Wheeler Island readies for 5000-km range Agni-5 missile launch - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 15 September 2013

Wheeler Island readies for 5000-km range Agni-5 missile launch

The Agni-5, undergoing an integration check the day before its test-launch 

By Ajai Shukla
Wheeler Island, Odisha
Business Standard, 14th Sept 13

It takes time and a strong back to get to Wheeler’s Island, from where an Agni-5 missile will blast off on Sunday morning, carrying a simulated nuclear payload to a target 5000 kilometers away in the southern Indian Ocean.

After a two-hour flight from Delhi to Bhubaneshwar, we jolt along for five hours on the road to Dhamra, wondering how the 19 metre-long, 50-tonne Agni-5 ever made the journey. At Dhamra, we board a ferry, which chugs past the Bhitar Kanika sanctuary, its thick mangroves a haven for the local saltwater crocodiles. An hour later, we are finally at Wheeler Island.

How Wheeler Island became the Cape Canaveral of India is DRDO lore. In the early 1990s, when the DRDO was developing its first short-range ballistic missile, the Prithvi missile would be fired from Chandipur Range (also on the Odisha coast) 150 kilometres into the Bay of Bengal. But the army, unconvinced that the Prithvi was really accurate down to the specified 150 metres, demanded that this be verified by fired onto land, where its impact would be clearly visible.

Since safety concerns made firing towards the mainland impossible, the DRDO began searching for an island. The previous DRDO chief, Dr VK Saraswat, then a young scientist, was sent to reconnoitre the uninhabited Wheeler Island. When a fisherman got him there, Saraswat discovered a Bangladeshi flag, apparently planted by fishermen from that country. He quickly uprooted it and the Odisha government leased the island to DRDO for 99 years.

On 30th Nov 1993, Wheeler Island was the target for a Prithvi missile, fired from Chandipur, 70 kilometres away. To the army’s delight, it impacted just 27 metres away from the designated target, far more accurate than what the army had hoped for or demanded. A memorial called Prithvi Point now marks that point.

From target, Wheeler Island has evolved into a launch centre. Local villages at Chandipur no longer have to be evacuated each time a missile test takes place.

From the jetty, we drive along a two-kilometre-long railway line that runs through waving palm trees, to the Agni Launch Pad. There, parked in a clearing in the jungle, is the Agni-5, its attractive orange-and-white trim accentuated by the lush vegetation all around.

Scientists and technicians bustle around, watched over by experts who have developed for the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) a range of indigenous ballistic missiles in the face of a stiff global technology denial regime. DRDO chief, Avinash Chander, walking around like just another technician, proudly says that everything in the Agni-5 has been made in India.

Chander says this second test of the Agni-5 (its debut launch in April 2012 was an unalloyed success) aims at revalidating systems and building confidence in the missile. If Sunday’s launch is successful, the Agni-5 will next be tested as a canisterised missile.

This involves hermetically sealing the Agni-5 into an airtight canister, in which it is can be stored safely for years. The canister, borne on a flatbed truck, can be transported quickly and fired after hydraulically raising it into the vertical firing position. Made of maraging steel, the canister must absorb 300-400 tonnes of thrust that is generated to eject the 50-ton Agni-5.

As Chander speaks, the missile is raised from a horizontal position to the vertical. A series of checks are called out, technicians looking at monitor screens. This is a crucial integrated pre-launch drill, in which every unit participating in the test --- a simulated national command centre at New Delhi, radar and telemetry stations all along the missile’s flight path, including in the Andaman Islands, telemetry vessels at the impact point 5000 kilometres away, and all the local elements at the launch centre --- run through every aspect of the launch and the flight.

“The test will be conducting like a real nuclear strike, with all the safety systems and safeguards activated, including the issuance of commands from Delhi,” says Avinash Chander.

If everything is ticking, the same procedure will be undergone tomorrow, except that the missile will actually fly. Whether the green signal will be given will be decided by a Launch Authorisation Board this evening.

For much of the year, Wheeler Island is almost empty, guarded only by security staff. In February and March, close to 1,50,000 Olive Ridley Turtles come to lay their eggs on its beaches. The DRDO is quietly proud that turtle numbers are growing.

But for periods like now, a thousand technicians converge on this idyllic island. And all of them are working feverishly today, knowing that even a tiny mistake is the difference between a successful test-flight and a missile that goes down in flames.


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