Diego Garcia

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Location map of Diego Garcia
Location map of Diego Garcia
Overhead view of Diego Garcia,looking south
Overhead view of Diego Garcia,
looking south

Diego Garcia ( 7°19′S 72°25′E) is an atoll located in the heart of the Indian Ocean, some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) south of India's southern coast. Diego Garcia is the largest atoll by land area of the Chagos Archipelago. It is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a British overseas territory. Since the depopulation of Diego Garcia in the years leading up to 1973, it has been used as a military base by the United States. Diego Garcia hosts one of three ground antennas (others are on Kwajalein and Ascension Island) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System ( GPS) navigational system.

The atoll is now covered in luxuriant tropical vegetation, with little sign left of the copra and coconut plantations that once covered it. The island is 37 miles (60 km) long, with a maximum elevation of 22 feet (7 m), and nearly encloses a lagoon some 12 miles long (19 km) and up to 5 miles (8 km) wide. Depths in the lagoon range from 65 to 98 feet (20-30 m), while numerous coral heads extend toward the surface and form hazards to navigation. Shallow reefs surround the island on the ocean side as well as within the lagoon. The channel and anchorage area are dredged, while the old turning basin can also be used if its depth is sufficient for the ship.


The atoll forms a nearly complete rim of land around a lagoon, following 90 percent of its perimeter, with an opening only in the north. The main island is the largest of some sixty islands which form the Chagos Archipelago. Besides the main islands, there are three small islets at the mouth of the lagoon in the north:

  1. West Island (3.4 ha)
  2. Middle Island (6 ha)
  3. East Island (11.75 ha)

The total area of the atoll measures 170 km², of which 30 km² are land area, 17 km² peripheral reef and 124 km² lagoon.


Eclipse Point, Diego Garcia
Eclipse Point, Diego Garcia

Annual rainfall averages 102 inches (260 cm) with the heaviest precipitation occurring from October to February, though even the driest month (August) averages 4.2 inches (10 cm). Temperatures are generally close to 30 °C (high 80s Fahrenheit) by day, falling to the low 20s °C (70°F) by night. Humidity is high throughout the year. However the almost constant breezes keep conditions reasonably comfortable.

Diego Garcia is at risk from tropical cyclones. The surrounding topography is low and does not provide an extensive wind break. However since the 1960s, the island has not been seriously affected by a severe tropical cyclone, even though it has often been threatened. The maximum sustained wind associated with a tropical cyclone in the period 1970-2000 at Diego Garcia has been approximately 40 knots (75 km/h).

Sunset at Cannon Point
Sunset at Cannon Point

The island and base were unaffected by the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Service personnel on the island reported only a minor increase in wave activity. The island was protected by its favourable ocean topography. East of the atoll lies the 400-mile (650 km) long Chagos Trench, an underwater canyon plunging more than 16,000 feet (4,900 m). The depth of the trench and its grade to the shore makes it difficult for tsunami to build before passing the atoll. In addition, undersea coral reefs may have dissipated much of the waves' impact.

On November 30, 1983 a magnitude 7 earthquake 34 miles (55 km) northwest of the island spawned a small tsunami resulting in a 5 foot (1.5 m) rise in wave height in the Diego Garcia lagoon, causing some damage to buildings, piers and the runway.


Coconut Plantation, East Point(former main settlement)
Coconut Plantation, East Point
(former main settlement)

Portuguese explorers discovered Diego Garcia in the early 1500s. The island's name is believed to have come from either the ship's captain or the navigator on that early voyage of discovery. The islands remained uninhabited until the 18th century when the French established copra plantations with the help of slave labor. Diego Garcia became a possession of the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic wars, and from 1814 to 1965, it was a dependency of Mauritius.

In 1965, the Chagos Islands, which include Diego Garcia, were detached from Mauritius to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT). In 1966, the crown bought the islands and plantations, which had been under private ownership and which had not been profitable with the introduction of new oils and lubricants. In 1971, the plantations were closed because of the agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States to make Diego Garcia available to the U.S. as a military base. No payment was made as part of this arrangement, although it has been claimed that the United Kingdom received a US$14 million discount on the acquisition of Polaris missiles from the United States. This agreement also forbade any other economic activity on the island.

Until 1971, Diego Garcia had a native population, known as the Ilois (or Chagossians), which was composed of the descendants of East Indian workers and African slaves who had been brought to the island in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to work on the coconut and copra plantations. They lived in three settlements: East Point (the main settlement on the eastern rim of the atoll), Minni Minni (4.5 km north of East Point), and Pointe Marianne (on the western rim). The islanders were transferred off Diego Garcia to Seychelles and then Mauritius amid allegations of starvation and intimidation tactics by the U.S. and UK governments, including the alleged killing of island dogs by American soldiers. Ever since their expulsion, the Ilois have continually asserted their right to return to Diego Garcia. In April 2006, 102 Chagossians were allowed to visit Diego Garcia for a week, to tend to graves and visit their birthplaces.

Diego Garcia Police Station
Diego Garcia Police Station

Now, Diego Garcia is home to a military base jointly operated by the United States and the United Kingdom, although in practice it is largely run as a U.S. base, with only a small number of British forces and Royal Overseas Police Officers (ROPOs). The base serves as a naval refuelling and support station. It has an airbase that supports the largest of modern aircraft. B-52s and other bombers have been deployed from Diego Garcia on missions to Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and to Iraq again during the 2003 invasion. High-tech portable shelters to support the B-2 bomber were built on the island before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a fleet of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s from Diego Garcia also led the shock and awe attacks on Baghdad on March 22, 2003, dropping 4,200 lb. bunker busters on the city. Diego Garcia is also a regular deployment site for US Navy P-3C Orion patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.

The base is part of the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, with a 3 telescope GEODSS station, and is a NASA Space Shuttle emergency landing site.

Neither the U.S. nor the UK recognises Diego Garcia as being subject to the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, even though the rest of the Chagos Archipelago is included, suggesting the U.S. and/or U.K. wishes to maintain the freedom to base nuclear weapons there.

The agreement between the UK and U.S. for the U.S. to use the island as a military base was made in 1966. It specifies that the agreement runs until 2036, but that either government can opt out of the agreement in 2016.

Construction and maintenance of the base's communications equipment, fuel facilities and military hardware is done strictly by military contractors, and inventories of that weaponry is classified. With no family members or other civilians allowed, Diego Garcia may be the most remote military outpost in the world. In 2001, the US Department of Defense said that there were more buildings on Diego Garcia (654) than military personnel.


Detailed map of Diego Garcia
Detailed map of Diego Garcia

In 2000, the High Court granted the islanders the right to return to the Archipelago and granted them UK citizenship. In 2002, the islanders and their descendants, now numbering 4,500, returned to court claiming compensation, after what they said were two years of delays by the British Foreign Office. However, on June 10, 2004, the British government made two Orders-in-Council banning the islanders from returning home, reversing the 2000 court decision. Some of the Ilois are making return plans to turn Diego Garcia into a sugarcane and fishing enterprise as soon as the defense agreement expires (possibly as early as 2016, but almost certainly in 2036 – unless the agreement is renewed). A few dozen other Ilois are still fighting to be housed in the UK.

On May 11, 2006, the British High Court ruled that the 2004 Orders-in-Council were unlawful, and consequently that the Ilois were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. It remains to be seen whether the British Government will appeal, and when or how the judgment might be implemented in practice.

Human rights groups claim that the military base is used by the U.S. government for the controversial " extraordinary rendition" of prisoners. The former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stated in parliament that U.S. authorities have repeatedly assured him that no detainees have passed in transit through Diego Garcia or have disembarked there.

Strategic importance

During the Cold War era, the United States was keen on establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean. Because of Diego Garcia's proximity to India, a potential ally of the Soviet Union, the United States saw the island as a strategically important one. U.S. military activities in Diego Garcia have caused friction between India and U.S. in the past. During the Cold War era, various political parties in India repeatedly demanded the U.S. to dismantle the military base. However, after the end of the Cold War, relations between India and U.S. have improved dramatically. Diego Garcia was the site of several naval exercises between the US and Indian Navy held between 2001 and 2004.

B-1 Bombers on Diego Garcia
B-1 Bombers on Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia has several current missions. U.S. Air Force bombers and AWACS surveillance planes operate from the 12,000 foot (3,650 m) runway, and the USAF Space Command has built a satellite tracking station and communications facility. It is also likely that the National Security Agency has a listening post on the island.

The atoll also shelters the 14 ships of Marine Prepositioning Squadron Two. These ships carry the equipment and supplies to support a major armed force with light tanks, armored personnel carriers, munitions, fuel, spare parts and even a mobile field hospital. This equipment showed its necessity during the Persian Gulf War, when the Squadron quickly delivered its equipment to Saudi Arabia. There, soldiers flown on air transports from U.S. and European bases quickly unloaded and deployed the pre-positioned material.

The ships stationed at Diego Garcia in 2001 included:

Five maritime pre-positioning ships: MV Baugh, MV Hauge, MV Bonnyman, MV Phillips and MV Anderson. Each ship carried enough Marine Corps cargo to support a Marine Air/Ground Task Force for 30 days.

Four combat pre-positioning force ships : MV Jeb Stuart, MV American Cormorant, SS Green Valley and SS Green Harbour. These ships provided quick-response delivery of US Army equipment for ground troops. Jeb Stuart, Green Valley and Green Harbour are LASH ships carrying Army ammunition in non-powered lighters (or barges) that can be ferried to shore.

Five logistics pre-positioning ships - MV Buffalo Soldier, SS Potomac, MV Green Ridge, USNS Henry J. Kaiser, and MV Fisher. These ships service the rapid delivery needs of the US Air Force, US Navy and Defense Logistics Agency. Buffalo Soldier and Fisher are container ships carrying Air Force ammunition, missiles and spare parts. Green Ridge carries a 500-bed Navy hospital used to support Fleet and Marine Forces engaged in combat operations ashore. Henry J. Kaiser is one of three tankers assigned to MSC in support of the Defense Logistics Agency's requirement to pre-position fuel afloat. SS Potomac is an offshore petroleum discharge system (OPDS) tanker.

Smaller prepositioned squadrons exist at Guam and in the Persian Gulf.

Popular culture

In the science fiction first-person shooter video game Halo 2, which is set in the 26th century, Diego Garcia is the launch base for a defensive strike against an alien invasion off the East coast of Africa.

In some military themed movies and TV shows, Diego Garcia is referenced as a place to send military personel who have displeased their C.O.s in some way.

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