Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Wheelers Island - The home of India's Missile program

Wheelers Island -The launch site for India's Missile program

      A tiny island off the Orissa coast in the middle of the vast Bay of Bengal, the home of Indian military might, a place which has transformed into a world class missile range complex.  The island is the base for India’s mystical ‘Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP)’. An Island measuring around 2 kilometers in length and occupying more than 400 acres of land, the Wheeler’s Island is where India’s ambitious missile programs have taken course. It was in the early 1990’s that a team of leading scientists from DRDO started with the work of setting up a futuristic test range for supporting the nation’s ballistic missile program.

    The team was headed by the ‘Missile of India’, APJ Abdul Kalam a distinguished scientist under whom, India’s missile program had reached newer heights. The team also consisted of the celebrated missile scientists V K Saraswat and S K Salwan. With a need for dedicated military test range, the team zeroed in on a 160 square kilometre land mass close to the Proof and Experimental Establishment (PXE) at Chandipur. But to setup a base at the desired location, the government was required to vacate nearly 130 villages with a consolidated population of well over 100000 people.

      The government faced a strong opposition from the villagers to relocate from the villages and in 1995 the government decided to drop the idea of setting up a base in Chandipur and began the search for alternative locations with very minimal habitation and far away main lands. An able team led by V K Sarawat and S K Salwan was putting in charge of locating the land which would be far away from the lime light of society thus negating any negative concerns about the facility.

     The team initially concentrated on setting up a test base at Pokran test range, integral test range for Indian forces. But this was soon rejected considering the effect to the safety of the range. The team then began a long and grueling search for a desolate Island along the Eastern coast. DRDO then sought the help of Navy which came with hydrographic maps of the islands across the Eastern coast. The team then soon set its sight on a group of desolate islands close to ITR, Chandipur. The Islands were in fact Shoals composed mainly of soil, sand pebbles giving the opt environment for a test range. The six islands were spread across the vast ocean and were around 70 kilometers from Chandipur.

     Armed with the accurate hydrograpic maps courtesy of the Indian navy and with a directional compass and minimal knowledge about the exact location of the islands, the range team comprising of S K Salwan and V K Saraswat, set off in the search of the desolate islands after hiring a fishing boat from Dhamra port. The group of Islands on the map were designated as Long Wheeler, Coconut Wheeler and Small Wheeler. The search for the Islands was extremely and continued for a while until the team concluded that the Islands were lost in eternity, the Wheeler Island was just not traceable. It was then the team consulted the local fishermen who were accustomed to the vast ocean.

     The local fishermen, the real navigator of these turbulent seas directed the team to an island they called 'Chandrachud'. The former president ‘APJ Kalam’ has fond memory of the discovery of ‘Chandrachud’ and recalls the day saying “By the time ‘Chandrachud’ was discovered, it was late in the evening. The boatman refused to move at night and the team had to stay in the boat the whole night counting the stars”. The determined efforts of the range team had paid off and but the search for ‘the Wheelers’ continued, the team then consulted the navy to reconfirm the bearings of the land-mass, the hydrographers had termed as six islands. The team was elated to know that they in fact had landed on the mysterious ‘Small Wheeler Island’.

      An experienced team from DRDO then shortly began the survey of the Islands for setting up the much required and ambitious test range. The primary concern for the team was the erosion of the fine sand the Island was based on, the team then forwarded the proposal of setting up a fully fledged test and research range at the Islands. The government cleared the project thus paving way for India’s missile range. To avoid the concern of erosion, DRDO built a vast seawall along the island peripherals. Without a dedicated logistical solution the construction of a base was considered an uphill task for the DRDO. Plans of setting up a dedicated airbase were discussed initially but were later dropped considering the hostile environment prevailing around the range. The main logistical to the islands is the shipping lane which takes care of all the hardware required for successful completion of missions.

     The island is the theater of action for the DRDO missile scientists who have propelled India to new heights with the latest missiles technologies. The Wheeler base is now known an integral part of all strategic missile programs of India and also has witnessed the launch of conventional missiles. The first missile to be first from the range is the Agni-I and Agni-II. The missile range has now evolved to a world class missile testing facility. The base has witnessed the development and launch of Agni I-V, Prithvi missiles, the AAD program, Nirbhay cruise missile, the mighty BrahMos, Nag Anti-tank missiles, Akash and Trishul Surface to Air Missiles (SAM).

       The base has 4 Launch Complexes (LC) which serve as the nerve center for all launch programs. The main launch site for the strategic missiles is the LC-IV, which was established recently to test long range ICBM’s and IRBM’s. India’s ambitious interceptor program, AAD has also been test fired from the Wheelers base. The base has the latest tracking systems, the base is equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance radars. The base also employs the latest Electro-optical tracking system, S-band tracking radar, C-band tracking radar and telemetry band systems. For closely monitoring the launch programs the base has the latest range computer, meteorological systems and to attain safe launches also has the most advanced safety system.

      The facility has been possible because of the determinations of India’s quest to master the latest missile technology. DRDO has set a massive step forward to make India ‘Missile import free’ by 2020 and has promised to make India an leading exporter in missile technology. India today has some of the deadliest and accurate missile system in its arsenal and the ‘Wheelers base’ has been a key part of every mission. India’s most celebrated missile scientists be it, ‘The missile men of India’ “APJ Abdul Kalam”, ‘The missile women of India’ “Tessy Thomas’ or V K Saraswat have their own share of stories to be narrated about the base. India is gearing up for testing an salvo of newest missile technologies and ‘Wheelers Island’ will be the launch site, DRDO will propel India’s strategic capabilities to greater heights in the coming years.

Article - Karthik Kakoor

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