Mumbai: After nearly 60 years of sailing across the oceans, the Indian Navy’s warhorse aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, is now making her last operational deployment before she is decommissioned or retired later this year.
With more than 1, 200 officers and sailors onboard, the Viraat, which entered service on May 12, 1987, set sail on Monday from Mumbai to Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, where she will participate early next month in the Navy’s massive International Fleet Review (IFR). More than 100 ships from 50 navies from around the world will be at anchorage at Vizag where they will be reviewed at sea by President Pranab Mukherjee and the Prime Minister.
IFR 2016 is a key outreach programme of the Indian Navy meant to showcase India’s growing importance as a key maritime player in the Indian Ocean region. Prior to being commissioned into the Indian Navy, the aircraft carrier had served as the HMS Hermes with the Royal Navy and went on to serve with distinction in the 1982 Falklands Islands War against Argentina. The INS Viraat is headed to Vishakapatnam with her full complement of six Sea Harrier fighter jets, Chetak and Sea King anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
Over the last few years, the Sea Harriers have been incredibly difficult to operate because of the lack of availability of spare parts from the UK. Along with the Sea Harrier, the Navy is operating 6 Sea King anti-submarine warfare choppers onboard the Viraat. Less than 10 Sea King choppers, which were first acquired by India in 1969, are thought to remain operational with the Indian Navy. The Navy has selected the US built Sikorsky S-70B as its Sea King replacement, but the initial contract for 16 of the choppers is yet to be finalised. For now, the Sea Kings are expected to soldier on. In total, there are 6 Sea Harriers, 4 Chetak and 6 Sea King helicopters onboard – the largest complement of aircraft the Viraat has embarked in years.
INS Viraat is scheduled to arrive in Visakhapatnam by February 4 before she returns to Mumbai for the final time. Last year, the Defence Ministry had written to various coastal states asking them to pay just Rs. 1 if they were keen on acquiring the carrier to convert it into a floating museum. The cost would be at least Rs. 300 crores in addition to which there would be sizeable annual maintenance expenditure.
India’s first aircraft carrier, the iconic INS Vikrant, was taken to the ship breakers in November 2014 after being preserved as a museum in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai between 1997 and 2012. Ultimately, no private buyer was willing to acquire the Vikrant which was sold through an online auction for 60 crores to a Darukhana ship-breaker.