INDIAN OCEAN: Digging In at Diego Garcia

A tiny atoll becomes a big American base

It rises just 14 ft. above the waves and tends to be swampy when the tide rolls in. A herd of wild donkeys still roams the deserted remains of an old coconut plantation, and would-be snorkelers are warned to watch out for sharks that circle its shores.

Despite its modest size—36.2 miles long and an average of ¼ mile wide—Diego Garcia, named after the Portuguese navigator who discovered it in 1532, has nonetheless assumed vast strategic importance. Reason: a major U.S. air, naval and communications base, costing $187 million, is nearing completion on...

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