INS Viraat, a Centaur-class aircraft carrier, was the flagship of Indian Navy until 2013 and decommissioned recently after nearly three decades of service with the country’s naval force. The British-built Viraat was the world’s oldest aircraft carrier in active service until it was decommissioned in March 2017, at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. According to Indian Navy, INS Viraat holds the Guinness Book of records for being the longest-serving warship in the world.
INS Viraat was the centrepiece of the Indian Navy as it has clocked over 22,622 flying hours by different aircraft in the past 30 years and also has spent around 2252 days at sea sailing across 5,88,287 nautical miles under the Indian Flag. The warship was an integral part of the force since she has played a major role in various operations for the force. INS Viraat had an important role to play in Operation Jupiter in 1989 during the Sri Lankan Peacekeeping operation, and also in the Op Parakram in 2001-2002, after the Parliament terrorist attack.
Fondly referred to in the Navy as ‘mother’, INS Viraat was part of various international joint exercises like Exercise Malabar, Naseem-Al-Bahar and Exercise Varuna in addition to her participation in all annual theatre level exercises (TROPEX). According to the Indian Navy, INS Viraat’s final operational deployment was in February 2016, for the International Fleet Review (IFR 2016), in Vishakhapatnam.
History of INS Viraat
In its earlier avatar, named as HMS Hermes, the vessel belonged to the Centaur cadre of the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. Launched in the year 1953 and commissioned in 1959, the carrier served the Royal Navy for 27 years, including as the flagship of the Navy’s task force during the Falkland Islands campaign in 1982.
After being decommissioned by the Royal Navy from active duty in 1985, India acquired the aircraft carrier in 1987 for USD 465 million and rechristened it as INS Viraat. The British-built carrier was selected for the Indian Navy after evaluating a number of other options including Giuseppe Garibaldi-class carriers of Italy. As per the terms of the acquisition accord between the Indian authorities and their British counterparts, the air force carrier was re-equipped to suit the Indian requirements with appropriate arsenal and vessel modifications. These modifications, amongst others, included incorporation of contemporary radars and the transition from conventional fuel methodologies to modern ones. The extensive refit at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth also included new fire control equipment, navigation radars, enhanced NBC protection.
Initially, the main planes that formed the leading aircraft fleet of the vessel were Sea Harriers, which were capable of carrying several modern missiles including the British anti-ship Sea Eagle missile and the French Matra Magic missile for air-to-air combat. In the year 1983, 30 such Sea Harriers were purchased by Navy India from their British counterparts. Apart from the Harriers, INS Viraat was also equipped to carry copters and various other necessary missiles, cluster bombs, runway-denial bombs, podded 30 mm cannons and 68 mm rockets. Post its acquisition, in the latter years, the vessel was also equipped with the Israeli Barak artillery along with several other refurbishments to the vessel’s armament cache.
Specifications of INS Viraat
This Centaur-class aircraft carrier has a standard displacement of nearly 24,000 tonnes and a full load displacement of 28,700t. INS Viraat measures 208.8 metres lengthwise, 27.4 metres beam wise and has a draught of 8.7 metres. Propelled by steam turbines with 76,000 shaft horsepower, INS Viraat was capable of cursing at a speed of 28 knots. Once India’s only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat had a capacity to house a crew of 1,350 people with a naval official team of 750 people and an aircraft team of 143 people on board.
As an Indian Navy’s warship, INS Viraat was carrying 30 fixed and rotary wing aircraft, including Sea Harrier, Westland Sea King, HAL Dhruv and HAL Chetak. Moreover, the carrier was equipped with Bofors AA guns and Barak surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers, enabling the ship to protect herself from aerial and surface attacks. As part of the Indian Navy’s ‘Limited Upgrade Sea Harrier (LUSH)’ program’ in 2006, the warship saw the upgradation of 15 Sea Harriers with installing the Elta EL/M-2032 radar and the Rafael ‘Derby’ medium-range air-to-air BVR missile.
In the almost quarter of a century that the craft carrier vessel has been a part of the Indian Navy, three further refurbishing works have been carried out on the vessel at periodic intervals: once in the year 1999 that extended to 2001, then again in the year 2003 which was completed in 2004, then in 2009 and the last one being in the year 2012. All these re-equipping work were carried out to prolong the longevity of the vessel till the time a suitable substitute – INS Vikramaditya – could take over the mantle of serving the Indian naval force.
The life-extension refit completed between July 1999 and April 2001 was aimed at extending the serviceability of INS Viraat until 2010. The programme witnessed an upgraded propulsion system, a package of sensors to sound emergency alerts in addition to the introduction of modern communication systems. Moreover, the first refit of the vessel after the engine room flooding in 1993 also saw the installation of new weapon systems as well as long-range surveillance radar and of course, a new flood alarm system. Along with the refurbishment of lift system, the warship also received a new hangar with fire curtains. Following this major refit, INS Viraat was present in the International Fleet Review held in February 2001, in Mumbai.
The refit during mid-2003 and November 2004 saw the vessel being equipped with the Barak SAM, a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, developed by Israel, designed to be used as a ship-borne point-defence missile system against anti-ship missiles, aircraft as well as UAVs. Five years later, the warship had gone through another short-time refit in 2009 at Cochin Shipyard in order to extent her service availability until 2015.
In 2012, the warship was again towed back to Cochin Shipyard for the first part of a major two-phase refit. During the first phase of the refurbishment, the work included hull cleaning and corrosion probe, among others. The worn hull plates were reinforced and the vessel had also received a fresh coat of corrosion-resistant paint. The second phase of the programme, which the vessel underwent in Mumbai, saw further improvements to her machinery before INS Viraat going back to active duty in the summer of 2013.
Decommissioning and the ‘future’ of INS Viraat
The decommissioning of INS Viraat was delayed due to the lack of new aircraft carrier to replace her in the navy. Meanwhile, India had bought the aircraft carrier from Russia in 2004 and rechristened it as INS Vikramaditya to enter service in 2013. And, the navy was planning to decommission INS Viraat by 2015–16 with the arrival of a new indigenous Vikrant-class aircraft carrier. However, a delay in the delivery of Vikrant-class warship prompted navy to extend the service life of INS Viraat until 2020. But the warship’s deteriorating strength and cost of maintenance forced the Government of India to announce the decommissioning of the vessel in 2015 and a glorious era of INS Viraat with the Indian Navy came to an end in 2017.
After the decommissioning of the vessel, the government of Andhra Pradesh, a southern Indian state, had submitted a proposal to convert her into an entertainment hub through a joint venture with the central government. However, the proposal was reportedly failed to proceed further and the fate of INS Viraat remains uncertain now. Media reports suggest there are currently two active proposals to preserve the iconic warship: an Indian firm seeks to turn the ship into a museum, while a British businessman wants to bring the ship to Portsmouth. If these proposals also face a similar fate, INS Viraat will be scrapped like many other warships in the past.
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