Diego Garcia: A Militarized Island in the Indian Ocean



Funambulist Barton 1
Map of Diego Garcia. / The Funambulist (2016)

History and Statecraft ///

Diego Garcia, an island of the Chagos Archipelago, is a thin, V-shaped coral atoll 25 km long and 5 km wide in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The island itself has a surface area of 30 square kilometers and encloses a large lagoon of 125 square kilometers wide. Diego Garcia is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and hosts a strategic military installation established by the United States and United Kingdom during the Cold War. Despite its illegitimate founding, contested status, and continued infrastructural utility, the facility is little-known to the general public. This text provides an introduction to the island’s complex historical formation and exceptional qualities, followed by brief comments regarding its structural role within a broader network of global outposts.

Mapped by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century, the islands did not come to international prominence until the 18th century when France and Britain began surveying and fighting over the archipelago. Many of the original inhabitants were brought over as slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar to work on plantations mainly producing coconut oil. France formally ceded the archipelago along with many of its island possessions to the United Kingdom in 1814 as part of the Treaty of Paris. Despite emancipation twenty-one years later, the U.K. continued operating the island-factory until the mid-20th century, importing additional indentured labor primarily from India. Residents of the archipelago, referred to as the Îlois (Islanders), and later, Chagossians, developed their own creole culture.

Funambulist Barton 3
Diego Garcia Cold War weapons and communications ranges. / Map by Greg Barton (2014).

Islands have long played a role in U.S. military strategy: at the end of the 19th century the U.S. acquired Samoa, Wake Island, Midway Island, and Hawaii, and during the Spanish-American War, islands like Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba became critical theatres. Often the U.S. succeeded in securing 99-year leases for basing rights, as in the Caribbean (Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad), trading military technology for land rights. In 1958, a U.S. Navy think tank called the Long-Range Objectives Group (OP-93) devised the concept of the “strategic island”: a remote piece of uninhabited or lightly populated territory to be acquired for the purposes of a military base supporting communications, refueling, and other logistical goals. Unlike bases in other nations, which might be subject to denied access by the host state or challenged by local protest, the U.S. needed reliable staging areas. At the time, many former colonies were gaining their independence and in OP-93’s opinion the U.S. should seek to “stockpile” as many islands as possible before such islands became sovereign states in their own right.

Accordingly, after identifying Diego Garcia, then belonging to British colony Mauritius (due independence in 1968), as a prime candidate, the U.S. and U.K. orchestrated a top-secret bilateral agreement to secure the island for their military interests. Counter to the 1960 United Nations General Resolution 1514 (XV) prohibiting the “partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country,” the U.K. in 1965 detached Diego Garcia from Mauritius and along with some islands of British colony Seychelles (itself previously detached from Mauritius over half a decade earlier) formed a new legality: BIOT. The U.K. accomplished this excision by issuing an Order-in-Council, an archaic royal decree allowing the U.K. to administer the territory in a colonial fashion via executive ordinances. The U.K. made payments to both Mauritius and Seychelles compensating the two states, however Mauritius to this day contests British sovereignty of the archipelago. In turn, the U.K. leased Diego Garcia to the U.S. for which the latter paid by discounting missile defense costs.

All of the U.K.-U.S. agreements and planning were conducted through an “Exchange of Notes/Letters” without U.S. Congressional or U.K. Parliamentary oversight. Complicating plans for a military base was the indigenous Îlois population, at the time numbering around 1,500 inhabitants. In order to circumvent UN Charter (Article 73) obligations to report on and safeguard the rights of colonized peoples gaining self-governance, the U.K. Secretary of State in 1966 sent a confidential note to the the newly appointed BIOT commissioner advising him to avoid referring to the Chagossians as “permanent inhabitants,” and in an act of semantic negation to instead describe them as contractual laborers who are temporarily resident in BIOT. Consequently, the U.K. depopulated Chagos between 1967-1971 by at first barring residents’ re-entry to the islands and reducing supplies/services, followed by a forced removal of the remaining Chagossians. The resettlement lacked any sort of provisions or plan for the deracinated population who ended up in Seychelles and Mauritius, with little assistance towards housing or employment.

Originally presented to and approved by the U.S. Congress as an “austere communications facility,” the base developed into a major operation, expanding from a site of hydro-acoustic monitoring and satellite surveillance — Diego Garcia is one of the original five points controlling the Global Positioning System (GPS) — to include stockpiles of munitions and infrastructural support for aircraft and warships. Indeed, Diego Garcia has served as a logistical hub for myriad military campaigns in the Middle East, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, over the past decades. Moreover, in 2008 it was revealed the island has serviced CIA rendition flights, signaling its role in a network of clandestine sites administered by the U.S. military and thus demonstrating a capacity to act as a black hole for human rights.

Funambulist Barton 2
(1&2) Ruins of buildings evicted from the island residents. / Photographs by Steve Swayne (1982)
(3) The Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System (GEODSS) facility / U.S. Air Force (2006).
(4) USS SARATOGA at pier in Diego Garcia / National Archives (1985)

Since its inception, Diego Garcia has occupied a legally ambiguous position relative to national and international law. When it comes to the types of spaces the island inhabits and exploits, the U.K. and U.S. can alter or disregard specific regulatory frameworks and multilateral treaty obligations by claiming, for example, that the Geneva Conventions or International Criminal Court Statute do not apply since the U.K. never formally extended its ratification to the BIOT. Similarly, the two governments have skirted issues of jurisdiction and efforts in the Indian Ocean region to limit nuclear materials and ballistic missile proliferation. In addition to efforts by human rights activists and academics from various disciplines, political organizations like LALIT in Mauritius, and NGOs such as Reprieve, Chagossians have protested their displacement, remuneration, and right to return, and filed lawsuits in various courts against the U.K. and U.S., so far achieving minimal results. It bears noting that many Chagossians do not view repatriation as mutually exclusive to the existence of the military base and argue for a coexistence and/or employment opportunities on Diego Garcia and the outer islands.

In 2010, the U.K. created one of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPA) around BIOT and its 50 micro-islands, the same area claimed by the Mauritian exclusive economic zone. As security concerns foreclose alternate conversations and proposals pertaining to Diego Garcia, the move to create a natural reserve dislodged questions of sovereignty and instead posits the territory as a site of global ecological heritage, drawing comparisons between the coral atoll and the Great Barrier Reef or Galapagos Islands. Ostensibly a conservationist measure, U.S.-U.K. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveals this action was devised in part to complicate the possibility of the Chagossians resettling in their homeland. Furthermore, beyond the seemingly incompatible mixture of a marine reserve and military facility, the designation of the MPA contradicts the U.K.’s commitment over successive governments to return the islands to Mauritius when they are no longer deemed necessary for defense. Considering the exigencies and totalizing nature of contemporary warfare, it is difficult to foresee a time when both governments might relinquish control of such a valuable asset.

Weaponized Networks ///

Funambulist Barton 4
U.S. military areas of responsibility, overseas bases and U.K. overseas territories.
Map by Greg Barton redrawn in part from David Vine, Island of Shame, Princeton University Press, 2009.

Overseas territories, including the BIOT, are usually exceptional spaces configured within multiple jurisdictions, programmed with specific attributes, and explicitly differentiated from the ruling nation. According to legal dictionaries, “territory”
denotes a geographical area that has been acquired by a country but has not been recognized as a full participant in that country’s affairs. Political geographer Peter Taylor emphasizes territoriality as “a form of behavior that uses a bounded space, a territory, as the instrument for securing a particular outcome […] the content of a territory can be manipulated and its character designed.” Sociologist Saskia Sassen also sees the form of territory as dependent on both its structure and functions, a set of capabilities “with embedded logics of power and of claim-making” linked to other “diverse complex organizational assemblages.”

Island territories often perform as relays or daisy chains within expansive networks. Landscape architect Pierre Bélanger and geographer Alexander Arroyo explicate the manner in which Diego Garcia is both topographical and topological, mapping its vital role in the coordination and delivery of supplies within the U.S. Department of Defense apparatus, entailing the movement of millions of tons of cargo and billions of barrels of fuel across ocean, land, and air, therefore “maintaining the integrity of topological relations between heterogeneously programmed, mobile, and mutable nodes.”

By the end of World War II, the U.S. had built or occupied thousands of bases in the Pacific Ocean. Such a task of territorializing and weaponizing was often done in a leapfrog manner, where acquiring one island would enable the capture of the next island and so on. More recently, the U.S. military has devoted resources to a 21st century version of the strategic island, “lily-pads”: small, secretive facilities hosting limited forces, supplies, and prepositioned weaponry, allowing for a reduced, temporary footprint, one that services an incredibly agile set of geo-strategic technologies. An example of such global capacity is the B-2 stealth bomber and its accompanying shelter, one of the most tactical and advanced capabilities at the U.S. military’s disposal, which can be deployed from Diego Garcia or Guam to reach any target on the globe and return in one refueling. The billion-dollar state-of-the-art aircraft require special climate-controlled hangars, each shaped like a clamshell and costing around 2 million dollars.

Political geographer Sasha Davis points out that this base network is increasingly designed “to be a permanent infrastructure that allows military power to be shifted with post-Fordist efficiency from some sites in the network to other places ‘just-in-time’ and according to perceived crises that challenge U.S. hegemony.” Likewise, anthropologist David Vine, a leading scholar on Diego Garcia, describes how “Pentagon officials dream of nearly limitless flexibility, the ability to react with remarkable rapidity to developments anywhere on Earth, and thus, something approaching total military control over the planet.”

Overall, the U.S. presently operates an estimated 800 bases in over 50 countries; these integrated facilities include nearly 100,000 different buildings and installations, and comprise an infrastructural layer covering the globe. The U.S. is hardly alone in exploiting islands for military advantage, political purposes, or resource extraction, and the case of Diego Garcia is just one example of the instrumentalization and re-mapping of a distinct territory. Although abstractly shaped by and enmeshed in U.S., U.K., and international processes and institutions, as well as numerous socio-political, economic, and military logics, the exceptional spaces of BIOT are both sited geographies and material realities involving architectures, actors, and competing claims. No island is strictly limited and defined by its landmass or territorial waters, at the same time it engages multiple scales and exhibits interlinked connections with other spatial organizations beyond its own borders. The fact that a militarized island like Diego Garcia is something actively assembled implies the possibility of disassembly.