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New chief takes over India's army

General Dalbir Singh will inherit on Thursday the leadership of the army from General Bikram Singh when the force is in the midst of a costly transformation to fill critical gaps in capabilities.

The Indian army is devoting efforts to set up a new mountain strike corps to counter China in the eastern sector, induct U.S.-made Apache attack helicopters, address frustrating ammunition shortages, modernise its artillery and replace obsolete air defence systems.

A significant challenge for Dalbir Singh will be to shore up the army's capabilities at a time when a budget squeeze threatens to crimp India's ability to spend on advanced weaponry.

"The economy is under pressure and we cannot afford to be too aggressive on military spending. The new chief will have to find a balance and provide rigorous leadership," a former defence secretary told HT.

A highly-decorated general, Dalbir Singh brings vast military experience to the table. The 59-year-old officer has headed the operationally-critical Eastern Command, commanded a corps in the northeast and led a mountain division in the sensitive Kargil sector.

That experience will be put to test during his two-and-a-half year tenure as army chief. There are chinks in the armour that need to be fixed.

The army has not bought a single artillery gun since the Bofors scandal exploded in the late 1980s. The $4 billion artillery modernisation plan has been fraught with difficulties at every step of the process.

The army's plans to buy 145 BAE Systems M777 ultra-light howitzers to sharpen its offensive capabilities in the mountains have hit a hurdle due to high acquisition cost and the vendor's inability to meet a key obligation under the proposed contract. Lack of these guns could hamper the setting up of the new strike corps.

Another priority for Dalbir Singh would be to give impetus to Project F-INSAS (Future Infantry Soldier as a System), a programme that seeks to exploit advanced technologies to make the Indian soldier more lethal.

Dalbir Singh takes over as army chief at a time when China's growing military might poses a serious challenge to India. A new border pact signed by New Delhi and Beijing last year has failed to ease Chinese aggression along the disputed Line of Actual Control where the cycle of transgressions continues.

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