A guest post from Martin…
The USA has apparently decided to mothball its base in Diego Garcia when the current lease expires in 2016. Details are still quite sparse but it seems the USA will move many of its air operations to the Australian Coco’s islands. The move is seen as part of the increased US focus on the Asia Pacific region. The Coco’s islands are significantly closer to the pacific allowing the USA to better focus on the South China Sea while still maintaining a foot hold in the Indian Ocean.
Diego Garcia has for a long time been seen as one of the most valuable pieces of strategic real estate in the world. The base allows for resupply of naval vessels anywhere in the Indian Ocean and the runway can allow aircraft to strike at areas from Singapore to Kenya.
Since 1971 the USA has invested significant amounts of money into the base building a very long runway and deep water anchorage.
The mothballing of the base now presents the United Kingdom with a golden opportunity. The base at Diego Garcia has long been an irritation to India which sees the base as being in the middle of its sphere of influence.
The United Kingdom could use the shutting down of US operations as a way to foster a military and diplomatic relationship with India. No doubt India would greatly value access to an airbase which could allow its aircraft much greater range into the central and southern Indian Ocean. The USA is likely to retain key facilities such as satellite tracking and GPS control so it’s unlikely we could simply swap out the lease and give the base to the Indian’s. Instead we could run it as a British base allowing both US and Indian aircraft to operate at our discretion.
The base could further serve to enhance British forces in the area in a post Afghanistan world. The bases isolation and deep waters make it ideal for the forward deployment of British SSN’s. This would allow the UK to maintain Submarines in the IO without the need to transit the Suez Canal or horn of Africa. Forward deploying even a small portion of British warships to Diego Garcia could further help the United Kingdom to rebuild military relations not just with India but also with FPDA nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.
While we are currently broke we should not allow the present difficult financial situation to scupper a golden opportunity to once again weald some influence over one of the 21st Centuries most significant strategic theatres. Possibly asking both the USA and India to contribute to operation of a fully functional RAF Diego Garcia is a way to do this.
Even in our current difficult position we should be able to consider stationing a small force on the island.
This force may constitute
- 4 Typhoons
- 1 Voyager Tanker
- 1 Infantry company
- 2 SSN’s
- 1 Type 45 Destroyer
- 1 Type 23 Frigate
- 1 Oiler or Replenishment vessel
With much of the Royal Navy already operating in the Indian Ocean it should not be much of a stretch to base or at least supply one frigate and one destroyer from Diego Garcia. The two SSN’s may be more difficult however there is usually an SSN in the Indian Ocean and having two based there would give us greater reach. It may also help to alleviate the general shortage of such platforms alleviating transit times. For many years SSBN’s have been operated with Gold and Blue crews. I am not sure if it presents a significant difficulty to operate an SSN in the same manor however we really need to try and get the absolute most out of these platforms given their expense, capability and scarcity.
The Indians seemed particularly grateful when a Trafalgar Class conducted war games with them in 2010 as part of David Cameron’s visit. Showcasing British submarine technology as well ASW, AAW and MCM capabilities could give a significant boost to British exports to the world’s largest defence importer. The same might be said with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia all of whom face significant challenges in countering Chinese Submarines.
Basing aircraft at Diego Garcia and removing a pure US presence on the Islands may even be enough of a sweetener to get India to reverse its decision on the Rafale deal. At the very least it should help us to get more nations onboard with the Type 26 project, not to mention other kit such as Type 2087 sonar, Merlin and even Seaviper.
If things work well with our increased presence in the region we may even consider building a greater presence in the future. The island would be the ideal location for the basing of a future 6th generation aircraft based on the Taranis UCAS. India has proven keen to work on a 5th generation fighter with Russia however the UK is the only nation other than the USA close to fielding a 6th generation capability. A joint project with India is likely to be relatively lucrative given the fact the UK would have to take the lead partner role, as opposed to joint partners with France or junior partners with the USA.
Maintaining such a force would not be cheap. Something along the size of Mount Pleasant would cost around £500 million per year. However if we can get contributions from both the USA and India we may be able to bring the cost down significantly.
Even at a cost of £500 million per year it’s likely to be a worthwhile expenditure if it can foster stronger relations with the nations of the Eastern Indian Ocean.