INS Viraat decommissioned: Indian Navy faces huge gap in its firepower, but future looks hopeful

After serving the Indian Navy for three decades, INS Viraat was decommissioned from service on Monday. With the aircraft carrier put into retirement, India now has only one aircraft carrier — INS Vikramaditya.

However, INS Vikramaditya is expected to be out of active service for at least eight months for regular maintenance work, according to a report in The Times of India.

In such a scenario, India effectively is left without an aircraft carrier till INS Vikramaditya is back in action.

Aircraft carriers hold an important place in modern military strategy. These mammoth vessels serve many purposes.

One of them is muscle flexing and intimidating an enemy in deep seas. A notable example of it was witnessed during the 1971 India-Pakistan war when the United States dispatched the USS Enterprise to deter India from attacking East Pakistan.

INS Vikramaditya. PTI

File image of INS Vikramaditya. PTI

Another major benefit these vessels provide navies is the ability to expand the area of operation. Aircraft carriers hold fighter jets which help an navy to mount an air attack anywhere across the world.

Take for example, the US Navy could persist with its air strikes during the 1991 Gulf War through the USS Dwight D Eisenhower and other vessels. The naval help boosted US' land offensive which drove away Iraqi Army from Kuwait.

Indeed, these warships allow countries to turn their navies into a blue-water naval force.

Sameer Patil, director, Centre for International Security at Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House, sums up the benefits of having such a vessel.

"From the way aircraft carriers are placed in present-day military strategies, it certainly helps countries to project their power," he told Firstpost.

Keeping this in mind, aircraft carriers have become an important benchmark for any aspiring superpower including India.

In fact, India was among the first countries to have an aircraft carrier when it bought HMS Hercules in 1957. Rechristened INS Vikrant, the warship did a yeomen service during the 1971 war when it succeeded in enforcing a naval blockade of East Pakistan.

Later in the 1980s, India added INS Viraat (originally HMS Hermes) to its naval armoury.

Indeed, a country with two maritime borders (East and West coast) needs a minimum of two fully-operational aircraft carriers.

But it is to be noted that these two erstwhile warships were British-built. In an era, when the world is moving towards defence indigenisation, India is also looking at building domestic aircraft carriers.

Media reports suggest that India first indigeniously built carrier, INS Vikrant ( the namesake of India's first aircraft carrier) will be ready by the end of the year before being commissioned into the navy next year. However, a CAG report last year blasted the navy over the delay in building the ship. According to the report, the ship is only expected to be fully operational in 2023.

Apart from INS Vikrant, the navy is also planning for another aircraft carrier INS Vishal, which is still in the design stage and one cannot expect it to be in service before 2025.

The retirement of INS Viraat leaves a major gap in the Indian Navy's firepower. The now decommissioned ship had the capacity of supporting both maritime and land-based operations and conducting anti-submarine warfare. Additionally, it had been armed with Israel's Barak anti-missile system.

INS Vikramaditya, which was commissioned after a two decade delay in 2013, is not yet to battle ready. Though media reports have been suggesting that the navy's lead battleship would be equipped with the latest defence system (Barak 8 missiles), it still seems everything is only on paper as of now.

The issues with the aircraft carriers just does not end there. The MIG 29 K fighter jets for the warships have been under the scanner of the CAG over its various defects. And with the navy rejecting the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, readiness of the aircraft carriers is doubtful.

Notwithstanding the inordinate delays as well as other pressing issues in India's aircraft carrier saga, Patil is optimistic. He believes that since India had never built an aircraft carrier, it will take some time for her to master it.

"We must appreciate the fact that India is gearing to have the capability to build an aircraft carrier which is in itself a huge thing," he added.

India is not the only country which is in the race to master indigenous aircraft carriers. China, after lagging behind for over three decades, is finally taking steps to become a major naval power. Beijing too is expected to launch its first domestic aircraft carrier this year.

While India has its own blue-water ambitions, China may well be India's rival in the coming years. The Indian Ocean will play an important role in the geo-political game between the two Asian giants and aircraft carriers will certainly help India maintain its pre-eminence here.

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 23:29 PM

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