The great historic warship INS Viraat, which was commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1987, ran on her own steam for one last time last week. But as she remains berthed at the Cochin Shipyard, her future looks uncertain. Just a few months ago, she was promised of a grand future befitting a heritage ship, which has served in many a war in the British Royal Navy and then the Indian Navy. But sources in the Ministry of Defence told The Sunday Guardian that the Andhra Pradesh government’s proposal on docking the ship on its coast is still pending with the Centre, as the state has failed to give any firm proposal about the plan.
“We have not yet received any firm proposal from Andhra Pradesh, where they have said that they are willing to foot the bills to host the ship. They have suggested that they want some help from the Centre. Their proposal is still pending with the Centre,” a highly placed official told this correspondent.
It can be recollected that the Centre had announced transfer of the ownership of vessel at the cost of Re 1. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said that the Centre would transfer the ownership rights to a state government and not to any private interests. But the real question is the maintenance of the vessel. Naval officials told The Sunday Guardian that the state which buys the vessel will have to invest crores in maintaining her and keeping her afloat. Viable and profitable commercial ventures can be easily planned around her, but with an understanding that the return on investment will take a few years.
“She is still some time away from decommissioning. She is currently docked at the Cochin Shipyard for Essential Repairs and Dry Docking. Now, the Ministry of Defence has to give approval for decommissioning. The reserve price of the ship will have to be decided by an expert committee. That price will have to be approved by the MoD. It is after this process that the ship can be decommissioned,” a senior serving officer of the Indian Navy said.
He said that usually, the ship which is decommissioned is either scrapped or used as a target in military exercises. “We just sink her during our practice sessions where she is kept as the target. Or then she is sent to the scrap yard. Only in a few cases like that of INS Viraat, does a third option arise,” he said.
Earlier, Indian Navy’s warship INS Vikrant, which had participated in the 1971 Indo-Pak war for the liberation of Bangladesh, faced the same choice. She was decommissioned, and was slated to be turned into a museum ship. Initially, the Maharashtra government decided to take her responsibility, but it could not. The ship stayed with the Western Naval Command for 15 years after being decommissioned. She was finally scrapped after a long litigation which sought that she be preserved.
“We don’t want INS Viraat to go the Vikrant way. And we also have to understand that if no viable proposal works out, we will have to keep her at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. This will mean we will lose premium berthing space here. Within the Navy, there is a strong sentiment that the ship should be turned into a museum. But we also understand that it is an extraordinarily expensive proposition. We are talking of a rough investment of around Rs 500 crore for doing that,” he said.
The officers The Sunday Guardian spoke to said that the government should take a decision soon. “Whatever be the case, just decide quickly. INS Vikrant lay with us for 15 years. We don’t want INS Viraat’s fate to be the same,” an officer said.
Earlier, the Andhra Pradesh government had declared its plans to acquire INS Viraat and turn it into a star hotel-cum-museum. Media reports stated that the state government had toppled competition from coastal states like Goa to bag the prestigious ship. The government had also identified nine berthing spots for her, media reports said.
“Under the Indian Flag, various aircraft have flown more than 22,034 hours from the decks of INS Viraat. She has spent nearly 2,250 days at sea sailing 588,288 NM (1,094,215 KM). This implies that Viraat has been at sea for over six years covering the entire globe about 27 times. She played a major role in the Operation Jupiter in 1989 (Indian peace keeping operations in Sri Lanka) and Operation Vijay in 1999 (Kargil War). The ship has also participated in various international joint exercises like Malabar (with US Navy), Varuna (with French Navy), Naseem-Al-Bahar (with Oman Navy) and has been an integral element of all major naval exercises. The last operational deployment of the ship was for participation in International Fleet Review (IFR-2016) at Visakhapatnam. Having served the country and the Navy for nearly three decades, INS Viraat handed over the mantle of carrier operations to INS Vikramaditya which was commissioned in the year 2013,” an official of the Navy said.
He further added, “The second aircraft carrier of the country has spent 29 years under the Indian Flag and 27 years with the Royal Navy (United Kingdom). The ship holds the Guinness Record for being the oldest serving warship. INS Viraat is a Centaur-Class Aircraft Carrier and served in the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes, which was the flagship of Royal Navy during the Falklands Campaign of 1982. She is commonly referred to as the ‘Grand Old Lady’ among Indian Naval Officers and Sailors.”
INS Viraat was commissioned into the Indian Navy on 12 May 1987.