05 October 2010

Diego Garcia and the United States’ Emerging Indian Ocean Strategy

Andrew S. Erickson, Walter C. Ladwig III, and Justin D. Mikolay, “Diego Garcia and the United States’ Emerging Indian Ocean Strategy,” Asian Security 6.3 (Autumn 2010): 214-37.

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Abstract: As the world’s economic and strategic “center of gravity” shifts from the Euro-Atlantic area to the Asia-Pacific, the Indian Ocean is emerging as an increasingly critical trade and energy conduit. This region has long been a strategic backwater for the United States. Moreover, unlike in other critical subregions of Asia, the United States lacks significant host-nation bases and is unlikely to acquire them. The British territory of Diego Garcia, whose location and political reliability give it significant strategic utility, is thus central to US power projection in the Indian Ocean littoral region. The US military’s approach to Diego Garcia reflects an implicit Indian Ocean strategy that seeks to establish a flexible and enduring presence within a critical and contested space. However, Washington needs to move toward an explicit Indian Ocean policy that views the region holistically rather than narrowly viewing separate US Pacific Command, US Central Command, and US Africa Command theaters.

The United States faces a growing contradiction in some of the world’s most strategically vital areas. The number of land-based US forces in the Middle East and South Asia is expected to shrink over time, even as counterinsurgency activities there remain a long-term priority. Democratization within the region – a central goal of US military presence – may paradoxically force the departure of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and other nations undergoing political transition, even before these areas have stabilized. A trend toward limited, low-profile bases is unlikely to solve this problem, since hosts may question US long-term commitments or demand “tacit or private goods, which risks future criticism and contractual renegotiation in the event of regime change.” Yet, barring an unprecedented erosion of grand strategic ambitions, access to regional bases and other military facilities will be essential for American power projection and influence.

Maintaining US presence throughout the broader Indian Ocean littoral region depends on identifying enduring US interests in the region and developing a strategy to pursue those interests. According to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US “strategy supports the development of a tailored posture in the broader Middle East and Central and South Asia, promotes a peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific region, and reaffirms our commitment to NATO and Europe.” The Indian Ocean, which is located adjacent to four of the regions identified by Mullen and a key transit route for goods and energy to the fifth, the Indian Ocean sits at the heart of this discussion. With the publication of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and the impending release of the National Security Strategy and the new Unified Command Plan the Indian Ocean region has risen to the forefront of US strategic planning.

Although long considered a geopolitical backwater by US strategists, the Indian Ocean has assumed increasing importance in the past decade. While the United States lacks an explicit Indian Ocean strategy, many of the principles that guide its actions in the region are visible in the US military’s treatment of the small British-owned island of Diego Garcia. The development of Diego Garcia reflects an overall strategy to establish a flexible and enduring presence within a critical and contested space. Moreover, the evolution of Diego Garcia as a forward-operating hub illustrates the trade-offs between political reliability and military utility that occur where uncontested access from well located sites is in limited supply. The United States must reconcile such trade-offs in an effort to establish a functional network of assets from which to conduct planned and contingency operations.

Efforts to improve US access and capabilities in the region must be viewed in light of the political context of US regional engagement. To maximize the utility of its basing structure, the United States should work to maximize influence while minimizing host nation political concerns. In addition, it is important for the United States to limit force structure costs while endeavoring to improve long-term stability. Each of these goals must also be accomplished by helping partners develop capacity while reducing their dependence on Washington. Out of the tensions inherent in those goals arises a suitable strategy: enable local partners to take the lead in various security tasks, yet retain specific “linchpin” capacities to influence regional security. Where possible, it makes sense to use host nation capabilities instead of an extended and expansive US presence that might alarm regional actors.

To remain actively engaged in shaping the security environment of the Indian Ocean region, forward-operating sites and cooperative security locations must be considered comprehensively as part of a strategy which focuses on developing a key node to which a number of other nodes are connected in a regional network. In contrast to the large US installations in Europe and the Western Pacific, nodes – those smaller bases that are spread throughout the region – assume a flexible character. Through the combined use of both major and minor support locations, the posture is broad based and tiered as a number of cooperative security locations are pinned together by several forward-operating sites. Key nodes are then placed in central, reliable locations, and have additional capabilities that are deemed unnecessary elsewhere.

Diego Garcia meets many of these criteria. The island facilitates US power projection throughout the Indian Ocean littoral by multiple means: the prepositioning of Army and Marine Corps brigade sets, long-range bomber operations, the replenishment of naval surface combatants, and the strike and special operations capabilities of guided-missile submarines (SSGN). The island’s isolated location, on the sovereign territory of a close ally, reduces the facility’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks and discord with the local population, which periodically plague many overseas bases. Moreover, Diego Garcia reduces the need for the US military to maintain a large footprint on the ground in order to protect America’s regional allies, control the spread of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and maintain the flow of energy and commerce through key chokepoints such as the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. These regional objectives can be achieved by engaging in an offshore balancing posture that maintains local preeminence via control of the sea. As a result, air and naval platforms, as well as rapidly deployable special operations forces, staged “over the horizon” at Diego Garcia, can enable the US to pursue its regional interests with a less provocative and less visible presence.

This article draws on interviews with US government officials, newly available archival documents, and academic and media sources in multiple languages. Our analysis proceeds in four sections. The first section examines the emerging strategic importance of the Indian Ocean littoral. The second, and most extensive, section concentrates on American interests in the Indian Ocean and surveys the history and development of the American presence on Diego Garcia as part of an expeditionary, networked basing strategy in the region. From this detailed examination of Diego Garcia, the ongoing, indirect development of an informal US Indian Ocean strategy is identified. A third section examines India and China’s interests and activities in the region. The final section assesses the likelihood of great-power cooperation in the region, suggests how the US might best develop and maintain basing and access there, and underscores the need for the further development of a US regional strategy. …