Projecting Power

A reality check of India’s naval aviation strength

Rohan Ramesh

Globally, naval aviation has over the years evolved exponentially. Naval warships face two threats, from the air and under the sea. Modern warships have powerful anti-aircraft batteries and missiles that can deal with the threat from air, but it is aviation, fighters and helicopter gunships, which can take off from the ships’ decks that have made naval ships more lethal than ever. Ship-borne aviation can deal with both the attacking warplanes as well as the lurking danger beneath, which is submarines.

MiG-29k taking off from INS Vikramaditya

The concept of using air power from ships was first initiated by the British. The French soon followed suit. The US Navy’s first test aircraft take-off and landing from a ship were performed by pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss and US Navy Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson.

According to, Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya was used in support of a conflict between Japanese and German forces at Tsingtao in China during World War I. Air units of the Wakamiya also engaged in an attack which purportedly sunk a German minelayer and damaged shore installations, arguably the first air raid in history to result in a success.

The first reported torpedo ‘kill’ happened when a Short Type 184 flown by Flight Commander Charles Edmonds from HMS Ben-my-Chree sank a Turkish supply ship in World War I in 1915. Using a 14-inch-diameter, 370 kg torpedo the pilot sank the Turkish ship which had earlier been hit by a torpedo from another ship.

The success of naval aviation during World War I prompted the world powers to take a closer look at the concept. Britain’s Royal Ark was the world’s first modern ‘aircraft carrier’. The tag of the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier goes to Japanese ship Hōshō (1921).

But naval aviation actually became a force to reckon with only during World War II. As they had interests in the Pacific to protect, Japan and the US were the main proponents of naval aviation along with Britain. To a lesser extent France, Soviet Union and Italy also used naval aviation.


Post-War Period

In the early period that followed World War II, British pilot Lt Cdr Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown landed a de Havilland Vampire LZ551/G jet aircraft on the HMS Ocean. Soon angled flight decks were the norm and by the Fifties jet aircraft were common on aircraft carriers.

Indian Context

The Indian Navy’s Naval Air arm is the unit which has the responsibility of providing aircraft carrier-based strike capability, fleet air defence, maritime reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare capability.

Its other tasks include but are not restricted to sea-to air-combat, surface attack, anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, aerial reconnaissance, weather observation, and material transportation.

The birth of the Indian Navy’s air arm began with the commissioning of naval air station INS Garuda in 1953. INS Vikrant was India’s first aircraft carrier. Although acquired from Britain in 1961, INS Vikrant did not see action until the 1971 war in which the ship, despite all its structural problems – ruled the seas, denying space to the incipient Pakistan Navy.

India added another aircraft carrier to its fleet in 1987 when it acquired INS Viraat – a Centaur class carrier that had served in the Royal Navy as HMS Hermes and was decommissioned in 1984. She served for over 30 years in the Indian Navy until being decommissioned in 2017. INS Viraat operated Sea Harriers as the primary aircraft of its air component and displaced 28,700 tonnes fully loaded.

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