a variety of political challenges to this access. This report aims to fill a gap in the existing literature on this topic through a comprehensive and empirical analysis of the challenges the United States has confronted since 1945. The authors examine the kinds and severity of access problems the United States has faced and how these have changed over time and suggest how the United States can counter political threats to access. The authors find that, while political challenges to access have occurred regularly, the threat has often been overstated. Moreover, the United States faces two separate access problems: challenges to its peacetime base rights and difficulties securing contingency access permissions. Peacetime and contingency access are linked, but not in the way that many assume. Access to large permanent bases during peacetime does not increase the probability that the United States will be granted permission to use a facility during a crisis. Instead, only enduring partners — nations in which there is an elite security consensus in support of the U.S. presence — offer more reliable access during peacetime and in contingencies.

Key Findings

Political Challenges to Access Have Occurred Regularly, but the Threat Has Often Been Overstated

  • Peacetime access challenges have declined since their peak during the latter part of the Cold War.
  • Contingency access problems have not become more severe in the post–Cold War era.
  • Some partners are likely to be more or less reliable during both peacetime and contingencies.
  • The presence of large permanent bases does not increase the likelihood of securing contingency access.

Certain Types of Operations Are More Associated with Access Problems Than Others

  • It is not surprising that it is easier to obtain access for noncontroversial military operations, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, than for those that involve the use of force.
  • What is somewhat surprising is the fact that limited strikes have encountered more access problems than have major combat operations.

Foreign Governments Respond to Their Own Perceived Best Interests

  • Access permission was more likely when the host nation had its own reasons for supporting a U.S. operation or when the mission could be credibly presented as legitimate.
  • Access denial was more likely when there was domestic opposition to an operation or when the host nation feared that it would be subject to reprisals.
  • Contingency access permissions are dynamic and may change throughout the course of an operation.


  • Maintain access in enduring partner nations and, whenever possible, avoid transactional partners.
  • Be cognizant of host-nation sensitivities.
  • Be aware of a potential host nation's red lines and plan around them.
  • If an operation is not in response to overt aggression, the United States should try to enhance perceptions of its legitimacy by securing the explicit or implicit support of international organizations.
  • To reduce the susceptibility of host nations to domestic critics and third-party bullying, ensure that these nations are not isolated.
  • To improve political resiliency, the United States should seek access to multiple countries for any given scenario.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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