The strategic location of the British Indian Ocean Territory makes it into the perfect facility for long range operations.
The tiny islands were charted by the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, in the early sixteenth century. However, the archipelago was only claimed two centuries later by France as a possession of the French territory of Mauritius and settled in the 1790s. Soon France established a coconut plantation using slave labour. During the Napoleonic Wars, Mauritius was captured by Britain, and with the first defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the colony was amongst those ceded to the British in the Treaty of Paris of 1814.
Hereafter, the Chagos Archipelago would be part of the British Colony of Mauritius until the British Government detached the archipelago and the islands of Desroches, Farquhar and Aldabra from Seychelles in 1965 for their inclusion in the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The main objective was to allow the construction of a new complex of military facilities for the benefit of the UK and the United States. On June 1976, the three islands mentioned above once part of Seychelles were returned to the colony as it was on the verge of being granted independence. As a result, the six main islands groups of the Chagos Archipelago constitute the BIOT.
The Chagos is an archipelago composed of more than 50 islands totalling a land area of 60 km² or 23 square miles. The largest and most relevant island is Diego Garcia, accounting for almost half of the territory’s total land area and being home of its only airport and inhabitants. Historically, its geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean, south of India and halfway between Africa and Indonesia, enabled the tiny Diego Garcia to play a significant role for Britain’s interests in the area and beyond.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, when the British Empire established a global network of coaling stations to supply its fleet, Diego Garcia briefly based two coaling stations for the Royal Navy’s steamships crossing the Indian Ocean. In the 1880s the island witnessed an increasing movement of trading and warships, symbols of Britain’s imperial century.
In 1914, during the first weeks of the First World War, the German light cruiser SMS Emden visited Diego Garcia after several raids throughout the region. The British garrison at the islands had not yet received the information about the state of war between Britain and Germany and thus treated the Germans to a warm reception. After a fortnight the light cruiser left Diego Garcia to continue its attacks against vessels and coastal towns of the Entente. The Emden would face her final battle one month later when she encountered the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney.
Diego Garcia was used more intensely by Britain during the Second World War. In 1942, Britain opened an air base named RAF Station Diego Garcia and created an advanced flying boat unit. It was home of squadrons No 205 and 240, originally stationed on Ceylon. Aircraft such as the British flying boat patrol bomber ‘Sunderland’ and the American flying boat and amphibious aircraft ‘Catalina’ were flown during the war in search of German and Japanese surface raider and submarines. The island also received a Royal Marines detachment to protect the Royal Navy base and Royal Air Force station from Japanese attacks. Following the end of the war, the British station was closed in April 1946.
In the 1960s, while Britain was planning its military withdrawal from the Indian Ocean, the British Government allowed the United States to establish a naval communication station on one of the British territories in the region. The main island of the Chagos Archipelago soon emerged as a suitable location. In November 1965, envisaging the creation of one new administrative territory, the British Government purchased the Archipelago from the self-governing colony of Mauritius. However, since the 1980s Mauritius has contested the British control of the Chagos Archipelago. Recently, in 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of referring the dispute between Britain and Mauritius to the International Court of Justice in order to clarify the status of the archipelago.
On 30 December 1966, Britain and the United States established an agreement which enables the Americans to use the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes for 50 years – until December 2016 – followed by a 20-year extension as long as neither party declares its intention of terminating the agreement. The United States made no direct payment to the UK as part of the 1966 agreement or its subsequent amendments. Nevertheless, Britain received a discount from the American Government on the acquisition of the submarine-launched ballistic missile system (SLBM), the Polaris missiles.
For the United States, the main island, Diego Garcia, was the ideal territory for setting up a foreign military base. Firstly, it was owned and administered by Britain its closest ally. Secondly, the island was distant from any potential threats. Thirdly, it was a place not sought by other nations as it had no economic interest. Lastly and most controversial, it had a small population. Its inhabitants were Europeans who managed the coconut plantations and contract workers of Indian, African and Malay ancestry, known as Chagossians, who had worked and lived on the plantations for several generations. The Chagossians would be removed from Diego Garcia so the base could be constructed. Between 1967 and 1973, the inhabitants were relocated primarily to Mauritius and Seychelles.
The relatively small Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA) was completed in early 1973. However, the size and scope of the Anglo-American base would face a significant enlargement due to geopolitical changes. In the early 1970s, the military capabilities of the United States in the region was going through several new setbacks including the victory of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Fall of Saigon, the closure of the listening posts of Peshawar Air Station in Pakistan and Kagnew Station in Eritrea, the Mayaguez incident, the growing Soviet naval presence in Aden and a new Soviet airbase in Somalia. These setbacks caused the American Government to request Britain permission to expand the facilities in Diego Garcia. Receiving Britain’s approval, the United States Naval Construction Battalions (‘Seebees’ or C.B.) initiated the enlargement of the airfield and construction of a fleet anchorage.
Subsequently to the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979-1980, the United States and the UK became more concerned with the security of the oil flow from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Thus, once more, the United States asked Britain for permission to expand the military complex on Diego Garcia. The new plans for the base involved the construction of two parallel 3,700 m (12,000 foot-long) runways, larger parking aprons – the area where aircraft are parked, refuelled, loaded or boarded – for heavy bombers, twenty new anchorages, a deep-water pier, new port facilities for the largest ships in the American or British navies, aircraft hangars, an air terminal, maintenance buildings, a fuel storage area and living quarters and messing facilities for thousands of personnel. Thereby, the 1970s witnessed the BIOT be transformed into a world-class military base for joint UK-US operations.
Following the end of the Cold War, Diego Garcia continued to be an important military base. The territory played a key role in the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the War in Afghanistan as the United States Armed Forces extensively used the facilities during its operations in the Gulf War of 1991, Afghanistan and Iraq. During the War in Afghanistan and Iraq other allied militaries were based on the island including Australian, South Korean and Japanese forces.
Moreover, Diego Garcia host one of four ‘dedicated ground antennas’, the others are on the British island of Ascension, Kwajalein – part of the Marshall Islands – and at Cape Canaveral, Florida, that assists in the operation of the famous navigation system, the Global Positioning System (GPS). The USAF also manages a telescope array on the Island as part of the ‘Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System’ (GEODSS) for tracking debris and lists Diego Garcia as one of the 33 emergency landing sites worldwide for the NASA Space Shuttle programme.
Beyond that, the territory is seen as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ and regarded as the ‘Malta of the Indian Ocean’ by the American Government aiding to explain the reasons behind the continued military presence on the islands and its position as one of the most relevant military bases in the Asia-Pacific region for the United States and Britain. It is worth mentioning that neither the United States nor Britain recognises Diego Garcia – or the BIOT as a whole – as being subject to the African Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty, which lists the BIOT as covered by the treaty.
Currently, the United States military complex on Diego Garcia is formally known as Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia or ‘Camp Thunder Cove’. The UK’s term for the facilities is Permanent Join Operating Base (PJOB) Diego Garcia, and the British personnel is officially represented by the ‘British Forces British Indian Ocean Territories’ (BFBIOT). As Britain has full and continual access to the facilities and is responsible for the administration of the territory, the BFBIOT has approximately 40-50 British military personnel permanently posted on Diego Garcia, most from the Naval Party 1002, having as their primary duty to carry out the bureaucratic administration of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The American presence accounts for roughly 2,500 military personnel. However, due to the extensive usage of Diego Garcia by the United States, the numbers usually go beyond 5,000 military personnel; these numbers do not consider civilian contract workers.
Therefore, the long history of the BIOT shows its importance to Britain since the nineteenth century and to the United States since the early years of the Cold War. In spite of the controversies involving the Chagossians, the geostrategic position puts the tiny islands amongst Britain’s most relevant Overseas Territories. Alongside Gibraltar, the Sovereign Bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory plays a central role in the expeditionary capabilities and overseas interests of Britain and her allies.
Diego Garcia is one of the last British footholds ‘East of Suez’ and the last British possession in the Indian Ocean. While Britain prepares herself for a more ‘global’ role and desires to be an indispensable ally for the Americans, the relevance of the BIOT and other British Overseas Territories shall not be disregarded by any present or future British Government.