The Indian Navy’s once majestic and imposing aircraft carrier INS Viraat – now decommissioned – started on its swansong voyage to Alang port in Gujarat, the country’s biggest graveyard for condemned ships, officials said yesterday.
The British-built carrier served the Indian Navy for 2,258 days and covered 10,95,000km – equal to encircling the planet 27 times, and clocked 22,622 hours of flying operations by its aircraft in the country’s service.
Towed by two other vessels for her final voyage, Viraat will reach Alang port in three days, signalling the end of a glorious era of Indian maritime history, a naval official said.
The vessel was bought by Shri Ram Green Ship Recycling Industries Ltd of Gujarat, for Rs 385mn in an auction.
Formerly known as ‘HMS Hermes’, she had served the British Navy for a quarter century from November 1959 to April 1984 and rubbed shoulders with royalty for a brief period.
It was commissioned into the Indian Navy as its second aircraft carrier, ‘INS Viraat’ in May 1987 after extensive refurbishments and beefing up its fighting capabilities.
Having a call sign of ‘Romeo Two Two’, she served with merit, but the Indian Navy finally decommissioned her in March 2017 and since then, it was docked at the naval dockyard in Mumbai.
With a crew of 1,500 and 150 officers, she could carry a huge load of combat-ready aircraft and helicopters, and she took part in several operations during her long career at sea.
These included the UK-Argentina conflict over the Falklands Islands in 1982, later the Operation Parakram in October 2001-July 2002, Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka from July 18 to August 17, 1989, Operation Vijay in 1999 during the Kargil War, and several other creditable achievements.
With a full load displacement of 28,700 tonnes, the 226.50m-long and 48.78m-wide ‘Viraat’ was capable of operating Sea Harrier jump jets – a Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) fighter aircraft, and almost all types of naval helicopters.
The ship was like a mini floating township with attendant logistics and infrastructure like libraries, gyms, an ATM, a TV and video studio, a full fledged general hospital with two full-fledged operation theatres and a dental hospital, tailor and salons, a massive laundry to wash 800 pairs of uniforms daily, and a generator which produced nearly 9 MW of power.
“Its painful to see an important piece of Indian and Britain’s naval history sail on its final journey to a scrapyard, not on its own steam but towed by tugs. Any other country would have made all out efforts to retain such a glorious ship as a museum-ship. But we have consigned this seven decade-old warhorse to a scrap heap. A 76-year-old maritime history of two nations peddled for just Rs38.50 crore!” lamented defence expert Sarosh Bana.
Initially, at least three states – Maharashtra, Goa and Andhra Pradesh – had shown interest in converting it into a floating museum and in 2018 Maharashtra even set aside Rs8.52bn for docking it in Sindhudurg district.
In May 2019, the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) floated a proposal to convert ‘Viraat’ into an integrated tourism facility, but found no takers.
Bana said this becomes the second Indian aircraft carrier to be broken down as scrap after ‘INS Vikrant’ met the same fate in November 2014.
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