INDIAN OCEAN: Digging In at Diego Garcia

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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 the tiny atoll. It will serve as a key support link for the growing American military presence in the region. Says Admiral Thomas Hayward, U.S. chief of naval operations: "Diego Garcia is critically important to the general support of our naval operations in the Indian Ocean."

Until now, U.S. ships on station in the Indian Ocean have been fed by supply lines stretching to Subic Bay in the Philippines, about 3,600 miles to the east, or to the Mediterranean Sea, some 3,200 miles to the northwest. Meanwhile, an imposing Soviet fleet calls at bases around the rim of the Indian Ocean, including an anchorage on the island of Socotra in the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. The Soviets are currently seeking permission to build a base in the Seychelles, 1,200 miles west of Diego Garcia, though President Albert Rene insists he will not grant it.

In 1966, the U.S. negotiated a 50-year lease with Britain for base rights on the atoll. Five years later, U.S. Navy Seabee teams began construction on Diego Garcia. It now has a complete airfield with a 12,000-ft. runway that can accommodate everything from the four-engine P-3 Orion patrol planes that fly submarine tracking missions from Diego to the huge C-5A and C-141 jet transports that land to drop supplies and refuel. The base also has permanent barracks for 820 troops, a large storage complex and a harbor that has been dredged deep enough (45 ft.) to accommodate the Navy's largest aircraft carriers (the U.S.S. Eisenhower and Constellation are currently stationed in the Indian Ocean).

Last week the first of seven supply ships sailed from Wilmington, N.C., loaded with tanks, armored personnel carriers and enough food, ammunition and other equipment to supply a 12,000-Marine amphibious brigade for a month.

Taking up station at Diego Garcia, the ships will constitute a prepositioned mobile "supply dump" should the President order any part of the new 110,000 man Rapid Deployment Force into action in the region.

To keep the 1,800 men on Diego Garcia from going "rock happy," the Navy has provided softball fields, volleyball, handball and tennis courts, and a 25-meter swimming pool for those who are afraid of the sharks. There is also a popular off-duty hangout known as the Diego Burger.

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