When the MI-8 helicopter carrying President A P J Abdul Kalam touches down on Small Wheeler island in the Bay of Bengal on Tuesday, the former top defence scientist would be on familiar terrain.
As the chief of India’s missile development program, Kalam had identified the desolate island off the Orissa coast in the early 1990s for part of the test range the country badly needed.
The president is scheduled to visit the Small Wheeler island on Tuesday afternoon and meet defence scientists at the missile launching complex he had himself established.
The visionary scientist’s association with Chandipur-on-Sea, where the interim test range was set up in the late 1980s and the then desolate Wheeler island, is now part of defence folklore.
Kalam had once described Chandipur and the Wheeler island as his “theatre of action” where missiles zoomed over the sea at frequent intervals to test the country’s military might.
A visit to Wheeler island was not in the original schedule during his current visit and was added later. Due to inclement weather, the program was even on the verge of cancellation. But sources said the president insisted on a visit to the base.
How did he hit upon the idea of locating a missile launch base at the Small Wheeler, one of a cluster of five islands, 15 nautical miles away from the fishing harbour of Dhamra in Bhadrak district?
The island came into prominence after defence authorities found it difficult to procure a large area in the crescent-shaped Baliapal area of Balasore district where it had been decided to set up the national test range (NTR) in the mid-1980s.
An agitation against their displacement by locals forced defence authorities to set up an interim test range (ITR) at Chandipur-on-sea close to the proof and experimental establishment, a 100-year-old organisation to test defence ammunition.
The intermediate range Agni missile was first test-fired on May 22, 1989 from the ITR – later renamed the integrated test range with three launch complexes.
The Wheeler base is now known as Launch Complex IV from which the Agni-I and Agni-II had been test-fired twice each since April 1999. But how did defence authorities decide upon Wheeler island?
Kalam himself narrated the story of how a tiny island on the Orissa coast was transformed into a world class missile range complex in his convocation address at the Sambalpur University at Burla two years ago.
“The mission of two scientists had helped achieve it,” he said.
“In October 1993, the development of the Prithvi missile was almost over but the army desired to have a confirmatory test on a land range to validate the circular error probability (CEP) of the missile.
“Our efforts to conduct the tests in our desert range could not take off due to range safety problems. To overcome this, we were looking for an uninhabited island in the eastern coast,” Kalam said.
“On the hydrographic map supplied by the Navy, we saw a few islands in the Bay of Bengal off Dhamra coast indicating that there was some landmass,” Kalam said.