Last year, after a long period of dithering and uncertainty, India’s cabinet finally gave the go-ahead for the raising of a massive new offensive army unit, the 80-90,000-strong China-facing 17 Corps (a corps comprises roughly three divisions). Its underlying purpose is to provide conventional deterrence against China, strengthening India’s hand in crises. Four years after the idea was first mooted, and after a rough year for Sino-Indian relations, it is finally coming to fruition.

The new 17 Corps is the most significant of India’s various efforts to respond to China’s rise in general, and Chinese probing at the disputed in border in particular. Why? Only three of India’s 13 existing army corps are so-called 'strike corps' (1, 2 and 21 Corps), all of which are directed towards Pakistan. 17 Corps will therefore be the first such unit dedicated to China and the first dedicated to mountain terrain, in which offensive operations are much more demanding.

It is now reported that the corps will be based in Panagarh in the eastern state of West Bengal from 2015 (it’s temporarily in Ranchi), with two divisions in Bihar and Assam, and other units spread further. Panagarh was developed as part of the US Army’s 'over the hump’ operations  to supply nationalist Chinese forces across the Himalayas during the Second World War. India’s expanding fleet of American C-130 transport aircraft will also be deployed there, making it easier to move troops across difficult terrain, as will six new mid-air refueling aircraft  the air force is procuring. The corps commander will be Major General Raymond Joseph Noronha, who currently heads the Northern Command’s 13 Corps, which was raised after the Kargil War.

Not everyone is celebrating. Some Indian analysts have argued that 17 Corps will further bloat the Indian Army’s payroll, divert funds for more important capital acquisitions, and be rendered immobile by the poor state of roads in India’s north. Others contend  that China is more vulnerable at sea than on land, and India's offensive capabilities should be concentrated in the navy. The question now is whether 17 Corps will get up and running on schedule (within eight years) or with the same torpor that preceded its formation.

Photo by Flickr user JK.