INS Viraat decommissioned: Everything you need to know about the world's oldest aircraft carrier

Devyani Sultania
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INS Viraat, the world's oldest-serving aircraft carrier, has been decommissioned on Monday (March 6) evening after having served the Indian Navy for 30 years and the United kingdom's Royal Navy for 27. 

Once it is decommissioned, the Indian Navy will have just one aircraft carrier, the Russian-built Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened INS Vikramaditya.

Vice-Admiral Girish Luthra, while addressing the media on Monday, said that India planned to use the INS Viraat for five years when it was purchased. However, the carrier went on to serve the country for 30.

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INS Viraat, which is known as 'Mother' and 'Grand Old Lady', embarked on its final voyage from Mumbai to Kochi on July 23 and was towed back to Mumbai in October last year for the farewell ceremony.

He added that the decommissioning of INS Viraat was a historic moment for the Indian Navy. The carrier was decommissioned in a solemn ceremony in Mumbai in the presence of 21 of its 22 former commanders.

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The Andhra Pradesh government has expressed interest in turning the ship into a museum. Or else, INS Viraat's fate could go the old INS Vikrant's way.

The history of a flagship

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The INS Viraat originally served in the Royal Navy as the HMS Hermes from November 18, 1959, before it was decommissioned in 1984. When India was evaluating vessels from several other countries in 1986, it decided to buy the decommissioned British carrier.

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During its days with the Royal Navy, the INS Viraat (then HMS Hermes) participated in the Falkland wars with Argentina in the early 1980s.

The oldest-serving ship was then sent to Devonport dockyard to be refitted and sold to India in 1987 for $465 million. After the transfer, the HMS Hermes was rechrishtened INS Viraat.

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INS Viraat, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest serving warship, is known as 'Mother' in the Indian and global naval circuit. 

A maritime journey

INS Viraat was equipped with navigation radar, new fire control equipment, and new deck landing aids, among other things and was fitted for missions that supported both maritime and land-based operations, and also in Anti-Submarine warfare.

It has consistently undergone upgrades with the last one done in Mumbai in 2012-13.

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The ship was first ordered in 1943 and was built by Vickers-Armstrong. It is a Centaur-class aircraft carrier with a displacement of 23,900 tons (standard) and 28,700 tons (full load). The vessel is 743 feet with a beam of 160 feet. It had a speed of 28 knots and range of 10,500 kilometres at 14 knots.

The INS Viraat was expected to be replaced by INS Vikramaditya (which was bought in 2004) by 2015-16. However, the carrier's service was extended till 2020. But the government decided to decommission it early, considering its age and cost of maintenance.

The Indian Navy, in February 2015, announced that the oldest aircraft carrier would be decommissioned by 2016.

The carrier has spent over 2,250 days at sea, covering a distance of 10.94 lakh kms, equal to covering the Earth 27 times.

Aircraft have flown over 22,034 hours from its flight deck. Sea Harrier jumpjets, Sea King and Kamov helicopters also flew off the ship.

More than 1,500 men have worked on the INS Viraat when it was fully operational. However, the crew was reduced to less than 300 after it made its last voyage from Mumbai to Kochi on July 23, 2016. It was later brought back to Mumbai for the farewell ceremony.

The INS Viraat played a key role in the Sri Lankan peace keeping operation in 1989. It was also used in Operation Parakram that took place after the attack on Parliament in 2001. It was also a part of the International Fleet Review in Mumbai that same year. 

What the future holds

According to the Indian Express, the Defence Ministry has not yet decided the fate of the INS Viraat. Vice-Admiral Girish Luthra said that warships could not be stored in museums due to shortage of space and therefore it could not be converted into a heritage property.

However Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba told NDTV that the government was considering sinking the INS Viraat and converting it into a major tourist attraction for divers. But he also added that the ship would be broken up and sold for scrap if no buyer came forward in the next four months. 

"It depends on who bids and gets the contract," the Navy Chief said.

"One proposal could be that we convert her into a marine museum by taking her to one of our major tourist harbors and sink her in the water and make her into a dive site... where some aircraft carriers have been put to rest also... and she would be there as a legacy," Admiral Lanba said.

The new INS Vikrant will be commissioned by the Indian Navy by 2018 after undergoing sea trials.

#INSViraat At sunset 2day, the Naval Ensign & Commissioning pennant of Viraat shall be hauled down 4 the very last time @SpokespersonMoD

— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) March 6, 2017

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