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Agniveers of China

A detailed and comprehensive analysis of the significance of the age profile in the PLA recruitment system in China and comparison of the way it fares Vs India.

Agniveers of China
A detailed and comprehensive analysis of the significance of the age profile in the PLA recruitment system in China and comparison of the way it fares Vs India.

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

As per multiple reports, China has increased PLA recruitment age limits from 24 to 26. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics students and those with skills necessary for fighting in war are given priority. Technical experts who can quickly learn to operate advanced and hi-tech weapons to increase PLA’s combat effectiveness are sought. PLA seeks expertise in internet, communications, engineering, surveying and drone operations as it modernises. These are the latest ‘Agniveers’ of China!

Our Agniveers  (aged 17 ½ to 21) will be 10th pass, and serve  for four years. Reduction in age profile is being done to increase technical thresholds in the Armed forces as it modernises to meet requirements of the future battlefield. Why are Chinese increasing age limits and inducting graduates as enlisted personnel while we are doing the opposite by inducting 10th class pass youngsters to handle modern weapons?  It needs analysis.

The details regarding the PLA recruitment system are scarce. However, from details available, it was apparent that the PLA  is unable to recruit suitable soldiers to handle hi-tech systems due to declining birth rates, single child phenomenon, low military pay and other societal issues. A comparison with the ‘Agniveer’ system was revealing. To put the cart before the horse, the Chinese system is what the Agnipath scheme will look like (and worse once rolled out). The irony is that Chinese are trying to move towards our experienced professionalism while we seem to be aping theirs.  A similarity exists with the US system also.     

China conscripts 450000 – 500000 males (ages 18 to 22) annually into its two million strong PLA. That is an annual high turnover of 25% . Conscription is  twice annually for a period of two years.   Of the PLA’s two million strong force, roughly 700,000 (only 35%) personnel are conscripts. In this period, they are expected to perform lower skill tasks. In other words they are either working parties/ labour or cannon fodder. Also at squad/ section levels, they have ensured that not more than 50% are conscripts.  In comparison, the Agniveers will be more than 50% of the Army and 70% of a section strength as the Agnipath rolls out.

Two years is the probation period to determine which recruits are suitable to become NCOs or officers. Most NCOs are selected from conscripts who volunteer to extend their duty after two years. NCOs comprise 50% of the PLA enlisted force. It implies that half the PLA is experienced NCOs. In fact, they have some enlisted civilian cadres who are of permanent nature. Hence their overall experience factor touches 65%.  The NCOs are thereafter trained in multiple professional institutions to make them effective junior leaders. The slogan for NCOs being ‘One Profession, Multiple Skills’.  In some cases, specialized technical NCOs are inducted directly from higher educational institutions with incentive of higher pay.  Many college students enter the military as undergraduates, serve for two years, and return to college after demobilization, often with their tuition fee paid by the PLA. Before entering units, they undergo a special basic military training program. PLA has to go to universities and colleges since their standard recruitment and training system does seem to be tailored to enable soldiers to gain technical , tactical and operational expertise. We do not have to struggle with all this in our existing pattern, which will be lost to us in Agnipath. 

The conscripted recruits are trained for three months and then sent to units/formations. This is basic military training. However specialised training for a particular arm / service is done in theatres/ formations.  In an Army (ground forces) division, one regiment or brigade will be fully trained and fully operational in any given year; one regiment or brigade will be in the later stages of training; one in the process of more advanced unit training; and an entire regiment or brigade will be undergoing basic training and advanced skills training at the same time. That creates problems of differential training and operational readiness for the PLA. It is difficult to maintain training standards and methods. By cutting down training periods in centres and transferring the onus of training to units and formations as per the Agnipath visualisation, we are virtually aping the PLA. It creates an avoidable operational vulnerability.   

The PLA trains to fight wars under informatised conditions. The two core principles at the heart of informatized training is that technology determines training and that training is fundamentally about people, not technology alone. Mao’s dictum was that the man is a ‘spiritual atomic bomb’. As per PLA, military training in the final analysis is training of people. Enhancing their quality is of prime importance. PLA has not been able to achieve a balance between the ‘man’ and the ‘machine’. Interestingly, years after cutting the conscription period down to two years and increasing the percentage of NCOs, the PLA is still trying to find the most effective means of training the individuals from varied backgrounds so they best can be integrated into their units as part of a battle fit team. One can surmise that overall, the PLA has major problems at unit level due to inadequate training, motivation and morale. In fact if one reads further, one is struck by the fact that motivation, man management and leadership is given less emphasis in PLA. The political commissars ensure all this through communist brainwashing methods. The Indian Army, is a well-balanced system between the man and the machine, which will be upset by the Agnipath.  Has anyone thought of it?

Also Read: The race of two Asian giants! How India’s rise can keep China’s growing influence in check

There are also ‘volunteer conscripts’ in the PLA.  Young Chinese  join the PLA voluntarily mainly for three possible reasons: one is personal affection towards the army because of influences from relatives and friends; the second is viewing joining the army as getting employed; and the third is aimed at becoming a civil servant when leaving the military as a promoted soldier. The latter two are individual reasons and not for the love of the country.  

Another interesting aspect is that the PLA has a curious routine called ‘pre-enlistment training (役前训练)’ for new recruits. It is conducted by local People’s Armed Forces Departments before they are sent to PLA training bases. During ‘pre-enlistment training’ new soldiers receive uniforms, learn the basics of drill and ceremony, and undergo political and physical fitness tests, intended to weed out those who might not finish basic training. Despite this, current PLA recruits suffer a higher injury rate in training than in earlier generations. Stress fractures in PLA trainees are higher than in the past, creating longer training times. Also many recruits drop off. The PLA is also having problems recruiting soldiers and officers among college students. That is apparent from the current reports of increasing recruitment ages. There also are reports that PLA is  ‘not being able to use who is recruited, and not being able to receive what is needed’. Retaining college students beyond their initial service is a problem. Many recruits do not feel their expertise is properly utilized. Combine pre-enlistment training, PLA base training and training in units which are non-operational. One will find  that the training period in our Centres is more standardised, holistic, organised and well rounded. We have a well-established training system which has never let us down. Why are we destroying it?

There is a major issue which caught my attention. Researchers at the PLA National Defense University of Science and Technology draw heavily on U.S. Army studies in seeking to develop attitudes of valor (勇敢), determination (坚定) and mental toughness or tenacity (顽强) in new soldiers and officers. The PLA journal calls these three qualities — ‘Grit’. They refer to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel that was adapted as the John Wayne movie, True Grit. Any experienced soldier will tell you that ‘Grit’ is often the difference between defeat and victory. The result of this ‘Grit’ deficiency is directly due to Chinese youth being unwilling to join the Army. Single children conscripted for merely two years’ service cannot be expected to develop ‘Grit’. It takes years of guided hardening to develop Grit. The Indian Army is endowed with an abundance of ‘Grit’ through its traditions. The Chinese are trying to learn from Americans. The Americans and most of the soldiering world is envious of the Grit of our soldiers.  We are now trying our best to destroy it through Agnipath. Wow! 

Let us widen the issue. China and the USA have major problems in ensuring their armies are manned as per desired levels. There is widespread unwillingness to join the armies which is compounded by low birth rates. For the Chinese it is even more difficult since their single child policy makes military life even more unattractive.  It is very hard or nearly impossible to maintain a large standing Army for both these nations. They have tried to compensate for it by turning to automation, artificial intelligence and smart swarming unmanned weapons, and high-technology weapons. However, youth in the countryside find the military more attractive than working in agriculture or in a factory, but they lack the tech savvy.  Youth in the city have the skills that the militaries need however they would rather make money and careers  elsewhere than join the military. It is not only the United States and China that faces these problems. The same challenges face Russia, European Union nations, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and many other nations. That is why they have to resort to conscription and reduced service periods. The Indian Army is on a pigs back. We want to get off it! 

There has been a lot of talk that the Indian Army is not for job creation and we are supposed to only look at our efficacy. That is poppycock. As one of the largest employers of the nation, Indian Army has a social responsibility which it has been discharging through ages. Look at what is happening in China.  The tightening civilian job market and youth unemployment remains a politically sensitive issue to the Chinese Communist Party. As of June 2022, the estimated youth unemployment rate in urban areas was 19.3% compared to 13.5% in early 2021. In late 2021, China’s Ministry of Education openly called on the PLA to create ‘job opportunities’ for college graduates to help alleviate the pressure on the civilian job market. If someone still thinks that Agnipath contributes to social stability, please look at the pictures of burnt trains and buses once again. I wish they had been Chinese.  

There has also been a lot of talk of All India All Class units. Our regimental system has been under fire. When reading about the PLA I came across that new recruits from a single district are sent at most to three separate division or brigade-level units. That means in a Chinese division, one might find people from the same area /district in a unit! It leads to better cohesion in battle. The communists seem to be realising something which we are eager to shed!

Xi and the senior Chinese military leadership opine that fixing the PLA’s people problems is at the core of increasing the force’s combat readiness and becoming a world-class military. The enlisted force has been the weakest link in China’s military modernization for decades, inhibiting unit readiness and operational capabilities. On the other hand, our greatest strength has been our ‘men’, our ‘traditions’ our ‘history’ and our ‘experience’. Agnipath will destroy it.

Also Read: China with two faces

Consider this. If the PLA soldier was of even marginally good stock, the Chinese propaganda would have built him into super human. Obviously he is not and they do not talk of it. If ‘Agnipath’ was a good scheme which would enhance the operational capability of the Indian Army, they would have denigrated it through their propaganda and information operations. They are quiet. They are watching India destroy its  last bastion and crossing their fingers that we do not have a change of mind.    

I heard senior officers in the Service say that for two years the models of foreign armies were studied before coming up with the ‘Agnipath’ Scheme. I wonder what they studied. If I combine all that I have written in this article with what I have written earlier on the Agnipath, I am more than convinced that it needs a major correction. Currently it does not contribute to our financial prudence, operational capability, social goals or other national objectives. We need to modify the Agnipath Scheme and let us not have doubts about that.

It is axiomatic that we have an Agnipath Scheme which we do not need and we do not have a CDS whom we sorely need.

Jai Hind and Happy Independence Day.

The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.

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