The concept of using aircraft carriers for force projection originated in the United States from the writings of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued that sea power could best be exhibited by having floating naval bases like aircraft carriers. Thus, the United States even now operates as many as 11 aircraft carrier groups. Most aircraft carriers never operate alone but move on the high seas like monarchs, surrounded by a flotilla of ships and gun boats that provide it constant protection and also help project power when required. In recent years, the United States has often moved an aircraft carrier group in Asian waters to project military power – as it did in December 1971 in the Bay of Bengal – or when tensions were high between the US and Iran.
Despite the length of India’s coastline being as much as its borders with either China or Pakistan, Indians have yet to realise the significance of a blue water navy capability. One reason for the absence of understanding of maritime issues is that the bulk of India’s threats and conflicts have come from our land borders. But now, as India increasingly begins to focus its diplomatic initiatives in the Indian ocean region, with the US goading India to become an active military–maritime partner, the importance of a bigger navy with aircraft carriers is an obvious requirement for the future. And the Indian Navy, that currently is the only navy in Asia to operate an aircraft carrier group, plans to have two aircraft carrier groups operating on either side of our peninsula.
In fact, for a brief moment in independent India’s history, our navy did operate two aircraft carriers, with the induction of India’s latest aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and before the recent decommissioning of the Vikramaditya’s predecessor, INS Viraat, a feat earlier accomplished amongst Asian countries only by pre- world war- 2, Japan. China is still to get its act together with its own aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. But in October this year, INS Viraat began its last voyage to Mumbai from Kochi, where it will be decided, whether it will be preserved as war memorial or a tourist attraction. Hopefully it wouldn’t meet the fate of its predecessor, INS Vikrant, that ended up in a ship breaking yard, after its auction for Rs 60 crores, in 2014.
The Viraat came to India, after 27 years of service in Britain’s Royal Navy, following the necessary re-fitments to serve the Indian Navy for another three decades. During that time, it had a fleet of Sea Harriers on board and Sea King helicopters for anti-submarine and commando operations, along with Chetak helicopters (that were housed below its deck, in a parking slot bigger than a football field!). In fact, it carried a crew of 1500 men and generated electricity enough to light up a small town. But now, having sailed long enough to have circled the globe twenty seven times, the Viraat, was gradually stripped of its propulsion system, weapons and radars, before being towed to its resting place.
I had the privilege of spending a few days aboard the Viraat more than a decade ago, while making a television series on India’s armed forces, ‘The Line of Duty’, when I was exposed to much of its capabilities as it sailed in the Arabian sea, like a monarch, surrounded by ships, frigates and submarines. But like all aircraft carriers, the part that fascinated me most was the capabilities of our naval aviators in flying both the Sea Harrier fighters and the Kamov helicopters during the day and specially at night, with stunning precision and phenomenal skills. No wonder, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, once said, that perhaps the greatest challenge for a pilot is to land his aircraft on a pitch dark night, on the deck of moving aircraft carrier. I saw our pilots do that time and again. I saluted them then, as I salute them now.
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