Scuttle The Vikrant, Do Not Scrap It
History cannot simply be sunk. The INS Vikrant will meet death on the very coast that she zealously protected all the years that she was in service. With this, the history, emotions, wisdom and spirit of this great ship would perish. For a country that has been resolutely sea blind for decades, preserving the Vikrant should be a symbol of respect for all that she and her men have done
The Bombay High Court, last month, dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by Kiran Paigankar, to prevent INS Vikrant from getting scrapped, and convert it into a maritime museum for educational and defence training purposes. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had fixed January 29, 2014 for opening of the bids for scrapping INS Vikrant, and with the High Court’s order, the ministry is now free to go ahead with its plans. However, Paigankar has decided to approach the Supreme Court to challenge the order.
The ship that sailed over Indian waters with power and glory is now being treated as if she were just a tin rake. Over the last few years, ever since she was decommissioned, she has been a source of embarrassment to the Ministry of Defence, the Maharashtra government and the Indian Navy. It seems that they all are ashamed of this great Old Lady. If scrapped, it would in all certainty be beached in one of the yards at Alang and cut up into pieces for feeding the furnaces of the rolling mills. History cannot simply be sunk. She would meet death on the very coast that she zealously protected all the years that she was in service. With this, the history, emotions, wisdom and spirit of this great ship would perish. For a country that has been resolutely sea blind for decades, preserving the Vikrant should be a symbol of respect for all that she and her men have done. The plea of the MoD is that it would have to spend Rs 350 crore for berthing the ship. According to the affidavit, the Navy has till now spent Rs 22 crore for repairs and dry dockings of the ship. It is not viable to convert the warship into a museum and cadets cannot be sent there for training, as it would be endangering their life because the ship has already outlived its shelf life.
Dismissing the petition the judges opined: “INS Vikrant’s hull is over 70 years old. It was decommissioned on completion of its operational life. It would be in the best interest of the naval services to dispose of such ships as expeditiously as possible. At a certain stage, ships can no longer be economically refurbished or repaired.”
Vikrant had been India’s only carrier for over 25 years. The first active operation, in which Vikrant took part, was for the liberation of Goa in December 1961. The 20,000-tonne aircraft carrier played a glorious role during the Kutch operations in 1965 and the Indo-Pak war in 1971 that led to the liberation of Bangladesh. The great ship has traveled or rather, steamed, a total of 4,99,066 nautical miles, about 15 times around the world. The crew of INS Vikrant earned two Mahavir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras. Before becoming INS Vikrant in 1957, the HMS Hercules was the fifth ship in a series of six Majestic class light aircraft carriers built for the Royal Navy of Britain during the Second World War. A class of quick-build carriers, they were intended to challenge German and Japanese navies around the world. Of all the Indian naval ships which
have served the nation, no other war vessel has enjoyed a status that the Vikrant has enjoyed.
INS Vikrant was ordered as the HMS Hercules (R49) by the Royal Navy in 1943 and was launched on September 22, 1945. However, with the end of World War II, her construction was suspended in May 1946 and she was laid up for the next 11 years after which she was sold to India in 1957. The ship was towed to Belfast to complete her construction and modifications. A group of about 150 officers and senior technical sailors was flown to the UK in batches in April/May 1957 for supervising the refit of Vikrant at Harland and Wolf Shipyard at Belfast. Towards the end of 1960, the official commissioning date of the ship was fixed as March 4, 1961. Reconstruction and modernisation of Vikrant took about four years. A number of improvements to the original design were ordered by the Indian Navy, including an angled deck, steam catapults and a modified island.
On February 16, 1961, the commissioning warrant was read by Capt. P S Mahindroo, the Commanding Officer designate of Vikrant at a gathering of Indian officers and sailors and officials of Harland and Wolf. Upon her completion, she was commissioned as the first aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy by the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Vijayalakshmi Pandit on March 4, 1961, in Belfast. The word Vikrant means valiant or powerful and the crest of the carrier showed a combination of bows and arrows portraying the fighter planes taking off the carrier to strike the enemy. The motto Jayema Sam Yudhi Sprdhah was taken from Rig Veda which means: ‘I completely defeat those who dare to fight with me’.
The need for a naval air arm and an aircraft carrier had been accepted right after Independence in 1947, but the negotiations concluded only in 1957. With the meager naval budget, India could not afford an aircraft carrier. The ship underwent an extensive refit and modernisation, almost all the electronic and electrical equipment were replaced. The ship was to be fitted with an angled deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing sight. Essential spaces were to be air-conditioned. Additional accommodation and facilities were provided to enable Vikrant to function as the Fleet Commander’s flagship. Her initial air wing consisted of British Hawker Seahawk fighter-bombers and a French Alize anti-submarine aircraft. On May 18, 1961, the first jet landed on board, piloted by Lieutenant (later Admiral and Navy Chief) R H Tahiliani. Captain Pritam Singh was the first commanding officer of the carrier. She formally joined the Indian Navy’s fleet in Bombay on November 3, 1961, when she was received at Ballard Pier by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
In its lifetime, the ship underwent three modernisation refits. Vikrant was given an extensive refit, including new engines and modernisation between 1979 and January 1982. This was the first phase of her modernisation, her boilers were renewed, new radars were fitted, facilities were installed to operate the Sea Harriers, new anti-aircraft guns were fitted, the communication systems were modernised, the air conditioning was extended, and the catapult and arrestor gear were overhauled since Alizes would continue to operate. Between December 1982 and February 1983, she was refitted again to permit her to operate Sea Harriers. After the retirement of the Alize propeller-driven anti-submarine planes from carrier service in 1989, she received a ski jump for more efficient use of her Harriers. In this second phase of modernisation the catapult and arrestor gear were removed, a ski jump was fitted in the bows to assist the Sea Harriers and the technologically advanced Sea King helicopters and their new missiles and torpedoes.
Vikrant’s real test of prowess came during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The flagship of the Indian Navy, the ship was undergoing major dry-dock repairs in Bombay. One of her boilers was non-operational due to weak boiler tubes, and was unfit for flashing up. The tubes were being replaced along with other repair jobs and the ship was not expected to be operational for another year or so. The war clouds were looming dark on the horizon. East Pakistan was on a boil due to the atrocities leashed by General Yahya Khan and more than a million refugees had streamed into India. Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibhur Rahman was arrested and was not allowed to take over the government as an elected majority leader.
INS Vikrant was patched up in a hurry, the boilers were flashed up on Mar 1, 1971 and the ship proceeded for sea trials. It was decided to operate the boilers at low pressure, restricting the ships speed to 14 knots. The curtailed speed meant that she would be an easy target to Pakistan’s submarines. It was then the brilliant tactician, Vice Admiral Krishnan, C-in-C Eastern, Naval Command requested Naval Headquarters to utilise her on the eastern sea-front. At the speed of 12 knots, INS Vikrant was capable of operating only the Bregeut Alize aircraft from her deck. Later the engine room department got the Catapult ready for operations.
THE NAVAL ACE AND HIS SHIP
Vice Admiral SH Sarma, PVSM, Indian Navy (Retd), was the man who formed the Eastern Fleet of the Indian Navy on the eve of the 1971 war with Pakistan. He was the First Flag Officer Commanding of the Eastern Fleet and took it to the war in erstwhile East Pakistan.
Born in Odisha in 1922, he joined the Navy at a young age of 13 and took his training on the IMMTS (Indian Mercantile Marine Training Ship) Dufferin, and was among the top few who were selected. He topped his three-year course and finished with the Viceroy’s Gold Medal, a distinctive honour during the days of the British rule. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Indian Naval Reserve and saw action in the Burmese and Malaysian theatres. After the war, he joined the newly formed Royal Indian Navy as the youngest Lieutenant. There were many achievements in his early career and he had a series of handpicked appointments. He was the youngest Officer-in-Charge of the Navigation and Direction School, UK, the youngest Commander in the Indian Navy and the Deputy Naval Attaché in the Indian High Commission at London during the time the Vikrant was acquired. When he was promoted to the rank of Captain, he superseded 40 officers, which was unheard of till then.
As a young Captain, he commanded the INS Brahmaputra and was the Squadron Commander of the 16th Frigate Squadron comprising the ships Brahmaputra, Beas and Betwa. As a senior commander, he commanded the warship INS Mysore. He is the only officer to have been promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and appointed the Senior Directing Staff in the National Defence College.
As the founding and First Flag Officer Commanding of the Eastern Fleet he took his fleet to sea and kept it a secret from the Pakistanis. On the eve of the 1971 war, the Eastern Fleet took the Pakistanis by surprise. Aircraft from the Vikrant bombed Chittagong, Khulna and Cox’s Bazar. The Eastern Fleet effectively blockaded the Pakistanis and this blockade is acknowledged in the annals of naval history and compared to Nelson’s blockade. At one stage of the war, the Eastern Fleet was set to meet the US 7th Fleet head on, but the timely intervention of the Russians changed the balances.
Having destroyed the Port of Chittagong, after the war, he was asked to make it operational again. He did it in a record time of six weeks, a job that should have taken six months. On promotion to the rank of Vice Admiral, he was appointed the Commandant of the National Defence College. He was tipped to be the Naval Chief; Indira Gandhi was to give him an extension. But her assassination resulted in the new government not taking a decision on his extension. He retired from the Indian Navy as the Flag Officer Commanding of the Eastern Naval Command, a command commanding a sea frontage from Bangladesh to Tuticorin including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
In a short interview with Special Correspondent Anil Dhir, Vice Admiral recalls his glorious days on the INS Vikrant:
The Vikrant was your flagship during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. Tell us about the role of Vikrant in the victory?
It will be no exaggeration to say that the swift and successful completion of the Bangladesh campaign would have not been possible without the naval blockade that was imposed by the Eastern Fleet. But for this blockade the campaign would have been greatly prolonged with unpredictable international repercussions. I have serious doubts whether we would have been allowed to continue on for more than a month or so.
The role of the Vikrant was vital. We bombed Chittagong, Khulna and Cox’s Bazar and destroyed the ports completely. The Sea Hawks took off from the deck of the Vikrant; we did not lose a single plane. In the 10-day campaign, Vikrant’s aircraft completely neutralised the Pakistan Navy in the East. The Pakistanis were terrified of Vikrant and had sent the submarine Ghazi to torpedo it. Ghazi looked for us in Madras and then Visakhapatnam, but all the while we were safely harboured in the Andamans. Ghazi itself was sunk by depth charges from the Eastern Fleet’s INS Rajput.
The Indian Navy has come to play a much bigger role in Asia. The Chinese Navy has its presence in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Gawadar (Pakistan), Bangladesh, Mayanmar, and Seychelles. How many aircraft carriers should India have in this situation?
China’s activities in South and East China sea have become aggressive. It is also claiming rights to explore a part of Indian Ocean, which traditionally is considered to be under Indian domination. There are reports that China may be building nuclear powered-super-carriers. India’s second carrier was commissioned recently. The INS Viraat is the only aircraft carrier India has. The INS Vikramaditya is at least one year away. India is also building two indigenous aircraft carrier but they are far away (Maybe 2017, 2022). Anil Kokodkar, former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, had said that India was capable of building nuclear aircraft carrier. India needs at least six carriers.
India at least needs three carriers for a powerful Navy. One for Indian ocean, possibly near Mumbai, one for the Bay of Bengal possibly near Visakhapatnam or Nicobar islands (to have a watch on the Strait of Malacca), and for the Indian Ocean down from Tamil Nadu to have a check on Sri Lanka and Diego Garcia (British & American forces).
Are you of the opinion that the MoD’s decision to scrap the Vikrant smacks of lack of national honour for the ship which has served the nation in three wars?
True, no other war vessel has enjoyed a status that the Vikrant has. For its esteemed past and the highlighting picture of history it portrays in the present time, the war vessel needs to be much appreciated.
But on the hindsight, it would be very expensive to keep the ship afloat. A decommissioned aircraft carrier is a white elephant. Keeping it afloat is a Herculean task. For practical reasons the MoD’s decision is correct. However if national sentiments are to be honoured, then the ship may be made into a museum ship. For this, it has to be properly docked and cemented. This historic ship certainly deserves to be preserved as a museum ship so that future generations will know of the hard work and sacrifice of the men who served on this majestic and mighty ship.
The USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, will be decommissioned this year and the USA is mooting upon the idea of making it a museum ship.
What is the future of aircraft carriers ?
An increasing number of navies around the world see aircraft carriers as viable platforms for projecting national power. Today, there are nine countries which have aircraft carriers in service: Brazil, France, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Interestingly, China does not yet actually have a carrier in service, though this is expected to change in the near future. The total number of carriers in service worldwide is now twenty two, with half of that fleet being in US service.
Due to its sheer size, a carrier is a sitting duck. It can be sunk by a tomahawk or similar missile easily. Besides, a carrier needs a full complement of escorts. The future navies will see smaller ships with VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft.
With a fleet of modern land-based aircraft and effective missile technology, India can arguably project its power without the need for a large carrier fleet.
As soon as the engineering department managed to flash up the unserviceable second boiler, the carrier could give sustained speed of 18 knots for the Hawk squadron also to embark and so they too started flying from the carrier. The grit, devotion and the spirit to achieve the impossible, gave one and all total confidence to take on all and sundry. The Carrier with its aircraft was itching to go into action. It was then in middle of November 1971 that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the indication of war with Pakistan. In the meantime, Vikrant was quietly moved to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands and finally positioned in Port Cornwallis. On December 3, Pakistan’s Air Force struck many Indian airfields and war was declared. Vikrant received orders to sail and strike enemy airfields in East Pakistan at the earliest.
Stationed off the Andaman & Nicobar Islands along with frigates, INS Brahmaputra (1958) and INS Beas (1960), the Vikrant redeployed towards Chittagong immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. Based on Naval Intelligence reports that the Pakistan Navy intended to break through the Indian Naval blockade using camouflaged merchant ships, the Sea Hawks struck shipping in the Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar harbors, sinking or incapacitating most ships in harbor. On the morning of December 4, 1971, the eight Sea Hawk aircraft on the Vikrant launched an air raid on Cox’s Bazar from 60 nautical miles (110 km) offshore. On the evening of 4 December, the air group struck Chittagong Harbor. Later strikes targeted Khulna and Port of Mongla. A PTI report of December 4, read, “Chittagong harbour ablaze as ships and aircraft of the Eastern Naval Fleet bombed and rocketed. Not a single vessel can be put to sea from Chittagong.” Air strikes continued until December 10, 1971, with not a single Sea Hawk lost.
There is no doubt that many of the strikes by Vikrant’s aircraft not only hit vital targets on shore, they also damaged and sank many ships and crafts and instilled deep fear in the enemy. So important was she considered by the Pakistanis, that they sent the submarine Ghazi all the way to the Bay of Bengal to mine the Visakhapatnam harbor in an attempt to sink the aircraft carrier when she put to sea. Vikrant and her aircraft made sure that no supply could reach the enemy by sea. The escape route of Pakistani land forces from East Pakistan by sea was completely cut off. These factors undoubtedly helped substantially to hasten the surrender of Pakistani troops.
Both in the 1965 and 1971 wars, the INS Vikrant had become an obsession for the Pakistan Navy. Pakistan even claimed to have sunk her in the 1965 operations, even while the Vikrant was at the Mumbai naval dockyard enjoying her refitting.
During the 1962 war with China, it was mulled that INS Vikrant’s deck aircraft would be sent on emergency detachment to airfields in the North-East for strike operations – something that never happened. A big price was paid for the Himalayan blunder of deciding not to use aircraft in offensive operations against the Chinese. Vikrant sat out the war, as did all other airborne strike assets in the country.
By the early 1990s she was effectively out of service because of her poor condition. Even after major overhauls and refurbishments, she was rarely put to sea. She was formally decommissioned on January 31, 1997. Following her decommissioning, Vikrant was marked for preservation as a museum ship in Mumbai, although a lack of funding has prevented progress on the ship’s conversion for this role. Similarly, speculation that the ship would be made into a training ship in 2006, came to nothing.
The INS Vikrant was converted into a floating museum and rechristened Indian Museum Ship (IMS) Vikrant, the only World War II-era British-built aircraft carrier to be preserved as a museum. She was initially anchored opposite to Middle Ground near Gateway of India in Mumbai. The Navy extensively refurbished Vikrant and opened it to the visitors during Navy Week, and lakhs of people visited the ship. However a permanent place could not be given and the budget for necessary upkeep was hard to come by. When the state government showed its inability to convert INS Vikrant into a museum due to lack of funds, the Ganesh mandals in the city came forward to save the warship from being scrapped.
The Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti took the initiative to collect money from various Ganesh mandals to save the Old Lady. There are about 10,400 Ganesh mandals in the city and a minimum of Rs 10,000 was to be collected from each mandals. Naresh Dahibaonkar, president of BSGSS, said, “We will be contributing for the maintenance of the INS Vikrant as something as historic and important like this cannot be neglected. All the mandals will be meeting soon and a proper amount will be decided. We aim to collect a sum of Rs 15 crore at least.” But due to the lack of support from the government, this did not happen.
In August 2013, Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, chief of the Western Naval Command, announced that the Ministry of Defence would scrap Vikrant as she had become “very difficult to maintain,” and as no private bidders had offered to fund the museum’s operations. On December 3, 2013 the Indian government decided to auction the ship, due to maintenance difficulties.
Old racehorses are not sent to the knackers, they are given a quite burial. Derby winners are usually shot and buried. The Vikrant should be taken out to sea and scuttled. It is better that it meets a watery grave then being hacked into pieces.
By Anil Dhir