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The grand old lady of the Indian Navy—it’s either 57 or 29 years old, depending on how you see it—has set sail for the last time.

INS Viraat, the world’s oldest aircraft carrier, which underwent a decommissioning refit at the Kochi shipyard is now on its way to Mumbai for its decommissioning ceremony.

Commissioned into the Indian Navy on 12 May 1987, INS Viraat is actually the new avatar of the HMS Hermes which began life in Britain’s Royal Navy in 1959.

To keep a five-decade-old warship going is no mean feat and that’s the reason the INS Viraat is seen as “the amazing testimony to the Navy’s tenacity. To keep an aircraft carrier of this vintage going is no easy task and all credit must go to the unsung dockyard staff," said a Commodore in the Indian Navy.

The 28,000-tonne warship’s air units operated Sea Harrier fighter jets, apart from a squadron each of Seaking 42 and Chetak helicopters. “It was basically a floating city. From an air strip to a dental chair, the Viraat was equipped with everything and always maintained a crew of 1,500 officers and sailors," recalled a retired commander who spent the bulk of his service life aboard the Viraat.

After the decommissioning of the INS Viraat, the Navy will be left with only one aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which was bought from the Russians for a hefty $2.35 billion and has been active since 2014. “To buy an aircraft carrier, you need long-term planning. You need to buy the aircraft that come with it, it’s a package deal," said commander Ashok Sinha (retd).

India acquired its first aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, way back in 1961 even though traditionally India has focused on safeguarding its land borders because invading armies come always by land—first from the north west and then the north east.

“We were focused on building our conventional deterrence but Prime Minister Nehru had his priorities right when he authorized the purchase in 1961," said AVM Kak (retd,) a defence analyst.

Vikrant played a crucial role in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 when it helped India secure the eastern front from Dhaka to Chittagong, INS Vikrant was mobilized during Operation Parakram in 2001 and was on stand-by during the Kargil conflict in 1999.

“The bond that you have with the ship is unexplainable. The term “mother" sums it all up," said Sinha.

The emotional bond apart, the use of a warship, according to Kak is integral to a country’s power projection. “It (an aircraft carrier) can come to the aid of a city through military means. The Navy has long legs and it helps develop a military presence off-shore. You don’t need land to establish that. Shore-based aircraft can play havoc with ships during times of conflict and an aircraft carrier is integral to providing air defence at sea."

India’s aim is to have two aircraft carriers deployed on its eastern and western coasts at all times. Keeping this aim in mind, the government approved the construction of indigenous aircraft carriers in 1999. The first of these, also to be christened INS Vikrant was expected to be completed in 2016 but this date has now been shifted. It is being built by the Cochin Ship yard.

Only a handful of Navies have aircraft carriers, led by the US.

“The seas are crucial for us to emerge as a power of consequence. Today the bulk of our trade is through sea channels and it will remain this way for years," said Kak.

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