INS Viraat (formerly HMS Hermes) to be Scrapped

Crowds wave off HMS Hermes as she sails south to the Falklands on April 5, 1982.
(PA ARCHIVE)

THE INDIAN Government has defended its decision to scrap the aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, as criticism floods in from naval veterans. Sadness is sure to be felt in Britain, too, as Viraat – originally HMS Hermes – was the Royal Navy’s flagship during the 1982 Falklands Conflict.

Laid down as Elephant, in 1944, construction works were soon suspended, and the carrier was not completed until 1957. She was commissioned in a modernised form as Hermes in 1959 and was put forward for sale to Australia in the late 1960s. This proposal, however, fell through, and she was converted into a Commando Carrier in the early 1970s. Between 1980-81, a ski jump and other facilities were fitted to enable Hermes to operate the iconic STOVL multi-role dogfighter, Sea Harrier.

Plans to retire her – and reduce the overall size of the Royal Navy – were curtailed by the Falklands Conflict in which Hermes played a crucial part. In the mid-1980s the carrier was again offered to Australia but was eventually sold to India in 1987. On decommissioning in 2017, she was the oldest aircraft carrier in service and the last British-built ship in the Indian Navy.

Originally slated for conversion to a museum, the breaking up of the ship will resonate with many Indian veterans, who have bemoaned what they perceive as a failure to preserve military heritage. Attempts to preserve the long-serving warhorse fell through after no Indian state authority was able to submit a complete and viable proposal.

The most interest shown came from Andhra Pradesh, which appeared to have a practical plan, relying on the Indian Navy to stump up half of the ₹1,000 crore (10bn Rupees/£115,500,000) required. However, the navy has already incurred the cost of maintaining the carrier in its decommissioned state and was no doubt keen to avoid repetition of the 17-year debacle over preservation of India’s first aircraft carrier – the British-built INS Vikrant – which similarly failed.

Maharashtra state also put forward welcome proposals for a museum ship, but these also met scepticism regarding costs. An attempt by British entrepreneur and Falklands/Hermes veteran, Andy Trish, to repatriate the carrier, also failed after it fell short of its crowdfunding target.

With seemingly no options remaining, and “in view of considerations of safety, security… a decision to scrap INS Viraat has been taken in due consultation with the Navy”, explained junior defence minister Shripad Naik. The former Harrier carrier, according to the Times of India, has “clocked well over five lakh [500,000] nautical miles for the country with its proud motto of “Jalamev Yasya, Balamev Tasya” (He who controls the sea is all powerful).

As we closed for press, we received news of a possible late bid from the UK. We’ll update in due course.