US scouting for Indian Ocean bases besides Diego Garcia

One result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent threat to Pakistan is that the United States is searching for based in the Indian Ocean. Somalia, Kenya, and Oman are understood to have been approached on this subject.

The only base the United States can really count on at present is Diego Garcia, in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean, 1,000 miles to the south of the coast of India, and 2,000 miles from the Persian Gulf.

One of the loneliest military outposts in the world, Diego Garcia belongs to Britain and is leased to the United States for an indefinite period. Britain bought it originally from Mauritius, another Indian Ocean island dependency at the time, for L3 million ($6 million).

It is one of the biggest coral atolls in the world, with a huge deepwater lagoon reached by a narrow entrance in the coral reef. It was originally set up as a naval anchorage during World War II for the British fleet to retire to if, as seemed likely at the time, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) fell to the Japanese. Britain had a large naval base at Trincomalee.

I was on Diego Garcia at the time as a Marine and saw a British battle fleet in the lagoon.

When the United States took over the atoll in the 1960s in a deal with the British Government, it was intended to be a communications base, the eyes and ears of the American presence in the area. It was designed to monitor the activities of the Soviet Navy in the Indian Ocean.

But as the Soviet naval presence in the area grew, so did the installation at Diego Garcia. An airstrip was built, fuel storage tanks were constructed, and American naval and air force personnel on the islands increased.

A handful of British naval officers and officials remained. The British side of the administration was maintained, originally from the Seychelles, and now from London.

In the mid-1970s came a huge outcry from India, Ceylon, Mauritius, Tanzania, and other countries on the Indian Ocean littoral to declare the ocean a "zone of peace." There was a demand for Diego Garcia to be scrapped as a base, a move backed by leading Democrats in the US Senate.

But recent events, pointing to the need for the United States to have a strong base in the Indian Ocean, have spotlighted Diego Garcia and its importance. A new airstrip capable of handling large military aircraft, a long pier, and the dredging of the lagoon appear to be among US plans for strengthening the base to accommodate large carrier groups. The plans seem to have British approval.

Other bases, in Africa and elsewhere, are likely to encounter political problems, but Diego Garcia is blissfully free of them. And because of its remoteness, it is a place where almost anything could be kept secret.

But the United States needs other bases to team up with the one on Diego Garcia, which explains the recent approaches to Somalia, Oman, and Kenya.

For years, United States carrier groups have called at Mombasa in Kenya, where facilities for refueling and repairs are good and where there is a strong industrial backup.

The Kenya government is firmly pro-West, and is in receipt of large amounts of aid from Britain, the US, and West Germany. So far, the Kenyans have denied offering Mombasa as a base, but it is known that a party of American defense experts has been here to explore the possibility with the Kenyans, who have kept very quiet about the whole affair.

The other Indian Ocean base being considered is Berbera in Somalia, which the Russians abandoned when they fell out with the Somalis and switched their attentions to Ethiopia. The Soviet Union left behind a submarine base and a long runway for military aircraft.

The Somalis are not enamored of the Russians, who behaved badly when they were there, but they are part of the Muslim world and therefore might have to be persuaded with substantial rewards.

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