Historic Indian Carrier Set To Be Scrapped After 58 Years Of Service With Two Navies

The long history of INS Viraat, formerly HMS Hermes, included combat service in the Falklands War.

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The Indian Navy aircraft carrier INS Viraat, a warship with a unique history spanning 58 years, has made its final journey. The 24,300-ton displacement vessel recently arrived at Alang in India’s western state of Gujarat — the world’s biggest “ship graveyard” — where it will now be broken up.

Shipping firm the Shree Ram Group bought Viraat via MSTC Limited, an Indian state-owned corporation, in July 2020 for approximately $5 million. Shree Ram began the process of moving the ship to Alang earlier this month. The Indian Navy had formally decommissioned the carrier back in March 2017.

The scrapping of the carrier will bring a complete end to the ship, which began life on the other side of the world, while World War II was still raging. Originally named HMS Elephant, the warship was laid down at Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England. The vessel was one of the four examples of the conventionally powered Centaur class of carriers to ultimately be completed.

With the end of World War II in 1945, work on the carrier was suspended. Construction resumed in 1952, by which time the ship had been renamed HMS Hermes. Since very little work had been undertaken on the hull, the Royal Navy was able to reconfigure the carrier to reflect the advances that had been made in related technology by the early 1950s. These included a flight deck angled at 6.5 degrees, steam catapults, a deck-edge aircraft lift, and a Type 984 3D radar system.

Launched in February 1953, Hermes was commissioned into Royal Navy service in November 1959. In the mid-1960s, the carrier’s air defenses were enhanced with the addition of two quadruple launchers for radio-command-guided Seacat missiles, which replaced the original anti-aircraft armament of five twin 40-millimeter-calibre Bofors guns. 

For a while, in 1966, it looked like the end of the line for Hermes when the carrier was judged surplus to operational requirements. However, a plan to sell the warship to the Royal Australian Navy fell through. 

Still with the Royal Navy, by 1971, Hermes was considered too small to operate as a strike carrier, with its fixed-wing air group being limited to the Blackburn Buccaneer, de Havilland Sea Vixen, and Fairey Gannet, and not the more modern McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. At the same time, the Royal Navy was slashing its carrier force and would eventually only operate a single full-size flattop, HMS Ark Royal. As a result, the role of Hermes was switched to a commando assault carrier — equivalent to a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship.

By 1972, the ship’s original Type 984 “dustbin” radar had been replaced by a Type 965 “bedstead” system and a new deck-lighting system added that was optimized for rotary-wing operations. The catapult and arrester wires were removed. 

In its new guise, Hermes was able to accommodate a complete Royal Marine Commando unit, including a squadron of Westland Wessex assault helicopters, later superseded by Westland Sea Kings. In July 1974, Sea Kings from Hermes took part in the evacuation from Cyprus after the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island.

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HMS Hermes steams at full power in the early 1960s, with Supermarine Scimitar and de Havilland Sea Vixen jet fighters arranged on deck.

Another new role beckoned in the mid-1970s when British maritime priorities switched to anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The refit of Hermes into an ASW carrier was completed in 1977, with a new-look air group typically comprising nine ASW Sea Kings and four Wessex HU5 utility helicopters. The warship retained a limited commando role, too.

The carrier then experienced another change in fortunes, as the emergence of the British Aerospace Sea Harrier short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) strike fighter meant that Hermes was considered suitable for a return to fixed-wing operations. Another major conversion began in 1980 with the installation of a “ski jump” take-off ramp over the bow, angled upwards at 12 degrees. The flight deck was also hardened to cope with the rigors of Sea Harrier operations. A typical air group now comprised five Sea Harrier FRS1s and nine Sea Kings.

At the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982, the Royal Navy’s new Invincible-class STOVL carriers were still in the process of introduction, but Hermes was set to be decommissioned the same year. Instead, Hermes’ superior communications fit, as well as its greater aircraft-carrying capacity, led to it being assigned as the flagship for the campaign in the South Atlantic. Hermes, therefore, headed up the task force assembled to retake the Falklands from Argentina and initially embarked 12 Sea Harriers, nine Sea King HAS5s, and nine Sea King HC4s. As the fighting continued, this was adapted to include 15 Sea Harriers, six Royal Air Force Harrier GR3s, five ASW Sea Kings, plus a pair of Westland Lynx equipped to decoy Exocet anti-ship missiles.

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RAF Harrier GR3s parked alongside Royal Navy Sea Harriers and a Sea King helicopter on the flight deck of HMS Hermes on May 19, 1982, during the Falklands campaign in the South Atlantic.

On May 1, 1982, Sea Harriers flying from the deck of Hermes took part in the attacks on Port Stanley, in the Falklands, where Argentine forces had captured the airfield, and Harriers from the carrier also struck the grass airstrip at Goose Green. Meanwhile, the carrier’s Sea Kings played an equally important wartime role, including ferrying Special Air Service (SAS) troops to and from the islands under cover of darkness, with the helicopter crews using experimental night-vision goggles.

The Falklands campaign was an undoubted success for Hermes, but after its return to the United Kingdom, it was decided that the carrier would in the future be used as a training ship, remaining in harbor. In addition to becoming increasingly difficult to maintain due to its age, Hermes required greater manpower than the newer Invincibles and had not been converted to use more efficient modern fuel types. After the training ship proposal was abandoned, the carrier continued to serve with Sea Harriers and Sea Kings on board until decommissioned in April 1984.

At this point, India came forward as a customer for Hermes, the Indian Navy having declared its first Sea Harrier squadron operational in 1984. That service needed a replacement for the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which the country had purchased from the United Kingdom in 1957 and that initially lacked a “ski jump” ramp. Two years later India acquired Hermes, which was renamed INS Viraat, meaning Giant, and which was commissioned into service in May 1987.

Embarking Sea Harriers, Sea Kings, plus Chetak plane-guard helicopters, Viraat served as the Indian Navy flagship prior to the introduction of INS Vikramaditya, which had previously served in the Russian Navy as Admiral Gorshkov, in 2013. 

U.S. NAVY PHOTO/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DUSTIN Q. DIAZ

Crew aboard INS Viraat give the all-clear signal to visiting sailors aboard a U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawk from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in 2007. In the background is an Indian Navy Chetak helicopter.

U.S. NAVY PHOTO/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DUSTIN Q. DIAZ

Sailors refuel a Sea Harrier aboard INS Viraat after the jet returned from a mission during the Malabar 2007 multilateral exercise. 

U.S. NAVY PHOTO/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DUSTIN Q. DIAZ

A Sea Harrier takes off from the “ski jump” take-off ramp of INS Viraat.

U.S. NAVY PHOTO/MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DUSTIN Q. DIAZ

An Indian Navy Sea Harrier takes off from the flight deck of INS Viraat.

U.S. NAVY

Sea Harrier, Sea King, and Chetak aircraft arranged on the deck of INS Viraat as it participates in maneuvers with the U.S. Navy’s Kitty Hawk and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups and ships from the navies of Australia, India, Japan, and Singapore. 

U.S. NAVY PHOTO / MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST SEAMAN STEPHEN W. ROWE

INS Viraat with her air wing deployed. 

Although it never saw combat, Viraat and its Sea Harrier fighters deployed during Operation Vijay during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, and again for Operation Parakram in 2001, another period of India-Pakistan tensions.

After participating in the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in February 2016, the Indian Navy decommissioned Viraat, after almost three decades of service, during a ceremony in Mumbai the following year.

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Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender alongside INS Viraat at the Indian Navy’s International Fleet Review in 2016.

Plans to preserve the carrier as a museum ship were put forward by at least two Indian states, while an unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign was launched to try and save it and then return it to the United Kingdom. The government in Maharashtra even proposed turning the warship into a “tourist hub” including a five-star hotel, aquarium, and aqua sports facilities. Ultimately, however, preservation of the Viraat was rejected by the Indian Ministry of Defense who considered it economically unfeasible.

On September 28, 2020, the aircraft carrier arrived at its final destination at the shipbreaking yard in Gujarat. The breaker’s torch is a sad end for a warship with an unparalleled history.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com