The Indian Navy's ageing aircraft carrier, INS Viraat is set to return to operational service after a year-long sick leave.
The 45-year-old carrier had to be nursed in dry-dock at Kochi for most of the year. It is now sailing again off the coast of Mumbai for trials of its combat worthiness.
"Viraat should be back in service in about a month," Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash told the Hindustan Times.
The Navy has plans to herald its return as the centerpiece of the Western Fleet by inviting the PM on board in February 2005 to review the capability of India's frontline warships at sea.
Elaborate repairs and refitting had to be carried out on India's lone aircraft carrier in dry dock to keep it going. The 23,900-ton vessel had to be tugged back to dry dock for a rehab barely two years after an extensive life-extension, which was intended to give it a 10-year lease of life. The Viraat was unavailable to the Navy for two years during this period.
The Navy denies a premature breakdown of the Viraat, maintaining that dry docking is part of "routine preventive maintenance". It also claims that if an emergency had arisen, the maintenance could have been suspended and the carrier pushed back into operations at very short notice.
Nonetheless, the unavailability of the Viraat for a year has once again exposed the limitations of having a solitary carrier on an extended life. Warships are generally built for life spans of not more than 30 years. This one is past 45.
The frequent lay-offs of the Viraat for nursing have also put a question mark over its reliability at a time when the naval emphasis is on a high level of deployment.
"During the last two years, the Western fleet has logged 400 days at sea," Fleet Operations Officer Captain Sunil Lamba said.
The Western Fleet comprises an estimated 21 frontline surface warships, but the carrier - which is critical to both power projection and suppression of enemy defences — is sorely missed.
The Navy has long pressed its case for having at least two carriers. Relief cannot be expected earlier than in May 2008, when the retrofitted Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov is due to be delivered to the Indian Navy.
The indigenous carrier, the Air Defence Ship, could take up to nine years to build at Kochi.
The consolation is that the Barak missile defence system has been installed and validated on Viraat as it now returns to service.
Modifications have also been made to enable the carrier to operate in a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) warfare environment, sources said.