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HindustanTimes Thu,17 Apr 2014

Nod to new corps to counter China may fast-track crucial buys

Rahul Singh, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, July 18, 2013
First Published: 20:48 IST(18/7/2013) | Last Updated: 20:54 IST(18/7/2013)

The army is hoping that the government’s approval to shore up its offensive capabilities in the northeast is likely to lend new fervour to some military acquisitions that have been plagued by time overruns.

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The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) clearance to raise a mountain strike corps, with more than 45,000 soldiers, is expected to fast-track the acquisition of ultra-light howitzers, artillery guns, unmanned aerial vehicles, radars and specialised equipment for mountain warfare, a senior official said.

India will spend more than Rs. 62,000 crore over the next seven years to set up the new strike corps --- the army’s fourth but first in the northeast --- along the China border.

The new corps, to be based in West Bengal, will include two infantry divisions, three artillery brigades, one engineer brigade and a combat aviation brigade.

Experts, however, said the government’s nod to set up the new strike corps was a small step and the real test would be equipping the new formation with the capability to counter a rising Chinese military.

Strategic affairs expert Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) said the move to set up the new strike corps would help India upgrade its military strategy against China from dissuasion to deterrence.

But Kanwal doubted if mere approval of huge expenditure could hasten pending military acquisitions.

He said, “Weaknesses in the acquisition process are systemic. I fear the new formations will be raised with basic equipment. There’s going to be delay in induction of weapons that need to be imported, as has been the case over the last 10 years.”

Army sources, however, said China’s aggressive posturing along the disputed border in the Ladakh sector had lent urgency to scale up military capabilities.

The army hopes the decision to set up the new corps will speed up the acquisition of M777 ultra-light howitzers from the US to sharpen its offensive capabilities in the mountains. India plans to buy 145 howitzers in a potential deal worth more than Rs. 3,000 crore.

Made of titanium and aluminum alloys, the lightweight gun (4,220 kg) can be swiftly deployed in remote theatres of operation.

The $4 billion (Rs 24,000 crore) artillery modernisation plan, fraught with difficulties at every step of the process, could also gain momentum, a source said.

There's frustration in the army over delays in inducting almost 3,000 guns including towed artillery guns and self-propelled tracked guns. The army has not inducted any new gun since the Bofors controversy erupted in 1987.

Only a handful of foreign vendors manufacture these systems. At least three such suppliers are on the defence ministry's watch-list over kickback allegations, limiting the ministry's buying options and creating a single-vendor situation -- a strict no-no under India's arms purchase policy.

The army had first proposed setting up a new mountain strike corps six to seven years back, but it was caught in morass of bureaucratic procedures.

The proposal had been shuttling between the defence ministry and the finance ministry, with the latter raising questions about the financial implications of raising such a military formation. The proposal was taken up by the CCS on Wednesday after the finance ministry was satisfied by the defence ministry’s clarifications to the objections raised by it.

Long Haul

The new strike corps will give the army the capability to mount offensive action into the Tibet Autonomous Region in case of any misadventure by Chinese forces.

The raising of the corps will begin after the army receives a formal letter of sanction from the government. It could take six months to one year.

The corps is expected to be based at Panagarh in West Bengal.

Land would have to be acquired in Bengal, Assam, Orissa and Bihar where various elements of the corps will be based.

The corps will take at least seven years to be fully operational.

The cost of setting up the corps is estimated to be upwards of Rs. 62,000 crore.

The army had set up two new divisions in the northeast in 2009-10 to defend Arunachal Pradesh.

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