Say Farewell to the World’s Oldest Aircraft Carrier
The Indian aircraft carrier INS Viraat is not only the oldest operational aircraft carrier in the world. She is the longest-serving aircraft carrier ever.
But all carriers must come to an end. In mid-2016, the Indian Navy will decommission Viraat. To put that in perspective, she will have served for 63 years since her launch date, most of that time as the Royal Navy carrier HMS Hermes. The world’s second longest-serving carrier, INS Vikrant, served for 52 years, coming in ahead of America’s USS Midway, which tapped out at 47 years.
If you think that’s old, construction began on Viraat’s hull during World War II. Modified in 1980 to launch Harrier jets — which can “jump” off a ramp at the end of the deck and land like a helicopter — Hermes served as the British flagship in the Falklands War. The United Kingdom sold her to India in 1987, when she became Viraat.
To be sure, Viraat’s age is one of the main reasons New Delhi is retiring her. But another reason is that the vessel’s Harrier jets have deteriorated even more. “They — the Harriers and the carrier — have a symbiotic relationship and it’s in the fitness of things to phase out both together,” commanding officer Capt. Rajesh Pendharkar said.
At most, Viraat has fewer than half the Harriers that Hermes transported at peak strength in the South Atlantic.
The Hindu reported earlier this year:
The retirement call was forced, in part, by the dwindling fleet of Sea Harrier fighters operating from the deck of Viraat. While the limited upgrade Sea Harrier (LUSH) programme bestowed the fighters with modern avionics and beyond visual range (BVR) strike capability, the ageing airframe has been a concern. Not more than seven Sea Harriers are available at the moment — some of them cannibalized (used as “Christmas Tree” for spares) to keep the relatively agile ones airworthy.
Now there’s the question of what to do with the ship. “The Navy has mooted three options — either to sell it in an auction, convert it into a museum or use it for target practice,” the Indian Express reported.
The problem with the first two choices is that India needs a buyer — an unlikely proposition — or a patron willing to foot the cost of converting her into a museum. India could perhaps scrap her, though it’s an open question how much corrosion has affected her steel’s structural integrity. Scrapping Viraat might not be worth it.
India has one other aircraft carrier in service, the INS Vikramaditya, formerly the Russian Kiev-class carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Operating this carrier has been a nightmare for the Indian Navy. Refurbishing her cost far more than New Delhi expected, and boiler troubles put her out of action during sea trials three years ago.
Vikramaditya also doesn’t carry Harriers, practically obsolete in modern warfare, but MiG-29s. India plans to build two more carriers, a new Vikrant and the Vishal, but only Vikrant is under construction and, again, there are delays. Troubles aside, keeping the original Viraat operational for so long is a historical feat.