Wheeler Island is located approximately 10 kilometers off of the East coast of India on the Bay of Bengal and about 70 kilometers south of Chandipur in Orissa province. The island is approximately 2 kilometers long and occupies about 390 acres. Wheeler Island is the missile test facility for the AGNI (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM).
Access to the test facility is by ship as there is no bridge or airport connecting the island to the mainland. There is a small helipad, but missile airframes and all supplies, construction materials and heavy equipment arrives by ship.
The test facility consists of a launch pad, missile assembly/checkout buildings, and several administrative, and support buildings. Missile airframes are transported from the pier to the launch pad by a 2.3 kilometer long rail line, that connects the missile assembly buildings.
Seven new buildings have been indentified since May 31, 2000 including three probably missile assembly/support buildings, and a probable headquarters or administration building.
A possible AGNI II missile airframe is visible in the most recent Ikonos imagery dating October 27, 2001.
Several structures including the launch pad, the helipad, and some of the support buildings have been painted in a vein attempt at camaflage. Detection of the missile test facility is possible at 15-meter GSD. A 1-meter GSD, the paint pattern only draws attention to structures the Indians are attempting to hide.
IKONOS Collection Activity
Over a 18 month period between May 5, 2000 and October 27, 2001 , Wheeler Island has been imaged 18 times with total of 4 scenes of good quality. Likely interested parties would be the goverments of China or Pakistan.
A string of islands in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of Orissa, form a part of the 170 sq km Bhitarkanika Sanctuary. The islands and a part of the coast are reported to be favoured nesting sites for the highly endangered Olive Ridley turtle. In the mid-1990s the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) acquired six major islands of a group called Wheeler Islands to build a missile testing range. The island is close to the Gahirmatha beach, which is the largest known rookery of endangered Olive Ridley turtles. This raised concerns among environmentalists in India that this range and its associated activities would pose a major threat to the nesting turtles. In mid-1996 the DRDO agreed to take the following measures to protect the turtle and its nesting sites:
- As far as possible, missile test firing will not be carried out between November and April, which is the peak turtle nesting period at Gahirmatha beach [the constrains the testing schedule, since according to some reports poor weather between May and November would force missile tests to be put off].
- Lighting arrangements on Outer Wheeler Island during construction, and thereafter, were suitably altered to prevent confusing turtle hatchlings, who have been observed heading away from the sea under the influence of lights.
- The DRDO will request the Indian Coast Guard, and possibly the Indian Navy, to assist in patrolling and anti-poaching operations during the nesting period.
The new test range on Wheeler Island ensures greater security and obviate the need for evacuation of the local population at the existing Orissa launch site. The test flights of the Agni-II missile are conducted from the IC-4 facility on Inner Wheeler Island at the Interim Test Range, firing at a sea-based target some 2,000 km into the Bay of Bengal. The Prithvi missile has also been tested over sea from the Interim Test Range at Chandipur [also known as Chandipur-on-Sea] near Balasore in Orissa up to a range of 68 km to an impact area on Wheeler Island.
Two days before the Agni-II missile test on 09 April 1999, the Chandipur Interim Test Range had filed an affidavit in the Orissa High Court on behalf of the Defence Ministry, saying that there were no plans to test-fire any missile during the mating and nesting period of the sea turtles. The affidavit was in reply to a public interest litigation filed by the Wildlife Society of Orissa seeking a halt on all activities including missile-testing on the Wheeler Island in order to protect the turtles.
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