This is a special report on the poignant decommissioning of Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Viraat on 6th March at the Naval Dockyard, a befitting farewell to one of the longest serving warships under two Ensigns- the Royal and Indian Navy.
A record number of 21 of the 22 Commanding Officers of the carrier (Adm Nirmal Verma away in US Naval War College Rhode Island as a Research Fellow ) attended the ceremony. Six went on to become Chief of Naval Staffs, which is creditable.
This is a different version of the piece in INDIA STRATEGIC, and is posted to publicise the fact that the Indian Navy counts as one of the six navies which possesses the ability and continuous aviation manpower skills since 1961 to man an aircraft carrier, and operate carrier borne aircraft, which is lost upon the critics especially the Indian Air Force who find the Navy’s effort imprudent, expensive and mostly unnecessary.
CNS Admiral Sunil Lanba took the salute and there were moist eyes in most of the men present who had served on board and the Commanding Officers who captained the ship during her memorable career, graced by Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord Adm Jones who flew in for the ceremony from UK.
Admiral Lanba was handed over the folded Ensign by the Captain after it was hauled down for the last time and this is the ship’s story.
INS Viraat served the Royal Navy for 25 years (1959-1984) and Indian Navy for 30 long years (1987-2017). She was sent for de-gutting to Cochin Shipyard Ltd in Aug-2016 and was towed back so her future is uncertain, and could be made a museum, a hotel or even be scrapped, which will be a shame. Viraat carries 30 years of Indian Navy’s checkered history, that helped Indian Navy to seamlessly commission INS Vikramaditya.
The aviation arm of any Navy is the ‘eyes and a power arm in the sky’, and Indian Navy is one of the six powerful three dimensional Navies in the world that has continuously operated aircraft carriers since the 1960s. Carriers are large expensive man power intensive platforms to operate, but an essential component of a large Navy for sea control, deterrence and more recently Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and evacuation operations.
Indian officers and sailors performed well in the Secord World War (1939-45) and gained operational experience as part of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) which gave confidence to Lord Louis Mountbatten to script a three aircraft carrier Indian Navy plan in 1948 itself. Navy looks to achieve this in the coming decades as the Navy will be a two carrier Navy when the new 37,500 ton Vikrant under construction at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) joins the INS Vikramaditya with her MiG-29Ks. A third carrier is a part of the sanctioned naval plan, and the 65,000 ton carrier that media has named Vishal, is on the drawing board of the Naval designers.
So it was that the Indian Navy acquired the 19,000 ton Majestic class HMS Hercules aircraft carrier and she was refitted and commissioned as INS Vikrant on 4th March, 1961 in UK by India’s High Commissioner Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit. The ship worked up her squadron of Sea-Hawk fighter jets and the French ASW Breguet Alizes in UK and off Gibraltar and Malta, and was received in Bombay later that year by Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru at the Ballard Pier. INS Vikrant with her motto Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprdhah in Sanskrit, meaning I completely defeat those who fight with me proved her worth in the 1971 war to liberate Bangla Desh. Vikrant operated as the Eastern Fleet flagship in the Bay of Bengal and her planes de-fanged the Pakistan Air Force in East Pakistan and attacked airfields and shore bases with the Indian Air Force operating more North.
In the mid 1980s the Sea Hawks were aging and UK offered the Sea Harrier jump jets as replacement planes for Vikrant. The US Navy Marines were flying the more powerful AV-2B Harriers from US Navy carriers, which encouraged Indian Navy pilots to carry out Sea Harrier trials on Vikrant and looked out for a second hand aircraft carrier. HMS Hermes was decommissioned in UK in 1984, and was to be scrapped.
The Hermes’s keel was laid in Vickers Armstrong Yard at Birkenhead on 21st June, 1944 and commissioned on 16th February, 1959. She saw service in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s and was a through deck cruiser in name, with Sea Harriers operating from her decks and saw action in the Falklands war in 1982. Hermes flew over 2300 Sea Harrier sorties and downed more than 30 Etendard fighters and planes of Argentina that helped Britain to retain the Falklands and thwarted Argentina’s attempt to take the Falklands.
In 1985 the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral RH Tahiliani a Test Pilot himself with Vikrant and Sea Hawk experience deputed a team to UK to inspect the Hermes and report back. The Ministry of Defence sanctioned and negotiated its purchase for around $ 85 million with conditions to refit the ship with accommodation for troops, a hardened 14 degree ski jump for vertical landing and short take offs (VSTOL) and conversion of Navy’s experienced pilots. The Royal Navy looked at it as a better option than scrapping, and after a year of refit in 1986 under the watchful eyes of naval engineers INS Viraat was commissioned at Plymouth on 12th March, 1987 under the command of Sea Hawk pilot Capt Vinod Pasricha with Sea Harrier fighters and Sea King helicopters. Incidentally this writer had handed over command of INS Vindhyagiri to Pasricha from where he went to UK for the Viraat and had a very successful tenure.
INS Viraat was received in July 1987 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi twenty miles off Mumbai where he landed in a Sea King accompanied by Admiral RH Tahiliani and PMO staff. Rajiv was shown the full capabilities of the fighters and helicopters with take offs, firings, landings and a fly past in strong monsoon winds and rough seas. PM Gandhi a pilot himself was thrilled and went around the ship’s Fly control room (flyco), operations room, medical and dental facilities which included an operating theatre and congratulated the 1500 personnel on the ship, when the sobriquet ‘Viratee’, was coined for anyone who served on INS Viraat.
For the next 30 years the powerful wings of the 300 Squadron Sea Harrier Tigers and the 330 Squadron Sea King MK42B/C and 321 Squadron Alloutte helicopters lifted off its deck soaring in to the sky scouring the expanse of blue waters with keen eyes and radars and EW systems her boilers steaming 2252 days at sea sailing across 5,88,287 nautical miles (10,94,215 KM). INS Viraat clocked 22,622 flying hours in the three decades participated in various international joint exercises like Exercise Malabar (USA) with USN carriers flying F-18s and nuclear submarines, exercise Varuna with France’s nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle flying Entendards and Rafales, and Naseem-Al-Bahar (Oman Navy). She has also been an integral element of all annual theater level exercises (TROPEX). The last operational deployment of Viraat was for the International Fleet Review (IFR 2016) off Vishakhapatnam in Feb 2016. Viraat was in refit for the Kargil war in 1999 war when the combined fleets executed the Navy maneouver to form and exclusive zone off Pakistan coast, but was the Flagship for the combined Fleets in Op Parakaram Dec 2000-Oct 2001.
On aircraft carriers thousands of men serve on board in war and peace and go with memories of planes flying and landing on small decks dubbed ‘Postage Stamps’ which even their families carry etched in their minds and hearts. So as the world’s oldest serving aircraft carrier recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. INS Viraat was also affiliated to the Garhwal Rifles after taking part in Operation Jupiter in 1989 during the Sri Lankan Peacekeeping operation, and was decommissioned for the second and last time. The median age of warships is any where from 25 to 35 years when front line service is not easily feasible, as even in peace time Navies test the old for war duty with the new ships. Viraat kept up with new radars, Barak-1 AA and EW systems and Sea Harriers added Derby missiles, to upkeep its motto, Jameva Yasya, Balameva Tasya in Sanskrit meaning “He who rules over the seas is all powerful” till her end. The Sea Harrier fleet was decommissioned at Goa on 11 May 2016. RIP the giant Viraat till another avatar rules the seas for India’s security and rise. Shan No Varuna.