Recycled Steel: The INS Vikrant

Not every warship meets a dignified end. Some are simply brought to the breakers after years of proud service, not having been sunk but still not quite earning a permanent rest in a friendly port. Others survive as museum ships, but succumb to the sheer costs of being kept afloat and in good condition, and are mothballed and left to rust, someday to be broken up for scrap.

Yet, even as broken steel, some warships manage to live on.

The aircraft carrier Hercules, initially laid down in 1943 as a Majestic-class aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy, was incomplete by the war’s end. She remained that way for decades, until what seemed like the unlikeliest of things happened: she was purchased by the fledgling Indian Navy, in 1957. In 1961, she was completed and commissioned as INS Vikrant (Hindi for “courageous” or “powerful”), the country’s first aircraft carrier.

INS Vikrant, shortly after being commissioned

This was quite a shock across the world, especially to some in India – aircraft carriers, especially a modern British design, are remarkably expensive to maintain, and not necessarily strategically effective for a regional power like India. The Russians especially were quite frustrated by this new aircraft carrier, claiming that it was nothing more than a liability, that it had been bought merely to please the British and would be hardly as useful to India – against either China or Pakistan, two of its most important regional rivals – as a modern (and presumably, Russian) submarine fleet.

Vikrant‘s service began in 1961, the very same year she was commissioned, with the infamous invasion of Goa. She played only a support role here, however; it wouldn’t be until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 that she would see her first taste of battle as a figurehead of the young Indian Navy.

The Pakistanis, perhaps in an attempt to bolster their own citizens’ morale, claimed that they had sunk Vikrant, taking advantage of a period of time when she wasn’t out on the open seas. In truth, she was just undergoing some refits in drydock.

No amount of refits, however, could save her from problems stemming from design and poor maintenance: almost a decade of regular service, coupled with a simple incapability for Indian dockyards to continue repairing an aircraft carrier to the level of service she needed; a regional power like India having an aircraft carrier in the first place was unheard of, and operating Vikrant turned out to be a major hindrance for the navy.

In 1970 she was held up in Mumbai for repairs, immobilised by cracks and leaks in one of her boilers. Not only that, her other three boilers would soon follow if extensive repairs were not made. Unfortunately, the kind of repairs needed in thisc ase simply weren’t possibly at home in Mumbai; still, she was patched up and headed into sea trials in 1971.

INS Vikrant during the 1971 war with Pakistan, alongside a Sea King helicopter

Despite being the flagship of the Indian Navy, Vikrant still wasn’t ready for active service. Nonetheless, with her boiler tubes still needing work, she was pressed into action, only able to make about 12-14 knots at most in her current state. This sparked fears among navy staff, who worried that she could come under threat from Pakistani submarines. She truly was important, despite her sorry state – she was the flagship of the navy, after all, and something to be proud of!

Against expectations, engineers working on Vikrant managed to fix up her second boiler, allowing her to make 18 knots at most, and this advance came just in time: on December 3rd, 1971, India and Pakistan went to war.

Her sailors and pilots were eager to see action, and despite worries that she would be a liability, she was made the forefront of the Indian fleet in the east, striking out against Pakistani targets on land, in the air, and at sea. She was a priority target for the Pakistanis, who were desperate to sink her, even going so far as to mine the Visakhapatnam harbor near the Bay of Bengal to catch her as she made for the sea Рbut despite this and numerous other attempts, they never succeeded. Vikrant and her skilled pilots effectively blockaded East Pakistan, and there was nothing that could stop her. The war was over in two weeks.

However, she had begun showing her age, and part of why she stayed in service for so long was because the Indian Navy based their fleet around her, as their one and only aircraft carrier. But as formidable as she was, by the 1990s she could no longer put out to sea, her mechanical problems having seen only patchwork repairs, not enough to keep her in service. Even when she was overhauled and refitted numerous times, her issues still dogged her; in 1997 she was finally decommissioned, having served with the navy for a rough but distinguished 36 years.

Owing to her fame, Vikrant was set up as a museum ship in Mumbai, near the famous Gateway to India, as IMS Vikrant. However, as early as 2003 it was clear that the cost to support her even in this state would be immense, and the navy was unsure if the demand for her presence as a museum would even materialize.

However, she became immensely popular, with visits by hundreds of thousands of tourists wanting to see her. Donations were constantly open, with the local government looking to find sponsors to support Vikrant in her new home.

This, sadly, would not last. In 2012 she was closed due to security concerns, as funds needed to continue maintaining her dried up and she was eventually sold in 2014 so ship breakers for scrap. By the end of the year, efforts to save her had all failed, and her dismantlement began. India’s first aircraft carrier, her greatest modern vessel, was no more.

She lives on, though, in two ways.

INS Vikrant, India’s newest aircraft carrier, under construction

The first is in INS Vikrant, a new ship class sharing her name, India’s first home-built and designed aircraft carriers. Launched in 2013, they’re expected to be completed and potentially enter service this year.

And then, just recently, the major motorcycle company Bajaj Auto revealed their new bike: the V15. The V15, unusually, is being built partly with steel from INS Vikrant, and will sell at around $800-1000. The bikes will have the insignia of INS Vikrant emblazoned on their fuel tanks, in memory of a warship which faced a sad fate met by too many of her contemporaries.

Perhaps INS Vikrant could have been saved, but I’m not sure if there ever was a truly great desire to preserve her. The Indian Navy doesn’t have the same cultural heritage as the US Navy or the Royal Navy, or even the past navies of other European countries. The navy in general, for the most part, doesn’t hold quite the romance and glory it once did, and I fear this could lead to more great warships like Vikrant being relegated to the breakers – and once a ship has been scrapped, she is gone forever, because each and every warship is truly one of a kind.

If you ever get a chance, try to donate to any maritime museum in your country, just to give them the help they need. In my opinion, there’s no better way to experience history than to be a part of it, by walking the same decks as sailors did decades ago.

I hope that someday these ships can get the respect they deserve from a wider audience, respect that wasn’t there when it counted for old Vikrant.



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