About six minutes before the final, five helicopter ensemble touched down upon the flight deck of aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the formation froze. With that emerged, over a radius 18.5km on the warm waters of the Arabian Sea with the Vikramaditya at its heart, among the biggest naval congregations ever witnessed – a sight sparkling with the more than 60 aircraft, 30 surface ships and five submarines.
December 15 marked the first ever Combined Commanders Conference (CCC) outside New Delhi and on board a carrier, as mandated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who chaired the annual affair.
At an average depth of about 100m, found traversing approximately 50km west from the southern port city of Kochi, was where the chosen ‘site’ lay.
By 9:30am, three Seaking and two Dhruv copters dropped the Prime Minister and his entourage on board the Vikramaditya. As the formation sailed, the PM locked himself along with the senior commanders for two straight hours discussing what was off limits for most. In his public speech, Modi complimented the armed forces for the ‘maturity and responsibility’ with which they wielded power.
However, he made clear his dislike for ‘doing more of the same’ and stated how ‘modernisation and expansion at the same time’ was ‘unnecessary’. He also felt ‘sad’ that defence reforms had not been implemented.
Beginning with firing of guns, rockets and missiles from a slew of ships, the second, smaller carrier, INS Viraat steamed past the Vikramaditya, extending salutations. Her vintage air element, consisting of the ‘Angel’ Chetaks took off followed by ‘White Tiger’, Sea Harrier jets. Next to emerge was a predator seldom seen. Cruising at over 36 kmph (it can do more) came the navy’s sole operational nuclear-propelled submarine, INS Chakra. Subsequent display was carried out by the Rajput class of destroyers which came into the navy in the 80s, the Delhi class which joined the fleet in the 90s as well as the recently commissioned stealth ships of the Shivalik, Talwar and Kolkata class. By the time naval offshore patrol vessel INS Suvarna, capable of launching ballistic missiles, concluded the steam past, another, simultaneous show concluded as well.
Given the paucity of time, the navy fielded two demonstrations at once.
With the ships came the aerial assets. Within those 55 minutes, five Chetak, three Seaking B, two Ka 31 helicopters as well as three Dornier, five Advanced Jet Trainer Hawks, six MiG29K, one IL38 Sea Dragon and a P8I long range fixed wing aircraft flew past as well. Unlike Modi’s visit last year, this time, six MiG29K were launched and recovered from the INS Vikramaditya, three used the ‘long’ 195m runway and the others used the ‘short’ 125m runway – the span within which the engines propel the planes to speeds beyond 180 kmph failing which the bird would simply crash into the sea.
To conclude, the elite Marine Commandos or MARCOS slithered down before the Prime Minister from the self made Dhruv helicopters. A ‘good show’ done, a 20 minute break followed during which Modi met air warriors, men from the Madras regiment and sailors on board.
On the deck, there hardly was a ‘break’. Efforts were underway to get it ‘cleared’ of the fighters which had landed following the demonstration. Space had to be made for the five helicopters to embark the VVIPs and transport them ashore. They did so by 2pm.
The navy had time to plan this out. What came as bonus was the re-scheduling which saw the event shift from October to December on account of the Prime Minister’s travel. While the responsibility of readying and sailing the ships and submarines in time fell upon the fleet commanders of the eastern and western commands that of preparing the aircraft fell upon officers in New Delhi. In all, over 10,000 naval personnel contributed in some way. At sea, the Master of Ceremony (MC) was Rear Admiral Ravneet Singh, the western fleet commander. From on board Vikramaditya, he along with the Commanding Officers of the ships and aircraft participating ensured it went off well.
The question of securing the VVIPs as well as over 2200 personnel (in the place of 1500 otherwise), in international waters on board INS Vikramaditya did rise. While there were stand by assets for every eventuality, even those decked up and participating had to do their bit in sanitising the scene.
“You must not forget that five submarines participated but only one showed up on surface. Let’s just leave it at that,” said an officer.