Agnipath: An opportunity to transform armed forces into a lean and efficient combat force

Since 14 June 2022, the day the defence minister and three chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force announced the launch of a new recruitment poli...

Since 14 June 2022, the day the defence minister and three chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force announced the launch of a new recruitment policy for the armed forces, Agnipath, the media has been agog with discussions and opinions. While the majority of opinions are positive, there are some to the contrary. Are these voices resistant to change?

The armed forces operate in a set pattern which has evolved over historical themes as well as experiences accrued from wars and operations. There is much institutional memory preserved over years which is useful in developing war-fighting tactics on the battlefield as well as larger strategies. Then there is the component of morale, josh and pride which men in the units inculcate due to the system of regimentation.

Experience shows that these are important ingredients for victory in any battle. Any perceived alteration generates a sense of venturing into an area of unknown, outcome of which is uncertain till proven in a battlefield. It is for this reason that table top and mock exercises are scheduled. However, the armed forces are conditioned to accept challenges of change and even this time around they will develop strategies to win wars with capable and well-trained ‘Agniveers’.

Agnipath is a new recruitment procedure which aims to induct a fixed number of soldiers/sailors/airmen for a duration of four years. At the culmination of four years 25 per cent of a batch will be retained in service, whereas 75 per cent will venture into new careers in the civil world but suitably armed with skills, outlook and education. There will be a separation package of approximately Rs 12 lakh which could be utilised for starting small business ventures or further studies. Services will endeavour to provide a skill set and credit points which will be helpful for a second career.

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The education ministry has stated that Agniveers will get 50 per cent credit for pursuing graduation from IGNOU. Provisions are being made for lateral induction into the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) and Assam Rifles. It is expected that the private sector engaged in defence production under the aegis of Aatmanirbhar Bharat would induct these well-trained, disciplined and skilled men into their industries. The induction age group has been pegged between 17.5 and 21 years which will bring down the average age of our soldiers and maintain a youthful profile.

There are challenges which the services will accept for the overall good of the nation. Agnipath will save the government large pension bills and the benefits could be utilised into capital acquisition.

The issue of training the youth in India to inculcate a sense of discipline, honesty and national pride has been in discussions for many years. At some stage, making the National Cadet Corps compulsory and conscription has also been considered. However, India with a large population has never been short on manpower; in fact, there has been shortages of jobs which has worried the governments. Agnipath provides an opportunity to address many of these imponderables. It aims to train youth, discipline them, generate national pride, provide them jobs, and prepare them for further opportunities for a career post armed forces. The unruly reaction which has spilt to the streets only proves the point that there is need to instill discipline and national pride, particularly when we have major problems with two of our neighbours and abetted terrorism in a few states.

The objectives of Agnipath are achievable by way of new training processes, skill training, on-job training and their hands-on experience in combat units. The concerns which have been raised are: Temporary nature of employment, need to reduce duration of training to facilitate longer utilisation in combat units, preparing men/women for post armed forces career, and possible unwillingness and lack of enthusiasm amongst young students for joining the services due to uncertain future after four years of engagement. None of these is insurmountable.

Given the standard of general and technical awareness of our youth today, technical training upon joining services will only add to their calibre. In some cases, the highly technical nature of jobs in the armed forces may require the recruitment of candidates from ITIs where basic technical skills are developed. The emoluments of Agniveers are better than what exists for the soldiers in the armed forces today. Adventure associated with the armed forces also attracts young minds.

On-job training will accrue credit points as per the New Education Policy which will be helpful for further studies. This aspect will need serious attention by the government. All departments of the government need to pitch in for providing job opportunities to well-trained, skilled and enthusiastic youth. For the first time women will be inducted in other ranks also. This will be yet another challenge for which the armed forces are gearing up and so is our society. Induction of women in below officer ranks in some arms of the Army and CAPF is already in place.

Since recruitment will be on an all-India basis and not from a particular area or region for a specific regiment, as is the procedure in the Army currently, the four-year allocation of regiments will lead to mixed troops in regiments. This is a challenge the Army will have to devise methods to mitigate.

Considering that 75 per cent of recruits will spend only four years in service, the extent and depth of their training and employment on specific weapon systems will require due consideration. Their exposure to complex systems may have to be curtailed for security reasons.

In overall analysis, Agnipath is an opportunity for the armed forces to transform into a lean and efficient combat force. To youth, it offers initial employment, creates a vast pool of skilled and disciplined manpower to the country available to many organisations, cuts down on pension bill, youthful profile of soldiers, availability of funds for allocation for capital acquisition and prepares youth for opportunities other than the military. This would also result in manpower reduction in the armed forces which may be desirable given the advent and induction of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cyberspace, drones, etc.

Should the armed forces consider it necessary, after their experience with Agnipath, minor corrections can be introduced to the system. Rules are not cast in stone, after all.

The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed are personal.

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