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Saturday, August 20, 2022

'Instrument of Last Resort' marches on 'Agnipath': How can it lead to better operational effectiveness? (Opinion)

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By Major General S.B. Asthana
Strategic Scenario

India faces an unique strategic scenario in which it has unsettled borders with two nuclear neighbours, both of which are illegally occupying some of its territory, as well as an ongoing border standoff with one and a proxy war with the other. Chinese incremental infrastructure development along borders, as well as upcoming villages along the LAC, are leading to LoCization of the LAC, necessitating a large standing army and increased deployment in high altitude areas.

Professional militaries prepare for next war and can’t fight it like last war; hence, force modernisation, inculcating cutting edge niche technology and capacity building in all domains and instruments of warfare is an inescapable requirement for which Indian Military has to transform. ‘Agnipath’ is one such transformational scheme related to recruiting pattern, but big enough to revisit the implications on strong fabric of Indian Military. The Agnipath Scheme has merits to be tried, tested and improved. It shouldn’t be applauded/condemned prematurely nor the concerns can be side-lined, but it deserves a fair chance for implementation and improvement, to arrive at a tested improved model.

Prognosis of Agnipath

Agnipath, like all major transformational decisions, has some degree of uncertainty. Change management is equally important, and too many changes simultaneously reduce acceptability and chances of mitigating the disadvantages of the change. Agnipath seeks to implement four changes concurrently: recruitment pattern, rightsizing of the Indian military, transition to an All India All Class (AIAC) system from a regimental class-based system and reduction in training period. It is preferable to modify the model to prioritise changes and to take fewer steps at a time with adequate scope for mid-course correction.

Operational Issues

The details of the Agnipath Scheme are in the open domain since June 14, and there have been varied views and responses for over two weeks. In comparison to the old recruitment system, the scheme has the advantage of lowering the average age profile of soldiers by about six years (which is relevant due to unprecedented strength in super high altitude terrain necessitating a younger profile) and providing an opportunity for deep selection among Agniveers after four years (a period within which an Agniveer would have been observed in two postings). These advantages come at a high cost in terms of a reduction in the critical attribute of adequate experience, which will become more apparent after a few years of adoption, if the announced model of 25% retention is not mitigated. Going by VCOAS statement of having 50 per cent Agniveers by 2032, if statistically modelled will amount to approximately one trained soldier for three inadequately trained Agniveers, which is operationally unsustainable and must not be compromised. While many may argue that Emergency Commission officers with three months of training and Short Service Commission officers with nine month training and uncertainty of job, when employed in war gave good results, but the population of such officers amidst experienced lot was too less; hence inexperience could be carried through. In my opinion, the retention percentage should be reversed to 75 per cent Agniveers to be retained and 25 per cent be diverted to other avenues of national contribution after skilling and empowering with military ethos.

Human Resource (HR) Issues

The HR concerns seems to have taken away the attention from major transformation issues in last two weeks, with some motivated elements instigating violent protests and political hijacking of the issue. Agnipath being a voluntary scheme unlike conscription in other countries, offers a viable option to a young man with decent financial package to opt for it or otherwise. From candidates point of view, the scheme is most attractive for youngest candidates, who can join at 17-18 years, even if not absorbed in military, can leave at a age when they are eligible for any other competition/job, for which they can have an edge over their counterparts who did not join military, in job market, in terms of qualifications, experience, and finances. As the entry age grows the attractiveness of the package reduces; hence Military can hope to get better recruits by ‘catch them young principle’. The fact that for every vacancy of Agniveer in IAF, more than 20 candidates registered in first few days indicates the availability of adequate volunteers.

The HR viability of the scheme is still untested and will be determined by gauging the type of candidates opting for it in the coming months and actual placements after four years. Agnipath recruitment has to compete with other options for youth offering permanency of job, therefore many concessions have been announced by the Government, public and private sectors, the apprehensions against which will get tested, when the first batch is demobilised. From a military standpoint, the scheme must be appealing enough that it selects Best out of Best rather than Best out of Leftovers. Many more teething problems in HR and legal issues will arise as a result of system change, many of which will have to be experienced and mitigated as they arise. The changes to AIAC require further consideration and should not be grouped with Agnipath, as the strategic and security environment in India is too volatile to depart from time-tested regimental ethos, and should not be compared to other militaries, as no one has the diversity of the kind that the Indian Military has.

Rightsizing/Downsizing: A Misnomer!

It is understandable that in developing economy there is competing demand for financial resources and a need for get more ‘Bang for the Buck’ through modernisation and capacity building in all instruments and dimensions of contact and non-contact warfare. Rightsizing is necessary for optimisation of resources. Rightsizing, does not necessarily means downsizing in Indian scenario wherein the security situation at LC, LAC with proxy and Hybrid war demands enough boots on ground. The Agnipath Scheme is based on the simultaneous downsizing of forces by over one lakh people due to non-recruitment in the last two years and less recruitment in the future. Why is India considering reducing military numbers when the threat is increasing and modernization is insufficient to compensate for the loss of numbers in terms of comprehensive combat power?

For a viable National Security architecture, a ‘Whole of Nation Approach’ is required; thus, the mindset of seeking funds for modernization through military downsizing must be extended to other government bodies such as the PMF, defence civilians, and so on. Identifying existing and future military deficiencies as rightsizing may result in serious voids. If rising pension costs are a concern, MPs’ and MLAs’ multiple pensions provide no justification. Can India afford over 5,79,000 VIPs when no other country has more than 450? It may not be appropriate to grossly downsize ‘Instrument of Last Resort’ for fundraising for modernisation in an era, when war is a national effort, undertaken through nation’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP). The contribution to skilled manpower to reap demographic dividend is welcome step, but it will add to CNP only by maintaining the right balance of operational effectiveness of Indian Military.

(Major General S.B. Asthana is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General. He is the Chief Instructor, United Service Institution of India. The views expressed are personal)

–Ajit Weekly News

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