The first aircraft carrier to serve the Indian Navy became INS Vikrant (R11) in 1961. The vessel was built up from the existing HMS Hercules of the British Royal Navy, a Majestic-class carrier, whose construction was started during World War 2 (1939-1945) but not finished before the end of the conflict. The incomplete warship was then sold off to the Indian government in 1957 and finished off as the "Vikrant" (meaning "Courageous" or "Valor") in 1961. The warship was formally christened INS Vikrant (R11) on March 4th, 1961 and assigned to the homeport of Bombay. She served as a powerful regional symbol (and deterrent) up until the 1990s.
During World War 2, the British Navy embarked on a new "intermediate" aircraft carrier design intended to bridge the gap between its full-sized fleet carriers and the smaller, more economical, escort carriers. The result was the Colossus and Majestic classes of "light fleet carriers" which began construction in March of 1942. Sixteen were planned but, in the event, fifteen were completed and five of the lot became Majestic-class vessels. With the war ending in 1945, the Royal Navy was put into a massive drawdown of its forces and part of its surplus became the Majestic-class. HMS Hercules, once intended to become one of the type, was selected for sale to India in January of 1957.
As completed, the warship held its island superstructure to its starboard side, leaving the port, bow and stern areas free of obstructions. A single hangar allowed for stowage of various types of combat aircraft under the flightdeck and two electrically-powered elevators serviced them. The receiving deck was angled from the rear-starboard side to the portside. A steam-based catapult was used to help propel outgoing aircraft from the flightdeck.
Aboard were 1,110 souls and systems included an air-search radar, a surface-search radar and various other suites. Armament was strictly defensive in nature and revolved around 16 x 40mm Bofors autocannons. The warship could embark up to twenty-three aircraft depending on make and model.
After commissioning in 1961, Vikrant was sent to Tamil Nadu for her notable voyage and, in 1965, India entered into war with neighboring Pakistan but Vikrant was being refitted during the commitment. As such her warplanes were operated from land bases during the war - which ended with inconclusive results for both sides. In 1971, the two nations found themselves again at odds and went to war once more. This time, Vikrant was able to operate her air wing as normal and launched ground strikes and Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) led mainly by her jet-powered Hawker Sea Hawk fighter-bombers (detailed elsewhere on this site). Anti-Submarine / Anti-Ship sorties were handled by Breguet Alize prop-driven aircraft (detailed elsewhere on this site). Unlike the war of 1965, the war of 1971 ended as a decisive Indian victory and Vikrant played a major role in suppressing Pakistani Army ground movements/resupply in the east and blockading East Pakistan as a whole. Her aircrew also claimed several Pakistani navy and mercantile vessels during the fracas.
Twice the aircraft carrier was put into a period of refitting and modernization intended to keep her viable for the near-future and the first occurred in 1979-1981 and the second in 1987-1989. This led to an update of her propulsion scheme (new boilers), radar fit, Anti-Aircraft (AA) defense and operations center. She was then given new equipment to support operation of the newly-acquired fleet of BAe Sea Harrier (FRS.Mk 51) jump-jet aircraft from Britain. This led to an angled "ski jump" being built at her bow to facilitate getting the Harriers airborne in short order (the steam catapult was deleted). Another change to the air arm came with the introduction of the Westland "Sea King" (Mk 42) helicopter and these were used to succeed the Alize aircraft in same mission role - however, the Alize continued to operate alongside the Sea Kings into the 1990s.
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