An aircraft carrier is considered the most valuable sea-based asset, and offers an incomparable military instrument with its ability to project tactical Air Power over long distances, including Air Interdiction, Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), offensive and defensive Counter-Air and AEW (Airborne Early Warning). Aircraft carriers have always been important to the evolution of the Indian Navy – from securing the seas of the Indo-Pacific, to maintaining peace, securing trade routes, providing security to the region, and in the event of a war, bringing in lethal firepower. One such carrier that could offer everything mentioned above was the INS Viraat. The INS Viraat a.k.a The Grand Old Lady was considered as the most potent symbol of Indian Military Might. She was decommissioned on the 6th of March 2017 after having served the Royal Navy for 27 and the Indian Navy for 30 years respectively. As of 25th August 2020, INS Viraat was bought by Shree Ram Group for Rs 38.54 crore at an auction conducted by the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation Limited after the Central Govt had decided to scrap the vessel in July, 2019. It will be towed to the ship breaking yard situated at Alang, Gujarat from the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. We take a look at the history and prowess of what was once India’s flagship.
(The INS Viraat)
INS Viraat (Viraat meaning Giant) was a Centaur-class (The Centaur class of aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy was the last of the light fleet carrier designs started during the closing years of World War II) aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy. For nearly 60 years, this ship had been a dominant force in the oceans of the world. INS Viraat was originally commissioned by the British Royal Navy as HMS Hermes on 18 November 1959, 15 years after she was laid down in June 1944. As HMS Hermes, she was commanded by 13 Captains of the Royal Navy. Her role in Operation Mercy in 1974 is now a textbook reference for future navies. She had also successfully led the British fleets in the South Atlantic Seas against Argentina during the Falklands War in 1982, before being decommissioned from the British Royal Navy in 1985 after 27 successful years of service.
(The HMS Hermes in service for The Royal Navy)
INS Viraat entered service with the Indian Navy on 12th May, 1987 after going through an extensive refitting and reactivating process at the Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth, England giving it a decade long operational life with better navigation radars, new fire control equipment, improved Nuclear Biological Chemical weapons protection, improved deck landing aids and boilers being converted to operate on distillate fuel.
(Left: May 1986: HMS Hermes passing Plymouth Hoe on her way into Devonport Dockyard for reactivation and service with the Indian Navy
Right: 1987: INS Viraat (ex HMS Hermes), sailing from Devonport Dockyard to begin her service with the Indian Navy)
Ever since her induction into the Indian Navy, INS Viraat became India’s flagship aircraft carrier. It was a floating air base having the ability of striking targets on land, at sea, underwater, anytime, anywhere.The vessel has been fitted with a 12º ski jump (In aviation, a ski-jump is an upward-curved ramp that allows aircraft to take off from a runway that is shorter than the aircraft's required takeoff roll) to operate the Sea Harrier, a reinforced flight deck, 1.2 inches of armour over magazines and machinery spaces. The magazine capacity includes 80+ lightweight torpedoes. The vessel retains commando transport capability, for around 750 troops and carries four LCVP landing craft.
(Left: A Royal Navy Sea Harrier taking off from HMS Invincible using the ski jump
Right: LCVP – The landing craft vehicle personnel or the Higgins boat)
When fully loaded The INS Viraat displaced 28,700 tonnes and measured 226.5 m long with a beam of 48.78 m, and had a maximum speed of 28 knots (52 km/h). She could house upto 26 aircrafts. She had a range of 10500 km (6500 mi) at 26km/h (14 knots). INS Viraat had 8 types of sensors and processing systems installed, each having different abilities. Her electronics warfare and decoy systems included 1- BEL Ajanta ESM and 2 – KnebworthCorvus Chaff launchers. The combat data systems included Italian Elmar communication suites. CAAIS action data automation; SATCOM (SATellite COMmunications) systems on-board. The weapons included The Israeli Barak SAM system that had been fitted, with fire control provided by an EL/M-2221 STGR radar. Two 40mm Bofors guns were used for air defense and were accompanied by a pair of 30mm AK-230 gatling guns (for protection against anti-ship missiles) till the latter was replaced by the Barak system.
INS Viraat holds the world record in the Guinness Book of records for being the longest serving warship of the world. The vessel which was the flagship of the Navy, Viraat operated Sea Harriers (White Tigers of INAS 300 — fighter aircraft), Seaking 42B (Harpoons of INAS 330 — anti-submarine helicopters), Seaking 42C (commando carrier helicopters) and Chetak (search-and-rescue helicopters). The indigenous Advance Light Helicopters ‘Dhruv’ and the Russian twin rotor Kamov-31 have also operated from the ship.
(Left: The Sea Harrier Fighter Aircraft
Right: The Chetak Search and Rescue Helicopter)
Viraat played a major role in Operation Jupiter in 1989 during the Sri Lankan Peacekeeping operation and Operation Vijay in 1999 (Kargil War), after which she was affiliated with the Garhwal Rifles and Scouts of the Indian Army in 1990. She also saw action during Operation Parakram in 2001-2002, post the terrorist attack on Parliament. Under the tricolor, the ship has clocked more than 22,622 flying hours by various aircraft in the past three decades and has spent nearly 2252 days at sea sailing across 5,88,287 nautical miles (10,94,215 KM). This implies that Viraat has spent seven years at sea, circumnavigating the globe 27 times. The ship had participated in various international joint exercises like Exercise Malabar (USA), Exercise Varuna (French), Naseem-Al-Bahar (Oman Navy). She has also been an integral element of all annual theater level exercises (TROPEX).
(Indian Navy Sea Harriers and Indian Air Force SEPECAT Jaguars with US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets flying over INS Viraat during exercise Malabar in 2007)
Jalameva Yasya Balameva Tasya (Sanskrit for ‘He who conquers the seas is all powerful’) was the motto of the INS Viraat. The Crest is an eagle with 5 arrows in its claws. The eagle denotes Air Superiority of the aircrafts aboard and the 5 arrows denote the versatile weapon capabilities of the massive ship.
(Crest and Motto of INS Viraat)
‘Mother’, as she was fondly referred to in the Navy, had been commanded by 22 Captains since 1987. Around 40 Flag officers including five Chiefs of Naval Staff were raised and groomed in her lap. She was instrumental in honing the art of flying operations from a carrier deck in the Navy, which also resulted in seamless induction of INS Vikramaditya and its integration with the fleet. The Grand old lady went through 4 refitting drives after being inducted into the Indian Navy. She was decommissioned on the 6th of March, 2017 at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. The decommissioning ceremony was attended by more than 1300 personnel who had served onboard the INS Viraat, with then Chief of The Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba being the Chief Guest.
(Left: The Paying Off Pendent being lowered marking the end of an era in Indian Naval history. The Seaking Helicopters flying past
Right: All 21 ex Commanding Officers of the INS Viraat present on the occasion to bid adieu to the Grand Old Lady)
INS Viraat has been the key to many glorious highs of the Indian Navy. Even as it is laid to rest, the presence of the formidable aircraft carrier will continue to be felt across Naval Commands for a long time.