India's first experience with aircraft carriers was not encouraging. In 1947, we inherited the aircraft carrier Ark Royal as part of our Imperial Gift. At first we were very pleased with this acquisition because the ship was famous, had a large capacity for aircraft and was modern in design. However soon we were to learn that all was not as it seemed. The ship had seen hard service during the Second World War without proper refits and her machinery was very tired. More serious were the problems with her design. Her flight deck was comparatively small but this was nothing compared with her elevators. These were tiny and could not handle modern aircraft at all. Her catapults also were too weak and of unsuitable design. The naval authorities quickly came to the decision that Ark Royal was not fit for service and modernizing her would be beyond our means. Accordingly, the order to scrap her was issued at the end of 1949.
The first objective of our fleet in the 1950s was to identify our major requirements. India's main strategic problem is that it has two coasts that adjoin major oceans yet to get from one to the other is an arduous journey. Furthermore we have a long coastline that requires protection and policing. To the east we had Chipan that was obviously our major threat. To the west there was no great threat then since The Caliphate had yet to emerge. We decided that we needed two fleets, one on each coast with sufficient additional ships to allow for refits and maintenance cycles. There was a political dimension to this as well. India is a regional power whose interests extend over a large geographical area. So, in addition to our need to protect our coast, we also needed the ability to project power far from our home bases.
Our first means of power projection was the formation of the Flying Squadron, built around the three battlecruisers that we had inherited as part of our Imperial Gift, along with a destroyer escort. The Flying Squadron was divided into three divisions, each with a battlecruiser and four destroyers. The Squadron was home-ported at Trincomalee but usually had one division forward-deployed to each coast while the third was in refit. As the 1950s advanced, it became obvious that these divisions would require air cover, attainable only by attaching a carrier to each division. That set our requirement at three aircraft carriers. At that time, the Indian shipbuilding industry was quite incapable of building a carrier. The ship would have to come from abroad. The timing was fortunate, the Americans were withdrawing their modernized Essex class carriers from service and we were able to purchase two of these ships. These became the INS Viraat and the INS Vikrant.
These carriers had been rebuilt with angled decks, steam catapults and modern aircraft handling arrangements. Since two carriers were only enough to ensure that one was available at a given time, we worked on the basis of attaching one carrier to a division of the Flying Squadron as needed. More permanent arrangements were required and that needed a third or even a fourth carrier. That need was well understood and it makes the events of 1963 even more inexplicable. The Australian Navy had bought two modernized Essex class at the same time as we bought ours and had operated them for five years before deciding these ships were beyond their means. They offered them to us at a bargain price, far less than even their scrap value. For reasons that have never been explained, the Indian authorities rejected this offer and the two ships were scrapped. We were forced to struggle on with two carriers. Of course, this meant the ships were overworked and started to wear out quickly.
By the early 1970s, it was obvious the ships would have to be replaced. This was made very clear by the Pescadores Incident where Vikrant was laid up with severe machinery problems and Viraat was severely damaged by a torpedo. For almost a year afterwards we had no operational carriers at all and it wuld be almost two and a half years before we were back to having two. Buying in from outside was an obvious solution but there were no suitable ships available. So a team was assembled to look at the problem and evaluate whether Indian shipbuilding had advanced to the point where we could build the ship ourselves. The Navy Board asked us that very question. And our reply was a very definitive no. Why not? we were asked
The answer was very simple. A ship like this would be a massive project, one that would be the leading program in the Navy for a decade. Everybody would have a hand in it, everybody would push their own ideas and the interests of their own segment of the service. The ship would become a hybrid, a compromise between all those different interests and such a ship would inevitably be a failure. The only way that this project could work is if the design team were allowed absolute authority over the design. There was no hesitation from the Navy Board. That authority was granted and we were guaranteed their unconditional support. Our responsibility was to produce a design for a new aircraft carrier that could be built in Indian yards.
Being granted such freedom was a great vote of confidence and I can tell you also most intimidating. We immediately set to work with great energy. In fact we did not. Admiral Kumar ordered us all to go to our offices and think quietly for a week before setting pen to paper, this was wise advice indeed and we quickly learned its value. The first thing we all thought about was what this ship was supposed to do. The answer was very obvious but also complex. It was an aircraft carrier therefore it should carry aircraft. That was its primary function. It had to carry as many aircraft as possible, and operate them safely. Anything which reduced the number of aircraft the ship could carry and operate was a bad idea. With that basic principle in mind we started work.
The first thing was to fix the size of the ship. The size of the yards and berthing facilities open to us restricted us to a length of 275 meters and a standard displacement of 36,000 tons. This gave us a preliminary fix on the size of the air group for the rule of thumb is one combat aircraft for every thousand tons. So we would have an air group of 36 aircraft. Initially we would use a group of 24 Grumman F-11F-3 Tigers and 12 Douglas A4D-5 Skyhawks but later we hoped that these would be replaced by a group of the new Hindustan Aviation Hornet II multi-role aircraft.
We soon discovered that the aircraft drove every feature of the design. For example, the length of the angled deck was determined by the landing speeds of the aircraft. The size and power of the catapults was determined by their take-off speeds. We had decided to use the American idea of carrying a permanent deck park and this required large areas of flight deck for this purpose. The catapults themselves decided another factor, that of the propulsion plant. The only practical option for the catapults were steam catapults imported from America. These required steam but our preferred power train in the Indian Navy was combined diesel and gas turbines. Would we have to have a special steam plant for the catapults? That made no sense at all. In the end we adopted a radical solution, a combined steam turbine and gas turbine power plant where the ship ran on her steam turbines and cut in her gas turbines for boost. This is a very controversial layout and its use in Australia caused terrible and well-reported problems. Perhaps that was because the Australian ship was too small. A COSAG plant is very complex and requires much in the way of piping and machinery spaces. Compressing it into a small space is a very severe challenge. In designing our carrier we have much more space to use and the results were satisfactory for in our case the COSAG power train worked very well.
Another feature that caused problems was the inclusion of nuclear weapons as part of the ship's armament. These were intended to be delivered by the Skyhawks against naval and shore target. The weapons themselves were held in a special magazine forward and removing weapons from that magazine could only be achieved by the direct personal authority of the Captain using an access card that was only in his possession. This was a well-proven system we had used on our Mysore and Karnataka class cruisers. Loading the nuclear weapons onto the aircraft was to be done on the hangar deck and we obviously did not want nuclear-armed aircraft sitting on the flight deck waiting for launch. So we positioned one lift directly behind the bow catapult with the plan that a nuclear-loaded aircraft would be carried up from the hangar deck straight to the catapult and launched.
Once the ship's power train, the size and configuration of her flight deck and hangar deck were decided, we wrapped the rest of the ship around them. Many painful choices had to be made during this period. One of them was to delete any missile systems from the proposed ships and this lead to the first major confrontation over the design. One day, a Flag Lieutenant, the Doggie for Admiral Ayub, arrived in our offices. This officer demanded that we install heavy batteries of air defense and anti-ship missiles on the new carrier. We explained that installing the proposed anti-aircraft missile armament would cost a third of the air group and the anti-ship missiles another third. Such a heavy missile battery was not the function of this ship, the missiles would be carried by the escorting cruisers and destroyers. The Lieutenant would not accept this explanation and kept repeating that it was for us to find the way of including his ideas. In the end he left but came back an hour later with a supercilious smirk on his face, he was carrying a written order from Admiral Ayub, instructing us to include the Lieutenant's proposed features in the new aircraft carrier design without question.
We took this matter straight to Admiral Kumar who was most angry. Admiral Ayub had no authority to write such an order. Admiral Kumar appeared in our offices and ordered the lieutenant to sit in the anteroom and wait. Soon Admiral Ayub arrived and was conducted into a meeting at the highest level of the Navy. At the end of that meeting he had been reassigned to the post of Chief Recruiting Officer for Waziristan province in the North West territories with his Doggie as his only assistant. We had other attempts to change our design work. Some came from those who were well-meaning and these we would listen to even though their ideas were never practical. Others only wanted to make changes so they could claim they had taken part in the design of our Navy's largest ship and these were the ones who caused problems. Here I must pay tribute to the design office's secretary Rajinder Singh. This lady has the most beautiful English accent and on the telephone most people assume she is English. She is the person who keeps the design office running and looks after us so well that we all believe that a ship should be named in her honor. Whenever a troublemaker came, she would call Admiral Kumar direct and say "Sir, we have another one." And Admiral Kumar would drop what he was doing and intercept the man so he would not disturb our work.
Within 18 months we had a solid design. Mostly we had followed the Essex layout with a hull that had the hangar deck as its strength deck and all above that as superstructure. Although we followed the Essex layout in concept this does not mean we had no ideas of our own. One was important and most successful. If you look at the stern of the ship, there is a large door built in, level with the hangar deck. This has been described as many things, as a door for a variable depth sonar or a towed array. Others have said it was for torpedo decoys or for the launch of landing craft. All these were wrong and cause us much amusement for the answer could be easily found with a measuring tape. The lower edge of the ramp that forms the door is exactly the same height as the wharfs at the Naval Munitions Stations. You see, when loading weapons in the normal way, a truck delivers the weapons to the wharf. Cranes then transfer the munitions to the flight deck of the carrier. They are then taken down to the hangar deck and then transferred to the magazines. Many transfers, much hard work.
With our design, we lower that ramp and the truck can drive straight onto the aircraft carrier's hangar deck. The munitions are unloaded directly from the truck onto the bomb elevator to the magazine. Only one transfer and much less hard work to be done. This system means we can load munitions twice as quickly as even the big American carriers. Of course, that access proved also to be very useful for other things as well but even if they are neglected, the idea has been most successful.
After two years of hard work the design was completed and we had to present it to the Navy Board. I can tell you none of us slept very well the night before the presentations started. We met with the Board and unveiled our design then gave a long day presentation of what we had decided and why. Then for the next week we had to justify the designs we had made and defend them against criticism and challenges. Some valuable ideas came out of those sessions and caused us to make small changes to the internal arrangements of the ships. By the end of the week though, our design had been vindicated and the Navy Board ruled that the orders were to be placed as soon as the Government authorized construction.
This took place in the 1974 budget and the first ship of the class was laid down at Mazagon in 1975. After four years hard work, she was launched in 1979 with the second ship being laid down within hours of the building slip being cleared. The new INS Viraat was commissioned in 1983 with her sistership INS Vikrant following in 1986 and the final member of the class, INS Vitrapa following in 1989.