The airbase on Diego Garcia, part of America's sprawling military outpost in British Indian Ocean Territory, was once a bustling hub of bomber and tanker activity during the years that followed the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unbelievably, for years the U.S. the Air Force flew thousands of sorties from the remote locale some located 2,000 miles from Afghanistan and 3,000 miles from Iraq in what had to of been one of the most boneheadedly inefficient air combat operations of all time. Eventually, they realized basing these aircraft in the Persian Gulf, far closer to the action, would provide way more persistent combat capabilities, save lakes of jet fuel, and preserve precious flight time on America's aging bomber fleet. Now, after its aprons stood largely empty aside from the regular logistical and sporadic global airpower flights, American bombers are heading back to the atoll, and for good reason—it's out of reach of Iranian ballistic missiles.
The move comes as part of the continued build-up of U.S. forces in the Middle East and increasingly dire rhetoric between Washington D.C. and Tehran following the deadly strike on Iran's Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani last week.
Here's the reality folks: Iran has throngs of ballistic missiles, many of which are extremely hard to target as they are road-mobile or hidden literally inside highly fortified mountain fortresses. In fact, they can even be launched from these subterranean strongholds. If a major war erupted between Iran and the U.S., and/or its Sunni Arab allies, within minutes, ballistic missiles will rain down on critical bases throughout the regions and especially on airfields.
Yes, there are some missile defense capabilities in place in the region, and more are coming in the future, but none have anywhere near the ability to repulse the varied and plentiful barrages Iran can put up on relatively short notice. The idea that this isn't the case is utter fiction. Add in wave upon wave of cruise missiles and suicide drones, and you get the picture. Huge fixed bases are very vulnerable to Tehran's military capabilities, but only out to a certain distance from Iranian borders.
The graphic below is from the Pentagon's latest Missile Defense Review. Note, Diego Garcia is outside the reach of even Iran's longest-range missiles. No other U.S. base setup to sustain bomber operations is closer to Iran than Diego Garcia.
With that in mind, positioning all your regional airpower at vulnerable bases and aircraft carriers that are well within the reach of Iran's ballistic and cruise missiles is anything but wise. So, it seems, the Pentagon leveraged Diego Garcia once again to provide not just a ready force of bombers that can launch dozens of stealthy cruise missiles at Iran's most heavily defended targets and air defenses if called upon, but also one that can do so if Iran neuters American airpower in the Persian Gulf region, even if just temporarily, due to a missile onslaught. Such an Iranian offensive could come after a conflict kicks off or as a first strike.
It wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention that some B-52Hs can also carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. It really isn't relevant to the tactical picture when it comes to Iran, but it is to the strategic one. It is a glaring reminder to Tehran that the U.S. could do horrific amounts of damage with a single cruise missile volley if it wanted. It is well assumed that Diego Garcia is configured to handle nuclear weapons, unlike the Persian Gulf bases.
The Indian Ocean base is also one of just a handful of places on earth that is equipped for sustained B-2 Spirit operations. It has a quartet of large climate-controlled clamshell hangars known as B-2 Shelter Systems (BS22s) to accommodate the stealth bombers. Sustained operations out of Diego Garcia would be necessary if a major conflict with Iran broke out, even just for one significant reason.
While the B-52s can do incredible damage even from standoff distances, during a conflict with Iran the B-2 will be specifically used to drop GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs) on Iran's deeply buried and highly fortified mountain missile complexes, command and control sites, and those used to support its nuclear program, like Fordow. The 30,000lb weapon, which the B-2 can carry two of, was specially designed and continues to be upgraded for this exact task and with Iran in mind. That reality has even been used as a propaganda tool by the Pentagon. It allows for the destruction of very deeply buried targets without the use of nuclear warheads. In other words, no other munition, aside from a penetrating nuclear weapon, can destroy those sites. You MOP it, nuke it, or take it in a ground assault.
There have been no reports of B-2s being forward deployed just yet and we may never get an official acknowledgment of such a move like we did with the B-52s. But if war were to break out, the B-2s would very likely use Diego Garcia at least as a forward-arming, refueling, and maintenance point.
Of course, the airfield is just one of the island outpost's many features. Its lagoon is used to host one of two of Military Sealift Command's Prepositioning Ship Squadrons. A small armada of cargo vessels sits idle in the lagoon, loaded with munitions and equipment, ready to respond to a crisis on short notice. The island also supports space operations and other sensitive missions. It was widely rumored to be a black site that worked as part of the CIA's rendition program during the early Global War On Terror years, as well. But the utility that its big airstrip located in the center of the Indian Ocean, with the Middle East and Africa to its north and west, and Asia to its east, remains its most high-profile and critical capability.
The fact that six B-52Hs are headed there during the worst crisis with Iran in half a century is another reminder of that fact.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com