By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)
The Agnipath scheme has been announced and it has drawn heavy fire. Intellectuals and the common man have weighed in on it. From all the news and information in the open media, it is more than clear that the scheme has not met aspirations of the youth. It cannot also be implemented without degrading the operational ability of the units. The maths of the proposal is not additive but subtractive in nature. My discussion with military intellectuals of solid credentials indicates that the ratio of experienced soldiers vis a vis Agniveers should not be below 60:40. When the Army has a composition of 50:50 in 2032 as stated by the VCOAS, this ratio will become 25:75 at the cutting edge in an unit. It will degrade further with time. Surely it does not take any intellectual ability to assess that the defence and security of the nation will be affected adversely if it is implemented in its current form. However, the scheme has been announced. We need to look forward and not drive the vehicle through the rear-view mirror. We need to reduce the average age of soldiers, reduce pension outgos and improve technology input to make modernization affordable. Hence, I gave it a thought and have evolved an outline of a Modified Agnipath Scheme. The premise is simple. We need to make it a success. This crisis affords an opportunity which we must cash in on. However, prior to outlining the scheme certain issues are being highlighted to clarify some perceptions and blow away the cobwebs which are still visible.
Much has been made of the fact that we have studied practices and models of modern Armed Forces and their terms and conditions before embarking on reducing training durations and evolving the current 4-year program. What have been the outcomes? US armed forces, the normal gold standard has not won a war since Vietnam. Have we forgotten the inglorious Afghanistan exit? The super modern Russian Army is struggling in Ukraine. In military terms its soldiers and specially poorly trained conscripts have given a sorry account of themselves. The PLA is doing a major rethink. Suddenly it has discovered that the Taiwan Strait is wider than it is. Their ‘modernized super single child warriors’ are not experienced enough to wade across. Their Achilles heel is their soldier. Make no mistake. The Ukrainian Army, old fashioned and ill equipped as it seemed, is performing out of its skin. It is proving that the soldier matters. Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy. It changes PMs like diapers. However, its Army cannot be tampered with. Are there pointers here? There are. We need an Armed Force which meets our requirement as per our culture, ethos, and tradition. The attempt is to achieve that in this model. The current Agnipath model is too drastic and leaky.
There are a lot of views that the Indian Armed Forces are not for job providing. However, given the fact that they are the biggest job providers along with the Railways, it is fallacious to think that the Armed Forces do not have a societal role in a country with a huge youth bulge. The Armed Forces must be leveraged by the nation to derive the fabled demographic dividend otherwise we will have a demographic disaster duly politicized with our adversaries fishing in troubled waters. We have been witnessing its trailer since the last few days. The Armed Forces and the Government of India have a responsibility to provide jobs for the youth and there is no getting away from that whether one likes it or not.
It has been repeatedly coming up that the ‘defence forces’ are becoming ‘unaffordable’ due to rising costs of modernization and increasing pension bills. What is the reality? India’s Defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been consistently reducing . Indian economy is the fastest growing big economy, hurtling towards the 5 tn USD mark as per the ‘proud’ discussions at Davos 2022. Hence the argument that due to overall financial constraints, reduction in defence pensions are mandatory to pay for better technology or a higher degree of modernization id not exactly correct. In fact, with a rapidly increasing GDP there is adequate headroom for modernization if the defense budget is increased even marginally. Further, increases in pension bill due to OROP is a dwindling commitment. OROP is only for pre 2016 retirees. As they pass into the next world, as all of us will, the outgo will keep reducing. Overall, my uneducated guess is that the pension bill might have entered a stagnation phase. We need to do our maths again. Ease the Agnipath Model out and incrementally go about transformation with a well-defined road map.
Reduction of age profile of Services is a matter of perception and open to debate. Over the last 4-5 decades with the rise in health standards and longevity, a 32-34-year-old is as fit as the 28-year-old, of thirty years ago. Look at the performance of Dhonis, Dinesh Kartiks, Nadals, Federers , Serena Williams and many others in the sports world. They have proven that age is a number. The mental toughness is more important. The brief point is that we need a new template, and a new definition of the “desired age profile”. Proceed with caution.
Technology ingestion and modernization is a costly option for those who do not understand technology. India can decrease its high expenditure on niche defense technology if it invests in harnessing and integrating the same technology indigenously for which adequate capabilities and capacities exist. However, our defense planners from the Ministry and Services have been loathe to do so. Here I am on my strongest wicket having been at a premium IIT for half a decade now. Please listen to my conversation on The Print on Indigenous Development of UAVs @ https://www.gunnersshot.com/2020/12/httpstwitter.html . It will be a pointer on our attitudes. Also, there is lot of noise about the battlefield going high-tech. Many fancy technologies do not work under battlefield conditions. In the battlefield, one needs optimum technology and not high-end cutting-edge technology always. Hence paying for high end technology could be counterproductive. A lot of stress on technology is impractical wish listing. The man behind the machine still reigns supreme as seen in the ongoing Ukrainian war. We need to invest in him and not discard him prematurely.
Taking all these issues in mind and considering that we need to take the Agnipath Scheme to its logical conclusion I have put together a Modified Agnipath Scheme in point form. It is also recognized that the government has already taken a few steps to resolve and ease the situation. However, a visible and substantial change must be brought in. The Modified Agnipath Scheme is graphically being depicted here. This will have wrinkles and I am cognizant of it. It needs improvement and fleshing out. I will be available to anyone to elucidate and discuss the issues involved. Lastly if we do not do the right thing the entire machinery will end up training Agniveers to be good guards at the doors of political parties. That unfortunately seems to be the prevalent mental image despite the shouting from the roof tops by Services.
(The author is an ex-army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)