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Agnipath: Blaze of Fire or Glory?

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By Wing Commander Satish Aparajit (Retd) 

The launch of the much debated Agnipath scheme is causing a stir, to put it in the mildest terms. As a retired Air Force officer, I too am part of this debate and have been pondering how this is going to serve our country, the military and the young aspiring agniveers.

The Agnipath scheme is aimed at recruiting young people aged between 17.5 years to 21 years of age for a period of 4 years into the military. The upper age limit has been raised to 23 years for this year as a knee-jerk reaction after young aspiring men took to streets. The intent is to have competent young tech savvy persons who will serve the armed forces and later be an asset to the nation. After completing four years, 25% of the most competent individuals would be absorbed in the Army. Ten percent, as announced would be absorbed in the CRPF and Assam Rifles and other allied government services. The remaining would get a lumpsum of Rs 11 lakhs, which it is believed would help them to become entrepreneurs.

The Agniveers will be trained for a period of six months. Thereafter, there is no clarity about how they will be made combat ready. The regular recruits are trained for nine months and then sent to battalions for another 2 to three years before they are operationally ready to be deployed on combat role. However, soldiers on retirement usually find themselves a part of the work force of guards and watchman, so will the Agniveers have the same livelihood trajectory? Rather than have motivated skilled personnel, we may have disgruntled youth who firstly have not made the cut into the army and further do not have the necessary competence to be able to take their place in a rapidly changing world with technology at its heart.

Conventional warfare is being replaced by more advanced technical warfare which requires a different skill-set, so, will the short time that they are undergoing training equip them with the necessary skills and what use will this be in the world outside? The bulk of army recruits are from rural background, where education facilities are rather pathetic. How will the Agniveer cope with the highly technical armed forces particularly IAF and Navy?

The National Security Advisor (NSA) seems to be the driving force behind this decision. Senior armed forces personnel have felt slighted as they were not consulted nor the chiefs were a part of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) which took the decision. The Service Chiefs seem to have acquiesced for reasons best known to them. The rumours doing the rounds is that a recently retired Army Chief did give a push back and suggested a pilot project with 1000 soldiers and 100 officers. However, it did not pass muster with the powerful lobby of bureaucrats and politicians.

What the Government is trying to do, perhaps, is three different things together – reducing the pension liability by reducing the numbers, national integration by making the battalions a mixed instead of one region or linguistic based battalions, and optimisation. Let’s examine all three arguments. Pensions are believed to take away a major portion of the defence budget and this scheme would provide a work force with no pension liability. This is a specious argument as the civilian employees of the armed forces eat into a large portion of the pension budget. In the second case, mixed regimentation was tried a few years ago in the army but was not successful. Whereas, in the IAF and Navy, it’s a different ball game. There is no regimentation, the cadres are from all walks of life, caste and religion, which has worked well but it cannot work immediately in the army. Many regiments in the army have over two centuries of historical background. To be selected in the army means a lot for the rural youth, the entire village celebrates, a proud moment for the family besides providing job security. A regimented soldier is ever willing to put his life on the line as he knows that in case of any mishap, the family will be looked after. They rely on a sense of community and regimental glory is supreme for them.

What could be the fall out on 75% or 65% after 10% are absorbed in various departments of the Government? The employability of the 65% is difficult as there are no skills imparted that will make them ready to face civilian life.

It may also lead to frustration to the level that some of the trained agniveers may opt to become mercenaries and fight against the establishment, support jehadis, etc. It cannot be ruled out. A number of countries have these kinds of private armies, and they welcome a trained soldier as it saves them the cost of training.

The Agniveer will also have huge inferiority complex against the regulars. In fact, the regulars will probably not accept them as their colleagues.

There is no doubt the country needs well-trained modern armed forces. The downsizing of the armed forces has been planned for over a decade now. If one is to look at the reality given the future scenario that most of the wars would be fought with remote control and highly advanced tech weapons, a large army is not required and the same is the case with the IAF & Navy. However, as far as India and its adversaries are concerned, there will still be scope for some conventional short duration war. So, the requirement of the army continues to be high. However, we are still stuck in the doctrine of the Second World War – long pending modernisation and total transformation is the need of the hour. This would mean reduction in numbers, making the fighting forces lean and mean but making them more skilled and technologically able. The US Armed Forces way back in 1975 correctly realised the landscape of warfare would rapidly transform itself given the swift technological advances taking place with the intention of swift mobilisation within the shortest time. While expanding and adding Agniveers might be a short term strategy, in the long run, the most important aspect is building infrastructure on both fronts i.e. China and Pakistan, with rapid mobilisation in mind. That’s the key to winning the war, how fast can one mobilise forces at the shortest time. China in fact realised this a few years ago and immediately started developing infrastructure at the borders and well within Indian Territory, with no hostile opposition from India.

As I write this article, the news from IAF is that a well-nigh close to eighty thousand people have already applied to be Agniveers, though there is no clarity on which trades and skills will be offered to these aspirants. What will be the selection criteria or process is not spelt out as per the 7-page guideline issued by the IAF. That the DRDO has test flown stealth drones clearly indicates what India’s future armed forces are likely to be. Their eyes are on the future but is Agnipath the answer? I am not sure, only time will tell. Maybe Agnipath will become the game changer.

Right now, let’s take a deep breath and follow the debates raging in the media and hope it is a step in the right direction and does not cause a rent in fabric of the pride of the nation – The Indian Armed Forces.