INS Viraat: Bidding adieu to the grand old lady of the Indian Navy

INS Viraat setting sail on her last voyage ( Image credits- Indian Navy) 
INS Viraat hold a pride of place in the history of the Indian Navy. Joining the Indian fleet in 1987 as India's second aircraft carrier after her decommissioning as HMS Hermes from the Royal Navy, she played a critical part in the Indian Navy for over three decades. She was the flag ship of the Indian Navy until the mantle was passed on to INS Vikramaditya. INS Viraat was unique in many ways. She is the oldest serving Aircraft carrier in the world. She also has an illustrious carrier spanning well over five decades in active duty spanning from the Falklands war to the Indian Navy. As the Indian Navy prepares to decommission her in the later part of this year, an era will come to an end. As she is taken off the services, she also becomes the last carrier in the Indian Navy to have STOVL configuration which enabled her to deploy Sea Harrier jump jet. After her decommissioning, Indian navy is transitioning into STOBAR configuration with INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant and finally to CATOBAR configuration with the upcoming INS Vishal. As INS Viraat set sail  on her last voyage for mandatory refitting at Cochin docks, she leaves behind a legacy that will hard to replicate. With that thought, it is time to pay tribute to the grand old lady of the Indian Navy:

INS Viraat (Sanskrit: Virāṭa meaning Giant) is a Centaur-class aircraft carrier in service with the Indian Navy. INS Viraat was the flagship of the Indian Navy before INS Vikramaditya was commissioned in 2013. It remains the last British-built ship serving with the Indian Navy and was the oldest aircraft carrier in service. As of July 2016, the ship set out for its last journey under her own propulsion on 23rd July for Essential Repairs and Dry Docking (ERDD) at the Cochin Shipyard before the vessel goes for decommissioning.

The ship was completed and commissioned in 1959 as the Royal Navy's HMS Hermes and was transferred to India in 1987. She was commissioned on 12 May 1987. In 2009, Navy officers reported that, following a refit that year, the carrier might be kept in service until 2020, as two Indigenous Aircraft Carriers (IACs) seemed likely to be fully operational by then.  However considering the age and cost of maintenance, the navy announced plans to decommission the ship in 2016 and began the process to obtain Defence Ministry clearance for the carrier's decommissioning.



INS Viraat casting off ( Image credits- Wikimedia Commons)
Design:

INS Viraat is fitted with a 14° ski jump to operate the Sea Harrier, a reinforced flight deck, and 1.2 inches (3 cm) of armour over the magazines and machinery spaces. The magazine capacity includes at least 80 lightweight torpedoes. The vessel retains commando transport capability for up to 750 troops and carries four LCVP landing craft in the aft section. In a wartime scenario, the ship can embark up to 26 combat aircraft and the ship is suited for supporting amphibious operations and conducting ASW operations.

Aircraft:

The aircraft on board INS Viraat were operated by four squadrons of the Naval air arm of the Indian Navy. All Sea Harrier operations from the deck of INS Viraat ceased on May 6, 2016 following the retirement of Harrier fleet.

With the Royal Navy- HMS Hermes:

HMS Hermes was a conventional British aircraft carrier and the last of the Centaur class.

Hermes was in service with the Royal Navy from 1959 until 1984, and she served as the flagship of the British forces during the 1982 Falklands War.

After being sold to India in 1986, the vessel was recommissioned and remains in service with the Indian Navy as INS Viraat.

The ship was laid down by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness during World War II as HMS Elephant. Construction was suspended in 1945 but work was resumed in 1952 to clear the slipway and the hull was launched on 16 February 1953. The vessel remained unfinished until 1957, when she entered service on 18 November 1959 as HMS Hermes after extensive modifications which included installation of a massive Type 984 'searchlight' 3D radar, a fully angled deck with a deck-edge elevator, and steam catapults. With these changes she more resembled the reconstructed aircraft carrier Victorious than the other three ships in the class.

Hermes initially operated Supermarine Scimitar, de Havilland Sea Vixen, and Fairey Gannet fixed-wing aircraft, together with Westland Whirlwind helicopters.

Proposed operation of F-4 Phantom:

Civil Lord of the Admiralty John Hay said in Parliament on 2 March 1964 that "Phantoms will be operated from "Hermes", "Eagle" and the new carrier when it is built. ... Our present information and advice is that the aircraft should be able to operate from "Hermes" after she has undergone her refit." This seemed optimistic, as most sources believed Victorious was the smallest carrier then in commission that the modified RN F-4K versions of the Phantom could realistically have operated from. While the Phantoms built for the RN were modified in ways similar to F-8 Crusaders for the French Navy - improving deceleration on landing - the modifications were not entirely successful. Hermes's flight deck was too short, her arresting gear as well as her catapults were not powerful enough to recover or launch the F-4K's, even though they were slightly lighter, more economical and higher performing than their US Navy counterparts[citation needed]. The Phantom trials held on Hermes in 1969-70 proved this out, though in the views of Minister of Defence, Denis Healey, the carrier could operate the most modern aircraft, but in too small numbers to be effective. The MOD briefly considered F-8's, and then considered the A-4M Skyhawk around 1969; the French had successfully operated the F-8 from its two Clemenceau-class light fleet carriers (which, at 869 feet (265 m) were much larger than Hermes), while the A-4 had been selected by the Royal Australian Navy to operate from HMAS Melbourne. However, both the Crusader and the Skyhawk were already considered near-obsolete by the end of the 1960s. Nevertheless, the light A-4M Skyhawks would have allowed the Hermes to carry a viable late 1970s airgroup of 20 Skyhawks, 6 Sea Kings and 4 Gannet AEW aircraft.

Proposed transfer to Australia:

A 1966 review indicated that Hermes was surplus to operational requirements and she was offered to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) as a replacement for HMAS Melbourne. In 1968, Hermes took part in a combined exercise with the RAN, during which the carrier was visited by senior RAN officers and Australian government officials, while RAN A-4G Skyhawks and Grumman S-2 Trackers practised landings on the larger carrier. The offer was turned down due to operating and manpower costs.

Proposed international fleet:

Hermes served as one of four Royal Navy strike carriers mainly in the Indian Ocean area until 1970. She could have seen action against the Egyptians when Egypt closed off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in May 1967 when the UK and US contemplated forming an international fleet to open the straits with force if necessary, but the idea never materialised.

The final CATOBAR air wing in 1968-1970 consisted of:

809 NAS. 7 Buccaneer S2 naval strike aircraft
892 NAS. 12 Sea Vixen FAW2 all-weather fighter
849 NAS. A flt. 4 Fairey Gannet AEW.3 airborne early warning
849 NAS. 1 Gannet COD4 for carrier onboard delivery
826 NAS. 5 Wessex HAS3 anti-submarine warfare
Ships Flight 1 Wessex HAS1 air-sea rescue

Commando/ASW/STOVL carrier:

When the decision was made in the mid-1960s to phase out fixed wing carrier operations Hermes was slated to become a "Commando Carrier" for Royal Marine operations (similar in concept to a US Navy LHA), and in 1972 underwent a refit in which her arresting cables, steam catapults, and 3-D radar were removed. Landing craft and berthing for 800 troops were added and her airwing became approximately 20 Sea King helicopters. By 1976, with the Soviet submarine threat becoming apparent and through NATO pressure, a further mild conversion was performed for Hermes to become an anti-submarine warfare carrier to patrol the North Atlantic. Hermes underwent one more conversion and new capabilities were added when she was refitted at Portsmouth from 1980 to June 1981, during which a 12-degree ski-jump and facilities for operating Sea Harriers were incorporated. After this refit the air wing comprised:

800 NAS 5 Sea Harrier FRS1 Fighter
826 NAS 12 Sea King HAS5 ASW

HMS Hermes underway ( Image credits- Wikimedia Commons /United States Navy)

Falklands War:

Hermes was due to be decommissioned in 1982 after a 1981 defence review (that would have made the Royal Navy considerably smaller) by the British government, but when the Falklands War broke out, she was made the flagship of the British forces, setting sail for the South Atlantic just three days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. She sailed for the Falklands with an airgroup of 12 Sea Harrier FRS1 attack aircraft of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, and 18 Sea King helicopters. A few weeks after sailing, more aircraft were flown or transported via other ships to replace some losses and augment the task force. Hermes's airgroup grew to 16 Sea Harriers, 10 Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3s of the Royal Air Force, and 10 Sea Kings (after some of the helicopters were dispersed to other ships) as well as a troop of Special Air Service (SAS) and Royal Marines. As she was the RN's largest carrier, she was considered too valuable to risk close into the Falklands, due to the possibility of Argentine air force attacks. Her Harriers therefore operated at the limit of their endurance radius, but were very successful in keeping the enemy aircraft at bay.

Air group at the height of the Falklands Conflict:

800 NAS - 16 Sea Harrier FRS.1
826 NAS - 5 Sea King HAS.5
846 NAS - 5 Sea King HC.4
No. 1 Squadron RAF - 10 Harrier GR.3

After the Falklands War:

After her return home from the Falklands conflict Hermes entered into a much needed 4-month refit to her propulsion and electrical systems, as well as a thorough cleaning and repainting. When this was completed in November 1982, she embarked stores and performed work-ups exercises. She then took part in NATO exercises in the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea as a commando carrier. In the autumn of 1983 she took part in her last exercise, Ocean Safari, where she reverted to a strike carrier role, embarking 12 Sea Harriers, 10 RAF Harrier GR.3s and 10 Sea Kings. After this exercise she returned to the UK for a minor refit and into maintained reserve in February 1984.

In 1983, when the proposed sale of the aircraft carrier Invincible to the Royal Australian Navy was cancelled following the Falklands War, an offer was made to sell Hermes and a squadron of Sea Harriers to Australia. However the new Hawke Government decided against purchasing a replacement for HMAS Melbourne.

Hermes served with the Royal Navy until 12 April 1984. She was paid off in 1985.

Air Complement:

Her typical aircraft complement in the late 1960s consisted of 12 Sea Vixen FAW2s, 7 Buccaneer S2s, 4 Gannet AEW3s, 1 Gannet COD4, 5 Wessex HAS3s and 1 Wessex HAS1. She was recommissioned as a commando carrier in 1973, as an ASW carrier in 1976 (carrying around 20 or so Sea King and Wessex helicopters), and then as a V/STOL carrier in 1981. Hermes initial complement of aircraft as a V/STOL carrier was 5 Harriers and 12 Sea King helicopters, though she had the capacity for up to a total of 37 aircraft.

Joining the Indian Navy- INS Viraat:

INS Viraat during the Malabar Exercises ( Image credits- Wikimedia Commons / United States Navy)

India bought HMS Hermes and commissioned her as INS Viraat in 1987. She has since hen been serving as the Flag Ship of the Indian Navy.


After evaluating vessels from several countries including the planned Italian Garibaldi class carriers, the Indian Navy purchased the vessel in April 1986 and gave her an extensive refit at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth, England, to allow for continued operability into the next decade. New fire control equipment, navigation radars, improved NBC protection, and deck landing aids were installed in this refit. Boilers were converted to operate on distillate fuel.

In September 1993, the engine room of the ship was flooded, putting the vessel out of service for several months. The vessel was back in service in 1995 and was fitted with a new search radar. Between July 1999 and April 2001, the ship completed another life-extension refit expected to extend her serviceability until 2010. This refit upgraded propulsion systems, added a package of sensors to sound emergency alerts and introduced modern communication systems. In addition, a long-range surveillance radar, weapon systems, and a new hangar with fire curtains were installed. The lift system was revamped to reduce reaction time in the event of an attack and a new flood alarm system was installed. The vessel also took part in the International Fleet Review in Mumbai in February 2001. The vessel was towed back to dry dock for another refit in mid-2003 and returned to service in November 2004, during which the vessel was fitted with the Barak SAM.

The ship underwent a fourth refit in Indian service from January to August 2009 at Cochin Shipyard, Kochi. The refit was expected to ensure her continued service in the Indian Navy until 2015 and the ship went through exercises in the Arabian Sea for a month and a half before being deployed to the Gulf of Aden. On 12 July 2011, the ship arrived at Cochin shipyard for a short refit scheduled to be completed in two months and it was repainted. Indian Navy indicated that the ship could remain in service until 2020, provided that there are still Sea Harriers available for ship-borne operations.

On 2 November 2012, the ship arrived in Kochi for the first part of a major two-phase refit. In the first phase, the hull was cleaned, probed for corrosion, worn hull plates were reinforced and received a fresh coat of corrosion-resistant paint. The carrier sailed to Mumbai for further upgrades to her machinery before rejoining the fleet in the summer of 2013. The refit would enable her to serve through 2016 and was the final major refit before her decommissioning. In August–September 2015, the ship underwent a short refit to reinforce her hull and inspection before her participation in the International Fleet Review in February 2016.

Decommissioning:

In 2004, India bought the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov from Russia for US$ 2.35 billion including its complement of aircraft.[20] It entered service in 2013 as INS Vikramaditya. INS Viraat was expected to be replaced by 2015–16 by a new indigenous Vikrant-class aircraft carrier. After upgrades, her service life was extended until 2020. The age of the ship and cost of maintenance prompted the navy to consider decommissioning by 2017 and in December 2014, a review board was established to determine the ship's continued service life.

INS Viraat ( Image credits- Indian Navy)
In February 2015, the navy announced plans to decommission the ship in 2016 and began the process to obtain Defence Ministry clearance for the carrier's decommissioning. In July 2015, it was announced that the ship would be transferred to the Government of Andhra Pradesh for conversion into a museum ship at a cost of ₹20 crore (US$3 million) with Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh confirming the same on 8 February 2016. But the plans fell through and by April 2016, the carrier's ultimate fate remained uncertain.

Finally, On 23 July 2016, the ship set out for its last journey from Home Base Mumbai to Kochi. It is expected to reach the Southern Naval Command base on 27th July for the pre-decommissioning preparations. This will entail a spell in a dry dock for dismantling and retrieving valuable and sensitive equipment including the engines, radars, big and small guns and other weaponry. She will be decommissioned in the later part of 2016. We Indians should always be proud of her and it is prudent for her to be preserved as a museum so that the coming generations can know and understand her and be proud of the rich maritime history and power of the Indian Navy.



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