A history of the long-serving aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and INS Viraat

  • Aircraft carriers have been a dominant naval asset for nearly a century.
  • Their high cost and sturdy construction mean that these flattops often serve for decades.
  • One of the oldest was HMS Hermes, which spent a total of 58 years in two navies.

Since World War II, aircraft carriers have been one of the most important weapons in the military arsenal.

A nation with flattops can influence affairs far from its shores, and the more it can deploy, the more strength it can project into the world.

The financial and technological requirements to build and deploy carriers mean that only a few countries can develop and maintain them. This barrier to entry means that only a few countries can field even a single carrier.

The United States can deploy 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, reflecting its superpower status. China is building or testing three flattops and the UK has two new carriers. Several other countries, including France, Russia and India, have at least one.

But carriers, once built, can serve for a long time. One of the oldest was HMS Hermes, which spent a total of 58 years in the British and Indian navies.

HMS Hermes

British aircraft carrier Hermes

The British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sails to London in 1950.

Illustrated Parade/File Photos/Getty Images

HMS Hermes was a conventionally powered Centaur-class flattop that was built in 1944. Construction was halted for several years and the carrier was not launched until 1953. It entered service with the Royal Navy in 1959.

The flattop began its career as a CATOBAR aircraft carrier and could carry up to five fixed and rotary wing squadrons.

Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery, or CATOBAR, carriers use catapults to launch planes and arrest wires to recover them, allowing planes to take off and land on a bridge that is only a few hundred feet tall. feet long instead of a mile or more.

But in the early 1970s, the Royal Navy decided to convert Hermes to support the operations of Royal Marine Commandos – like the US Navy’s amphibious assault ships. Docking space for 800 troops was added, and helicopters became Hermes’ main aircraft.

Hermes was refitted again in the early 1980s, when the threat of Soviet submarines prompted the Royal Navy to reassign the ship to anti-submarine warfare. This modification also converted Hermes into a short takeoff, barrier-arrested recovery or STOBAR carrier.

A ski jump was added to the bow of Hermes and it again accommodated fighter aircraft, namely the Sea Harrier, which was designed for short, vertical takeoffs and landings.

Royal Navy crew members aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes

Royal Navy crew members relax aboard HMS Hermes as they sail to the Falkland Islands, 1982.

Hulton-Deutsch/CORBIS/Corbis Collection via Getty Images

During the Falklands War in 1982, HMS Hermes was the flagship of the British armada, leading over 100 ships across the South Atlantic to retake the islands from the Argentines.

Hermès’ sister ship and fellow STOBAR carrier, HMS Invincible, played a crucial role in the UK’s success. Sea Harrier fighter jets operating from both flattops gave British air dominance and ensured ground troops could land and retake the Falklands.

The Argentines recognized the importance of the British aircraft carriers and repeatedly attempted to sink them with daring air attacks. They sank several escort ships and claimed to have hit Invincible, but the flattops emerged from the conflict unscathed. (The British armada included two improvised aircraft carriers, one of which was sunk.)

Hermès’ life after the Falklands was brief. After a refit and an exercise, the aircraft carrier was decommissioned in 1984, but that was not the end of her career.

The British had tried to offload Hermes before – including a mid-1960s bid to Australia that failed due to the high cost to man and operate the carrier – and in 1983 offered again. to sell it to Australia, which once again transformed them. down.

Indian Navy sailor on the aircraft carrier Viraat

Indian sailors on the rails of INS Viraat during a fleet review in Mumbai, December 20, 2011.

Mahendra Parikh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The carrier was sold to India in 1986. After undergoing a refit, the carrier was commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Viraat in a ceremony held in the United Kingdom in May 1987.

It became the flagship of the Indian Navy and took part in a number of operations including India’s peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka in 1989 and India’s blockade of Pakistani ports during the Kargil War in 1999 Viraat also participated in Exercise Malabar, an annual exercise involving the United States, India and other navies.

After nearly six decades of service, the Hermes was finally decommissioned by the Indian Navy in 2017. In 2019, the Indian government decided to scrap the aircraft carrier.

After years of attempts by state governments and private actors to preserve the carrier as a museum, including a last-minute legal effort to prevent it from being totally dismantled, the carrier was dismantled in 2021.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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