THE VIRAAT SAGA: REQUIEM FOR AN EAGLE

With the Viraat’s sad and silent movement from her berth within the Naval Dockyard (Mumbai) to the shipbreaking yard at Alang, an era has drawn to an end… the inevitable endpoint of an apathetic populace and an uncaring succession of governments, both at the Centre and the state-level.  A dreadful sadness chills one’s spirit at the poignant sight of this mighty warrior being led to the scrapyard, and brings to mind the opening and closing verses penned in 1817 by the English poet, Charles Wolfe, in his poem, “The Funeral of Sir John Moore”:

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

But left him alone with his glory

 

The following portion first appeared in the April 2017 edition of the Indian defence magazine, “Geopolitics”, and is reproduced with kind permission of the editor.

Ever since her commissioning in Portsmouth, UK, on 12 May 1987, by the President of the Republic of India, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat remained the foremost embodiment of India’s maritime prowess as an independent and sovereign nation.  This magnificent warship, with 28 years in the British Royal Navy and 30 years in the Indian Navy under her belt, had disdainfully defied the ravages of time for so long and with such élan and panache as to appear ageless.  Consequently, there was a distinctly surreal touch to the events that unfolded upon her flight deck on the evening of Monday, the 6th of March 2017.  As the Mumbai sun doused its fiery embers in the Arabian Sea, the Chief of the Naval Staff, the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, the Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet, the Colonel-Commandant of the Garhwal Rifles, the Commodore Commanding the Sea Cadet Corps (to both of which the ship was affiliated), and 21 of the 22 officers who had been privileged to command the Viraat, all stood in solemn salute… two naval buglers rendered the melancholy notes of the Last Post… the ship’s Paying-off Pendant (750 feet long, equal to length of the ship), was slowly and ceremonially lowered and reeled-in…. the Indian Navy’s flag (the White Ensign) was lowered and encased for posterity…. and Captain Puneet Chadha, the 22nd and last Commanding Officer of this majestic ship formally reported to the Chief of the Naval Staff that the Viraat had been decommissioned.  Thus, poignantly ended a 30-year chapter in the glorious annals of India’s development as a predominant maritime power.

Even though precious few warships of the world have had as long and illustrious a history, the Viraat has finally succumbed to inevitability and must now await her rebirth in a newer avatar.  Yet, this is a process with which her soul and spirit are well familiar.  When she was commissioned in October 1959 in the British Royal Navy as HMS Hermes, she was in her tenth avatar, for commencing from 1796, there had been nine earlier Royal Navy warships that bore this name.  Amongst the first seven were a variety of sloops and light frigates, variously propelled by sail, and later, by steam-driven paddle-wheels and propellers.  In her recurring rebirths, the Hermes saw action against the Dutch, the French, the Americans, the Burmese, and the Chinese.  Her association with seaborne naval aviation began in her eighth reincarnation when, despite being launched at the turn of the 20th Century as a 5,600 tonne Cruiser, she was retrofitted with seaplane-launching rails on platforms projecting over the forecastle and quarterdeck.  Her aircraft would land upon the sea and would thereafter be recovered by the ship’s crane.  As such, she was the Royal Navy’s first ‘aircraft carrier’.  Although she met her end during the First World War while in action off Calais, in October 1914, she had forged an enduring mental, emotional and physical link with naval aviation that would not be severed for the next 100 years and more, albeit under two different White Ensigns.  Indeed, the ninth “Hermes” entered the Royal Navy in 1924 as the first vessel in the world, specifically designed as an aircraft carrier.  598 feet long and with a 90-foot wide flight deck, her twin steam-turbines drove her at an impressive 25 knots.  She was armour-protected and armed with six 5.5-inch guns, three 4-inch Anti-Aircraft guns and 18 machine guns, and as many as 21 aircraft.  She performed splendidly in the Second World War, with her 21 Fairey Flycatcher aircraft having been replaced by a dozen of the larger Swordfish aircraft.  She patrolled the approaches to the UK, and then effectively countered the threat of the German raider, the Graf Spee, before successfully sinking the Vichy-French battleship Richelieu off West Africa, and thereafter undertaking convoy-escort duties in the Indian Ocean, against the Japanese. On 08 March 1942, after emergency repairs at Simonstown (South Africa), she sailed with a naked flight-deck, bound for Colombo to embark her air squadrons.  Unfortunately, she was spotted by the Japanese and attacked by a force of 50 aircraft.  Without her own aircraft to defend her, she was hit by some 40 bombs in ten minutes and sank off Batticaloa, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with the loss of 19 officers and 268 sailors.  The tenth Hermes, (which later became the Viraat), was the fourth in a series of eight modern British aircraft carriers of the Centaur Class built for combat in the Second World War.  Although the war ended before she had been completed, and although she was originally to have been named Elephant, the British Admiralty decided to rename her Hermes as the latter name had very close connections with the very birth of the Fleet Air Arm.  She was launched at Barrow on 16 February 1953 by Lady Clementine, the wife of Sir Winston Churchill and over the next six years, was transformed into a brand new design, emerging as a 28,000-tonne, ultra- modern angled-deck strike carrier, with 28 aircraft and a 2,100-man crew.  In the 30 years of her life in the Royal Navy, the ship had five almost entirely separate existences.  She began as a Strike Carrier operating Scimitar fighters (later replaced by Buccaneers Mk 2), Sea Vixens, AEW Gannets, and Westland Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters, then switched to her second ‘existence’ as a Commando Carrier (with a secondary role as an ASW helicopter carrier with Sea King helicopters), then into her third ‘avatar’ as an ASW Carrier operating Sea King and Wessex 5 helicopters, and, finally, changed into a Sea Harrier Strike Carrier (complete with a 12-degree ‘ski-jump’) with a secondary role as an LPH with Sea King helicopters providing multi-role capability.  In this last role, she saw action in the Falklands under the command of Captain (later Rear Admiral) Middleton, in which campaign she distinguished herself as the Flagship of Rear Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward, who headed the Royal Naval forces in that campaign.  After her triumphant return to Portsmouth on 21 May 1982, she saw another two years of active service with the Royal Navy, and then, on 06 April 1984, she was placed in operational reserve at Portsmouth.

She was purchased by the Government of India on 19 April 1986 for a sum of 15 million Pounds Sterling.  Some in India felt that the country was wasting scarce and precious fiscal resources in purchasing such an old ship.  However, such voices came (and still do) from those with little or no awareness of matters naval, for the longevity of warships is actually quite astonishing.  The dream of immortality and eternal youth is, of course, a primordial dream that has driven humankind since time immemorial.  Across the range of myth and literature that reflects this quest — from Ayurveda’s Rasaayan and Amrit-Ras, across China’s myth of the White Hare upon the moon and treatises such as the Danjing Yaojue, to Arabia’s al-Kisir (which, incidentally, is the origin of the word ‘elixir’) and the several accounts of alchemy that abound in western literature — perhaps the closest that one gets to realisation of this dream is the age-reversal achieved by warships.  If they are given competent, comprehensive and timely maintenance-periods (known as ‘refits’) at the correct periodicity, warships are capable of renewing themselves very significantly.  Over successive comprehensive refits, they grow younger, rather than older, acquiring new or refurbished capabilities, ranging from the renewal of large sections of the outer-hull and deck plating, to the retrofitting of propulsion-and electrical power-generation packages and weapon-sensor suites — and, in the case of aircraft-carriers, the aircraft themselves.

Thus, India’s newly purchased aircraft carrier was put through an incredibly speedy, yet comprehensive refit for a year, under the watchful eye of her first Indian Commanding Officer, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Vinod Pasricha.  On 12 May 1987 the INS Viraat — and emerged, to all intents and purposes, a brand-new ship — powerful, youthful and exuberant, yet deeply aware of the tradition that she embodied.  It is a matter of great pride that while the thoroughness of the Viraat’s initial refit in England was commendable in every regard, this has repeatedly been exceeded by several orders of magnitude by the successive major refits undertaken by the ship in India — both, in the Cochin Shipyard and in naval dockyards.  Indians of every hue, whether male or female and whether in naval uniform or in civilian attire, have, through their sheer dedication and unswerving commitment, their logistic, material and managerial competence, and their hands-on technical skill, collectively pulled off one miracle after another as they provided the Viraat with the material wherewithal to remain the keystone of the Indian Navy’s combat prowess.  Four refits in particular, stand out in their contribution to the rejuvenation of the ship — those undertaken in 1999, 2004, 2008, and 2012.  In each of these, the ‘Black Gang’, a term of endearment and admiration given to the ship’s engineers, produced wonders even as they worked for prolonged durations in unimaginably harsh conditions, supplementing and guiding the dockyard staff.  No praise is too lavish to be heaped upon them.  They were and remain magicians, spending inordinate amounts of time in the deep recesses and bowels of the ship, keeping the furnaces burning, ensuring purity and sufficiency of the feed water that is used to generate superheated steam to keep the ship’s mighty turbines turning and driving the ship’s twin propellers.  Not for them the relative luxuries of those working ‘topsides’.  A mixture of lub-oil, FFO and sea water courses through their very veins, for members of the Black Gang are truly tamers of the beasts that drive the Viraat… they are the very best that the Navy has and they deserve every salute that we can throw their way.  All this might well seem a little too poetic, and yet, it is this very amalgam of human and material capacity and capability that has been the secret of the Viraat’s robustness, resilience and her incredible durability.

All naval officers and sailors know full well that warships are living things, with strong personalities of their own.  True to her name, the Viraat has long been a supernova in the galaxy of stars in the Indian Naval firmament.  She has been commanded by a succession of the finest Indian Naval officers of their respective time and has remained the manifestation of the sovereign power of our Republic.  I myself, have had the great privilege and honour — simultaneously heady and yet deeply humbling — of commanding this most regal of warships.  Like those before and after me, I have realised that she cannot be commanded without being partnered.  This partnership has to be that of equals — man and ship, flesh and steel.  It is not merely oil, water, steam and fuel that run through the myriad pipelines that constitute the ship’s arteries and veins.  Through them flows human sweat and blood in equal measure.  The Viraat is as close to a ‘bionic being’ as one can get outside the annals of science fiction….  man and ship merged into a single consciousness — the consciousness of the ultimate warrior.

The Guardian Angels: Sea Harriers over the Viraat

The Guardian Angels: Sea Harriers over the Viraat

The main weapons of an aircraft carrier are her aircraft — and the men who fly them, organise, direct and control them, and, maintain them.  Expensive, powerful and deadly, they are piloted by other ‘bionic-heroes’ — naval aviators, who are completely at one with their flying machines.  As has been mentioned earlier, the Viraat had, while in the Royal navy as the Hermes, assumed different avatars at different periods in time, with her aircraft being matched to each role.  Thus, pride of place has been accorded not just to fighters such as Scimitars, Buccaneers, Sea Vixens, Gannets, and Sea Harriers, but also to Whirlwind, Wessex, Sea King helicopters.  In the Indian Navy, however, the Viraat was retained in the singular avatar of a STOVL[1] Fleet Carrier. (The Indian Navy’s obsession with this role finally led to the ship’s premature retirement from active service, but more on this anon).  The strike element of the Viraat comprised INAS[2] 300 — with its sobriquet being the White Tigers — consisting of ‘Sea Harrier FRS-51’ fighter-jets capable of being vertically launched and recovered — an amazing sight to behold.  Rotary-wing scouting and strike capability was provided by INAS 330 — its moniker being the Harpoons — composed of extremely capable Sea King helicopters whose versatility and weapon-delivery would easily match that of an airborne frigate!  There is no way of conducting flying operations at sea without an assured capacity and capability for airborne Search-and-Rescue.  Consequently, the third squadron integral to the Viraat, was a flight from INAS 321 — its epithet very appropriately being ‘Angels’ — comprising Chetak helicopters.

A rule-of-thumb to roughly estimate the number of aircraft capable of being operated by a given, purpose-built aircraft carrier is to estimate one aircraft for every 1,000 tonnes of the carrier’s displacement.  Viraat displaces 28,000 tonnes and could operate some 28-30 aircraft.  ‘Strike Carriers’ such as those of the US Navy, which are purpose-designed for strikes upon targets upon the shore, whether located along the coast or deep in the adversary’s hinterland, displace about 100,000 tonnes and carry 90-100 aircraft.  Incidentally, since the Vikramaditya was not purpose-built as an aircraft carrier but rather as an aircraft-capable heavy missile cruiser that was modified to become an aircraft carrier, her aircraft-complement is lesser than this rule-of-thumb would indicate.

As a Fleet Carrier, the Viraat was designed to be the hub of a Carrier Battle Group (CBG) — a synergistic and mutually-supporting conglomerate of warships — that forms the centrepiece of the Indian Navy’s main battle array.  The adjective ‘synergistic’ is particularly apt because the combat-capability of the group as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts.  Thus, while analysing the strengths and vulnerabilities of a CBG, it is very important to bear in mind that it is the ‘group’ and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference.  In combat terms, the CBG is like a mathematical integer that cannot be fractionalised. It remains an indivisible whole, effortlessly merging space, time, man and machine into a single continuum.  This was in striking evidence during Operation PARAKRAM, from October 2001 and July 2002, when the Viraat CBG, by its very being and its aggressive deployment, forced the Pakistan Navy to remain bottled up in Karachi and severely constrained the politico-military leadership of Pakistan from continuing with its reckless actions against the Republic of India.

Thanks to the excellent and periodic refits that the ship had received, with extensive renewal of her hull plating, underwater valves and her main as well as auxiliary propulsion machinery and with substantive modernisation of her weapon-sensor and aircraft-direction equipment and systems, Viraat remained a legendary ship.  For all that, however, men are not gods and the creations of men are not the same as those of the god’s.  True immortality is a chimera and to chase it beyond a point smacks of hubris.  The moot question is whether that point had, indeed, been reached in 2017.  It is true that the residual condition of the ship had been carefully and periodically assessed by duly constituted Boards of Officers (BOO), against the navy’s unyielding float-move-fight-survive matrix and the decision to decommission the ship was taken in accordance with the recommendations of the BOO.  The Board found that in the absence of the Sea Harriers (which had been paid off) and given the residual material condition of the ship, especially her internal watertight structural condition, her cabling, and her underwater fittings, she was no longer capable of safe or meaningful Fleet operations. This notwithstanding, it is opined that the ship could have been removed from Fleet operations, her role switched to that of an LHA (Landing-Ship: Helicopter: Assault), and deployed solely to support large-deck stand-off amphibious-operations by Dhruv (ALH) helicopters.  The Navy’s principal grouse against the Dhruv, namely, the lack of automatic blade-folding that precluded the helicopter’s deployment aboard small-deck ships (destroyers and frigates) for SAR and ASW and missions, would now be irrelevant since only pre-planned, deliberate helicopter-launches would be required for vertical-envelopment missions from an LHA.   If the Viraat were to resume her old and familiar role (between 1970 and 1976 when she was the Hermes, as also as the Viraat in August 1989 during Operation JUPITER) of an LHA, she could have embarked 16-18 Dhruv helicopters.  Apart from anything else, this alone would catapulted the Navy into being a ‘large-order customer’ (hence, a prized one) of HAL and would have entirely changed the attitude of the latter towards the Navy, with attendant long-term benefits for both entities. The Indian Navy’s four large Landing Platforms Dock (LPDs) will take at least seven to eight years to materialise and in this period, the Viraat would have provided an excellent platform upon which to refine, hone and practice large-deck amphibious operations and, to energise the IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) through the conduct of regular, regionally-inclusive HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) missions.  And yet, we are confronted by reality as it actually is, and these reflections fall into the wry 19th Century idiom: If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, there’d be no need for dishes.

A final few words on the two external affiliations of the ship:  Entirely in keeping with her multi-dimensional reach and influence, the Viraat was affiliated to two very fine organisations whose nobility-of-purpose and excellence-of-deed made them eminently fit to keep one another’s company.  The first is the ‘Garhwal Rifles and Scouts’ — one of the finest regiments of the Indian Army, which forged its bond with Viraat through the combat embarkation and deployment of its 7th Battalion (7 Garhwal) in Operation JUPITER, in 1989, involving the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in Sri Lanka.  The second entity with which the Viraat was affiliated is that veritable crucible of India’s leadership that continues to be relentlessly forged within a maritime paradigm — the ‘Sea Cadet Corps’, with its wonderfully stirring motto “Ready, Aye, Ready” and its own legendary commander, Commodore (SCC) Rabi Ahuja, for whose incredible work no praise is lavish enough.  Both were afforded a place of honour in the ship’s Wardroom as also in the Sailors’ Lounges.

The Commanding Officers of the Viraat at her decommissioning, 06 May 2017. Ninth from Left is Vadm Pradeep Chauhan, the author. 

And thus, on the 6th of March 2017, as the magnificent Viraat, cast off the lines that tied her to the present and sailed boldly into legend, the Navy and the nation rose in salute, bidding her Happy Hunting in the great waterways of that parallel universe in which great ships and great warriors await their call.  There she must bide her time until her next reincarnation when she will once again see the White Ensign aflutter and be once more, India’s pride and joy.  As India proceeds apace with her next aircraft carrier after the new Vikrant, it would be entirely fitting for this IAC (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier) to cast off the utterly unromantic appellation of IAC-2 and to bear, instead, the name Viraat and, in so doing, to don the mantle, the battle-honours, the affiliations with the Garhwal Rifles and Scouts and the Sea Cadet Corps, and, most important of all, the indefatigable spirit of this incredibly magnificent ship.

In the three years that have elapsed since the above paragraphs were first penned, there was much hope that either the Central government or the government of one India’s nine coastal states would recognise the value of retaining the Viraat as a museum ship — one upon which a grateful nation could express its self-confidence as a burgeoning maritime power…  with the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff and the creation of a Department of Military Affairs, it was hoped that the land-centricity of this once-great maritime power might be reversed, but alas! the adjective ‘grateful’ does not appear to be well matched to the noun it seeks to qualify and rhetoric comes up short against fiscal expediency.  The chance to build a glorious tradition is once again lost at the altar of sheer apathy…

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About the Author

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd), is privileged to be a former Commanding Officer of the Viraat. Presently, he is the Director-General of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF).  He is a prolific writer and a globally renowned strategic analyst who specialises in a wide-range of maritime affairs and related issues. He may be contacted at directorgeneral.nmfindia@gmail.com

 

Endnotes

[1] STOVL = Short Take-off, Vertical Landing

[2] INAS = Indian Naval Air Squadron

 

 

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