Tropical outpost that let the B-52s strike

Policing Saddam: Christopher Bellamy on a British atoll's strategic value
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The US attacks on Iraq have reminded the world of the strategic importance of a remote British island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The massive B-52 bombers which joined in the missile strikes flew via Diego Garcia, a US Navy base with a 12,000ft runway on a British tropical island.

The 240-ton Stratofortresses, which had flown from Guam in the Pacific in the third longest-range air-attacks ever, refuelled at Diego Garcia on the way home. Contrary to early reports, the RAF did not refuel the bombers in the air. "We are incapable of refuelling B-52s in the air," an RAF source said.

The island is a coral atoll of about 11 square miles, enclosing a 100ft- deep lagoon. In the Chagos Archipelago, it is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Both British and US flags fly over the island, which was annexed by Britain along with Mauritius on 3 December 1810 and formally ceded to Britain by France at the Treaty of Paris in May 1814. Like many of Britain's earlier possessions, it was acquired under a strategy of controlling the oceans; East Africa, Singapore, Calcutta and Australia are within 3,000 miles of it.

A British-US agreement of 1966, revised in 1976, makes the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory available for "defence purposes" to both governments. The arrangement is similar to that governing the use of US Air Force facilities such as RAF Lakenheath or Fairford, in Britain.

The 1976 agreement specifies there should be consultation on military uses to determine that "joint objectives, policies and action" are involved.

With the British Government the only one in the world to express whole- hearted support for the US attacks on southern Iraq, that agreement was not in doubt, but the US consulted Britain anyway, if only out of politeness.

"In no way is it leased to the Americans," the Foreign Office said yesterday. "By bilateral agreement we own and administer the island. The US have a military installation there. The US authorities consult us in advance through the normal diplomatic channels about using the defence facilities."

The British presence consists of 30 Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel. Some 900 US personnel are based on the island, along with five ships loaded with equipment for a US marine expeditionary brigade. The brigade, 15,000-strong, would fly in and leave on the ships ready to sail to any nearby trouble-spots, probably in Africa or the Middle East.

Diplomatic sources say the facility is "a means of maintaining peace and stability in the region and of protecting vital western interests and trade routes, including the supply of oil from the Gulf". It played a crucial part in the Gulf crisis in 1990-91 and in the UN intervention in Somalia in 1992.

Like all American air bases, wherever they may be, the facilities are all-American, and include a bowling alley. Few British personnel have served there. "I wish I had," one said. "Have you seen the beach?"

There is no town or substantial civilian population on the island. Although the island is said to have no qualified personnel to refuel or service aircraft other than US transport aircraft, the B-52 crews are qualified to do that themselves. All they need is the fuel.

Should you want to land your private aircraft at Diego Garcia, all you have to do is file your flight plan through the normal channels to USNNAVSUPPFAC, with a copy to the Royal Navy liaison officer, 72 hours in advance, and the request will be considered and with good reason probably approved.