INS Viraat Till 2013?

On January 5, Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta told me that aircraft carrier INS Viraat would steam on for another seven years. And the warship’s skipper Captain Girish Luthra said, “The ship is in excellent condition. It is up to the Naval Headquarters to decide how long we use her, but I can say she is in top form. Even the British officers who have served on her previously have visited and said she is in better condition now than she was 40 years ago.” That says a lot about the vessel itself, but it says more about the Indian military’s predilection – and, indeed, proficiency – in keeping an ageing ship operational for so long after it was to have been decommissioned. The photo to the right shows the Viraat from Google Earth, docked at the Colaba base along with INS Shakti/Aditya, a destroyer, a few frigates, Tarantul corvettes, and five submarines.

In the last one year, I’ve had the opportunity to be on board Viraat on two separate occasions, both times for over 24 hours. I spoke to people from all departments and duties on board, and they have no problems saying that Viraat has never been in better shape. An extensive refit between 1999-2001 gave the ship, among other things, a new propulsion system, better sensors, a tightened up communications ensemble, a long-range surveillance radar, and included making living conditions better for its complement of 150 officers and 1,500 sailors, replacing large areas of the ship's body with structural welded steel. All of this made Viraat extremely sea-worthy. In June 2005, she was sailed into South East Asia for a subtle "presence" exercise.

The vessel had another brief refit in 2003-04, at which time she was integrated with at least two more radars, and the Barak surface-to-air and point defence missile system.

As I have written before, with a new lease of operational life, the Navy may just about realise its long-standing dream of operating three aircraft carriers, albeit for a short period. Next year, it will add the carrier INS Vikramaaditya (the rechristened Admiral Gorshkov) to its fleet, and the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) in 2011-2012. With three carriers, the Navy will be able to project power off both seaboards, a massive force multiplier. Former chief Admiral Arun Prakash has written one of the tightest and informative
essays on India's quest for carriers.

Following a report on May 11, 2005 in The Indian Express about a team of young IIT-Kanpur graduates making a mark in the country’s guided missile programme, Naval Headquarters hired the services of the same group to fix a fundamental flaw in how warships “talk” to helicopters.

The team recently went on board aircraft carrier INS Viraat and proved equal to the challenge.
The Navy’s fleet of Kamov-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters, one of its prime force multipliers, cannot effectively operate off all Naval warships — apart from the three Talwar-class stealth frigates — because of the absence of a crucial but expensive Russian navigational computer called the Elman system.

The IIT graduates, part of an incubation outfit at IIT-Kanpur called Whirlybird Electronics, were invited on board INS Viraat during the Indo-French Naval exercise Varuna in March. The team then put to the test its equipment, called NELM (an inside joke for “Not-Elman”), or technically as shipborne inertial aligment & transfer unit.

Of 15 communication tests conducted between the aircraft carrier and a Kamov-31 helicopter, NELM passed 14. The error was described as a “planned error of limits.” Now the Naval project manager, Cdr C Raghuram, has asked the IIT team led by aerospace engineering graduate Bhrah Dutt Awasthi to fine-tune their device and bring it back in four months.

“The project was initiated by the Navy chief’s scientific advisor B Lalmohan in coordination with the Weapons & Electronic System Engineering Establishment (WESEE), and is now in progress,” a Naval spokesperson said. A helicopter on a ship does not have independent means to read the ship’s own course and other parameters and requires this vital link at all times, in order to perform as a sophisticated early warning system.

“We have created a clone of the Elman through 100 per cent back-computing and reverse engineering. In four months, we will take back a fully operational product for further testing,” Awasthi told The Indian Express from Kanpur. The Navy soon wants to use early-warning helicopters to be used across the fleet.

UPDATE March 15: Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament today, "A study group has been constituted to explore the feasibility of extending the service life of Indian Naval ship Viraat till 2012. The study group has recommended that extension of the service life of the ship up to 2012 is possible subject to certain repairs being undertaken in addition to routine periodic maintenance. Warships are inducted in the Navy for replacement and augmentation of Naval Fleet. This is a continuous process based on the threat perception and international security environment. It will not be in the interest of National Security to divulge the details of the replacement and augmentation of Naval Fleet."

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