VIVA LA VIRAAT
It was the summer of 1986 and we were just commissioned. The entire talk in the Indian Navy was about the arrival of INS Viraat, our second aircraft carrier which would radically alter our operational paradigms. To be commissioned in that blissful dawn was indeed a fortunate occurrence – what can a young officer ask more than an optimistic cheerful service that was bullish about the future? A future naval historian will recollect that the eighties were exciting times for the Indian Navy. It was a decade that saw the induction of several new classes of ships – the last of the stretched Leanders, the majestic Rajput class, the indigenously designed Godavari class, the Karwar class Minesweepers, the Veer Class missile boats, new generation Survey ships, the new generation training ship Tir, a new and larger landing ship (LST – L) Magar, spiffy new Landing Craft (LCUs), the Shishumar class SSK submarines, the Sindhugosh class submarines, the Sea Harrier aircraft, the TU 142 MPAs, and towards the end of the decade, the indigenously designed Khukri class missile corvettes, the Sukanya class patrol vessels and the Abhay class ASW patrol vessels. In fact, it may be seen that our entire inventory underwent a sea change during this period. But the most important of all these acquisitions was undoubtedly the mighty aircraft carrier INS Viraat.
Many amongst us yearned to serve on her; secretly fancying the thought of driving the jumbo sized ‘Grey Ferrari’ and launching her mean flying machines. A year later, after the ab initio courses, I was appointed for my watch-keeping on the guided missile destroyer INS Ranvir, another new addition to our inventory, and dutifully reported at Bombay. Consequently, I was amongst the huge mass of humanity that had gathered on the South breakwater in Aug 87 as Viraat majestically drew in. I shared the awe of the throng and could sense the sheer might that she exuded. I hoped that, one day, very soon, I would serve on her.
Back to nuts and bolts – watch-keeping on Ranvir was a great learning curve made steeper by the presence of the Carrier in all the Fleet deployments. As any Navyman would tell you, Fleet Operations acquire a different and distinct hue when the Carrier is around and it was our great fortune that our formative years were spent in this tough terrain. Be it Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) or Flying Ops, be it Underway Replenishment or Missile Defence, the Carrier brings in a unique set of dynamics and makes life on the bridge and operations room that much more exciting and busy not only on the Flattop itself but on all the Combatants in her company. Carrier Centric Fleet operations, implied that our time at sea was spent, almost entirely, in Air Defence (AD) and ASW screens and station keeping, racing from one station to another. The Ops rooms were buzzing with activity and new jargon. They were hectic, exciting times indeed not only honing our tactical techniques but also sharpening our station-keeping skills. So, in a sense we cut our teeth in the best learning environment possible.
Seen from a larger perspective also, for us, as subalterns in the Navy, professional life in the late eighties could not have been better – apart from the new acquisitions, ‘Op Pawan’ in Sri Lanka and ‘Op Cactus’ in Maldives were to give us the sobriquet of a ‘Superpower Navy’ by the TIME Magazine. In an era before cable TV, internet and social networks, these were indeed heady times for the Silent Service.
This was also true of time in harbour when the Carrier generated a great deal of hustle and bustle and invariably being berthed on the other side of the wharf within shooing distance of Viraat meant that one was a spectator on many things unfolding on the ship. Obviously, being in the same Fleet meant that one visited Viraat often – for harbour exercises, to meet friends, for various other sundry jobs and each time I came out with the feeling of admiration at the way things seemed to work in clockwork precision in the behemoth. I could see this hulk of a vessel from my ship; the power and might and the sense of wonderment it caused, had me fervently hoping that I might be appointed on Viraat. I had no illusions that the job would be tough and life on the Carrier with its elaborate hierarchy, stiff wardroom rules and time in harbour at anchorage was no bed of roses but it simply was a badge that I had to acquire. The crew of Viraat always seemed to have their noses in the air and were usually the winners in almost all intra Fleet competitions be it on the sports field or in academic endeavours. It left me wondering what it was about the Carrier that engendered such fierce loyalty and comradeship despite all the attendant problems.
My subsequent tours of duty, over the next few years, continued on other Western Fleet ships, in the vicinity of the Flattop. I had earned my spurs for collateral duty, so to speak, on the Carrier, with Fleet deployments dominated by her presence and the exercises centred on her. In Jun 1996, I was appointed to be the Signal Communications Officer (SCO) of the Viraat but that was soon amended to become the commissioning (first) SCO of the prestigious new project, INS Delhi. While I would trade nothing in life for the Delhi experience, missing on the Carrier seva was indeed agonizing and my affection and admiration for Viraat remained the same.
Finally, four years later I got a chance to embark the Carrier on duty. I was now the Fleet Communications Officer (FCO) of the Western Fleet reporting to the Western Fleet Commander. For the Fleet Staff, the Carrier, if available, was the first choice as the Flagship due to obvious operational and administrative advantages. We spent great many days on her and suddenly she seemed as a second home. Now with the understanding of Fleet operations and tactics even more enhanced, I was able to appreciate what the Carrier meant both at the sublime and prosaic levels. I spent many an hour trying to walk her deck or watching the Harriers take off or land. Sometimes taking in the sunrise or sunset, I wondered at the scheme of things that fate had arranged – I could now claim some kinship with Viraat but I was not still a fully paid up member. While perhaps not being in the same category as doing tenure on board, it still enabled me to see Fleet air operations from close range and, in particular, get to know those brave hearts that fly from the aircraft carriers. The Navy has many glamorous poster boys – aviators, submariners, hydrographers, marine commandos et al. Of these, the flyboys with their ‘brylcreamed’ hair, permanent glares and walking in the air’ personas are the most seductive and, arguably, have the most appeal. Taking off and landing on a small airstrip in mid sea, that is rolling and pitching and yawing, in dark night with no moon requires guts and courage of superhuman proportions which our ‘flybhais’ seem to have in ample measure. They are our nations true heroes, not some cardboard cut-out ‘filmi’ characters.
On the two ships that I subsequently commanded, INS Vindhyagiri and INS Jalashwa, I experienced another facet of the Flattop. Both these are steam propelled ships and everybody knows that boiler rooms of steam ships are infernal places where only the toughest can go through that grind. Yet one sees the strange phenomenon of these guys being eternally smiling and cheerful. The stokers on my two ships never let me down even once whether it was in terms of operational commitments or in terms of being the backbone of morale. One day when I queried them about the secret of their sunny attitude they told me they had all learnt it on Viraat where the going was tougher but somehow the josh was limitless. One person told me in colloquial Hindi that Viraat engine room is like an Academy – you never ever forget what you learn there.
Thus, it is that Viraat has been the centrepiece of Indian Navy in these thirty years – her trajectory parallel to ours. Viewed in retrospect, the late eighties were, possibly, to use a much hyped word, a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way we operated in our Navy. For sure, there was some exposure to missile warfare or for that matter ASW prior to this. We had also seen some big ships earlier, the (old) Delhi class and Vikrant. But with the mix of ships now, size, ‘multi-facetedness’ and new methods of maritime combat – all seemed to come together. Everything was bigger, larger or better. There was a huge array of armament – surface to surface missiles, surface to air missiles, medium range guns, close range guns, torpedoes, ASW rockets, depth charges all with associated sensors. The helicopters gave added anti-surface and anti-submarine capability. New concepts like area defence and point defence came to be bandied about and one learnt of variable depth sonars to outwit submarines. All of this was matched by enormous power generation and, high speeds. These times were every ‘fantasy comes true’ for a naval officer, a Fleet that seemed to answer every possible desire and tick every box. It is no surprise then that Viraat and ships of that generation brought in a huge change in our Fleet operations and indeed in the way we thought tactics or imagined combat.
Twenty years ago, on 31 Jan 1997, when INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft carrier and an icon in our nation’s history was decommissioned I saw many wet eyes amongst the thousands of navymen of that era who had served in and about her. Viraat induces the same thought in our generation of officers and sailors. We may be less demonstrative and poetic, yet to use the words of that famous Manna Dey song, she has been, both our ‘Aarzoo’ and ‘Aabrooh’. When the naval ensign is hauled down one last time on her, on 06 Mar 17 and as Viraat slowly fades away it will mark the end of an era. Viva la Viraat and may you live forever in our memories.
Cmde Srikant Kesnur