In 2014, a clearance from the Supreme Court of India broke many hearts, it was the clearance to scrape a legend. A legend that was meant to break Nazi in World War II but broke Pakistan in 1971. INS Vikrant (courageous) was the first aircraft carrier of India. The ship was laid down as HMS Hercules for the British Royal Navy during World War II, but construction was put on hold when the war ended. India purchased the incomplete carrier in 1957, and construction was completed in 1961. She was commissioned in the Indian Navy on 4 March 1961 and her homeport was in Bombay.

                                                   She was a Majestic class light carrier with a full load displacement was 19,500 tons, an overall length of 210 m, a beam of 39 m, and a draught of 7.3 m. The powerhouse consisted of four Admiralty three-drum boilers with two Parsons geared steam turbines which could propel it to a maximum speed of 46 km/h, she had a maximum range of 22,000 km at a speed of 26 km/h with a capacity of store 3,125 long tones fuel. Back in the World War II-era anti-aircraft guns were very crucial and in this case, there were sixteen 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. The air wing consisted of eighteen single-seat Hawker Sea Hawk day fighter jets armed with four 20mm guns along with a payload of either sixty rockets or four 500 lbs bombs; five anti-submarine warfare Breguet Br. 1050 Alize aircrafts armed with torpedoes, depth charges, or bombs; Westland Sea King and HAL Chetak helicopters. There were steam catapults for take-off and arrester wire for the landing of aircraft. She was equipped with LW-05 air-search radar, ZW-06 surface-search radar, LW-10 tactical radar, and Type 963 aircraft-landing radar.

                                                                      Within ten months of her, commissioning INS Vikrant was deployed on her first operation. In December 1961, the ship was deployed for Operation Vijay (the code name for the annexation of Goa) off the coast of Goa with two destroyers, INS Rajput and INS Kripan. Vikrant did not see action and patrolled along the coast to deter foreign interference. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, she was in dry dock for refitting and did not see any action. But in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, things became a little interesting. Whether it was enforcing a naval blockade on Pakistan in the Bay of Bengal or heavy bombing on East Pakistan now Bangladesh, the role of INS Vikrant was very significant. At that time its carrier battle group consisted of two Brahmaputra class frigates, two Arnala class anti-submarine warfare corvettes, two Ghariyal class landing ship tanks, INS Khanderi (submarine), and SCI Deshdeep which was a civil tanker for oil replenishment role.

                                                                      But before the war, things were not going smooth for Vikrant. In June 1970, She was docked at the Naval Dockyard, Bombay, due to many internal fatigue cracks and fissures in the water drums of her boilers that could not be repaired by welding. As replacement drums were not available locally, four new ones were ordered from Britain, and Naval Headquarters issued orders not to use the boilers until further notice. On 26 February 1971, the ship was moved from Ballard Pier Extension to the anchorage, without replacement drums. The main objective behind this move was to light up the boilers at reduced pressure and work up the main and flight deck machinery that had been idle for almost seven months. On 1 March, the boilers were ignited, and basin trials up to 40 revolutions per minute (RPM) were conducted. Catapult trials were conducted on the same day. The ship began preliminary sea trials on 18 March and returned two days later. Trials were again conducted on 26–27 April. The navy decided to limit the boilers’ pressure and propeller revolutions, reducing the ship’s speed to 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph). With the growing expectations of a war with Pakistan in the near future, the navy started to transfer its ships to strategically advantageous locations in Indian waters. The primary concern of Naval Headquarters about the operation was the serviceability. When asked his opinion regarding the involvement of Vikrant in the war, the Fleet Operations Officer told the Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda:

…during the 1965 war Vikrant was sitting in Bombay Harbour and did not go out to sea. If the same thing happened in 1971, Vikrant would be called a white elephant and naval aviation would be written off. Vikrant had to be seen being operational even if we didn’t fly any aircraft.

— Captain Gulab Mohanlal Hiranandani,

                                                                            INS Vikrant did not see much service after the war and was given two major modernization refits—the first one from 1979 to 1981 and the second one from 1987 to 1989. In the first phase, her boilers, radars, communication systems, and anti-aircraft guns were modernized. In the second phase, the steam catapult was removed and a 9.75-degree ski-jump ramp was fitted to operate the new Sea Harrier Vertical/Short Take-Off and Land (V/STOL) fighter aircraft and the new Sea King Mk 42B Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters were introduced. “White Tigers” the longest-serving combat unit of Indian Navy that once flew Sea Hawks from the deck of INS Vikrant, are flying Mig 29K from INS Vikramaditya in today’s date. Following decommissioning in 1997, the ship was earmarked for preservation as a museum ship in Mumbai. Lack of funding prevented progress on the ship’s conversion to a museum and it was speculated that the ship would be made into a training ship. In 2001, the ship was opened to the public by the Indian Navy, but then the government of Maharastra was unable to find a partner to operate the museum on a permanent, long-term basis and the museum was closed after it was deemed unsafe for the public in 2012. As mentioned earlier the ship was scrapped in 2014, after it was sold in an auction for Rs 60 crores.

                                                                  But the legend is about to make a comeback in a new avatar. The previous Vikrant was the first aircraft carrier of India and the upcoming Vikrant is first indigenously made aircraft carrier of India. This time it is technologically more advanced, larger, heavier and better. The new INS Vikrant or IAC-1 (indigenous aircraft carrier 1) has a displacement of 40,000 tons, deck area of 10,000 meter square or 2.5 acres, AESA radar, Barak-1 and Barak-8 for air-defense and a host of other equipment. She is a STOBAR (Short Take-off Barrier Arrested Recovery) type carrier just like the INS Vikramaditya with a ski-jump for take-off and arrester wires for landing, it can carry upto 26 fighter jets and 10 helicopters although the air arm is not final yet. According to the latest reports she has entered basin trials and will enter sea trials by December 2020. Finally Indian Navy will have two aircraft carrier and as the number of Chinese aircraft carrier are increasing rapidly, role of Vikrant has become more significant.   

Harsh Kumar
Harsh Kumar

Writes on military hardware and applications.

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