Author : Brigadier Narender Kumar, SM,VSM (Retd),

 Agnipath-Tour of Duty, is a new idea and should not be discarded at the outset as un-implementable, however cautious approach is required so that it does not create turbulence in the basic fighting machine of the Armed Forces. The notion behind this new thought process has twin objectives. First, to reduce the pension bill of the government so that the bulk of the funds could be diverted for force modernisation. Second, to infuse discipline and nationalism among the youth— the real asset of the nation. However, rushing through to implement this scheme may have obvious pitfalls,  since it will have implications for national security and capability to fight future wars that will require skills of a very high order. One must remember that armed forces is a culture, a way of life. To train skilled soldiers it requires decades of collective experience gained through blood and sweat. Soldiering cannot be taught in class rooms or online tuition classes, soldiering is learnt by going through personal and collective experience of peers and leaders. Therefore, institutional experience and memory is vital for executing any assigned military task. Military is all about understanding the human behaviour under life threatening conditions and employment of weapons and systems under varied climatic or terrain conditions. A soldier is expected to perform under severe mental and physical stress in an extreme hostile terrain and conditions. A soldier is supposed to defy conventions, defy technology and defy own physical limitations. This only comes when they are blooded with fire and have faith in their comrades and leaders. Thus the leader and followers have to be in sync with each other to build a well-oiled cohesive unit. A team bonding comes when soldiers and officers grow together during peace and war. Lieutenant General HS Panag (Retd) has given his detailed assessment in his article. He has deliberated on conceptual flaws in the scheme and way forward. He too emphasises that there is no substitute to collective wisdom and past experience especially when soldiers are tested under fire[i]. Today in modern war conditions, it takes decades to train and mentally prepare men for war. Pushing green horns in battlefield will result in disaster and irreversible situation. Technology certainly plays dominant role in fighting modern wars, but equally important is to have trained manpower that can leverage technology in a war. As a result, almost every aspect of soldiering today falls in the category of specialisation. Therefore, this scheme should be implemented with due care and deliberations. I will refrain from discarding this scheme as no go without testing it on ground.

Recommendations for Implementation Tour of Duty Period. A soldier is battle ready after almost 3 years of initial training and basic understanding of battle craft to perform basic military task. Specialisation including operations in high altitude and desert warfare would require additional specialised training for even survival. Similarly, handling sophisticated systems require continuous upgradation over a long period of time. Thus a soldier must give 3 to 5 years to the army for useful employment post basic moderate skilled training. Thus tour of duty will only be economical if employed for 5 to 7 years instead of 3 years. Tour of duty of 3 years has diminishing returns and a greater burden on exchequer with no gains. You may have young soldiers but will be short on experience and skills. Pilot Project. A scheme that will have implications on war fighting capabilities is required to be implemented as a pilot project to find out suitability in three wings of the armed forces. All branches of military domain should not be put under turbulence from the word go and thus branches could be identified where tour of duty can be tested for its efficacy. Can the tour of duty be implemented for 3-5 years in specialised corps and branches such as naval ships, air force, artillery, air defence, EME, Signals and Engineers? All these specialised branches take decades to prepare soldiers/sailors and officers to achieve excellence. Even in Infantry, handling of specialised equipment and weapon requires skilled officers and men. Thus areas where Agniveers can be inducted needs careful identification.

Constitute a Study Consisting of Veterans and Serving Officers.  For an impartial implementation, government should constitute a study consisting of veterans and serving officers from the three services. The study must identify the branches and percentage of induction of Agniveers including tenures for optimum utilisation of this innovative idea.

Technically Qualified Candidates should be Preferred. There is a need to maintain merit and talent. Military is fast becoming highly specialised and technical with induction of new weapons and systems. Preference should be given to technically qualified candidates so that they are given only basic military training instead of technical training post basic military training. I would rather recommend that initially entry for Agniveers should be only for technically qualified youth including cyber. Core Group should not be Disturbed.  There is a requirement of laying down a basic percentage of vacancies for tour of duty to avoid turbulence in the basic fighting units. There is a need to lay down minimum and maximum percentage of induction of Agniveers so that core leadership, skilled manpower and talent is retained. Entire junior leaders and soldiers cannot be transient in an organisation that runs on experience and skill.

Rehabilitation of Released Soldiers/ Officers. Attractive rehabilitation package is must. Moreover, those who wish to pursue higher education must get certain grace marks due to experience in military especially for IITs, NSITs, IIMs and other degree courses. Likewise, there should be fixed vacancies for lateral absorption in CAPF, banks, state and central government jobs including railways etc. An agreement with corporate sectors need to be worked out for absorption of Agniveers in private sectors. One must remember that organisational and individual aspirations must be met. Neither can be compromised just for the sake of reduction of pension bill. National security at the end of the day is paramount. Key Takeaways Long Term Impact Must be Assessed. The impact of the scheme will be felt (positive or negative) only after 10-15 years when the current cadre completes its term of engagement. Thus a situation should not arise where the units are devoid of experience and institutional memory. Since future wars are going to be highly technical, hence skill and experience will be paramount. Ukraine war has shown that a potent weapon platform like tanks and armoured personnel carrier could become sitting ducks if crew is not skilled and have little understanding of field craft. Tanks bunched up due to lack of experience and discipline and became target practice for the Ukrainian and foreign legions.

Western Template may not Work in Indian Operational Environment. Indian operational environment is different from the west and copying a system of western armies may not be advisable. The terrain conditions are such that it is not possible to deploy units for short period of six months as being done by US and NATO forces. The standoff with China and even LOC deployment has highlighted that experience is irreplaceable and a unit must always have mix of experience, skill and youth to succeed in a war. You cannot afford to have transition of men during such active operational duty. It will lead to operational reversals.

Let Professionals Decide Scope of Implementation of Agnipath. Political leadership should certainly give out options to enhance availability of funds for modernisation but implementation should be left to the professionals because ultimately it is the military leadership that will be answerable to the nation. Political leadership should let professionals implement it in the branches where it will pay positive dividends.

Conclusion National security is not a business where profit and loss is evaluated by money. Before a decision is taken to implement this scheme, the military should test this idea as a pilot project and once the test case succeeds then larger implementation should be considered. At the end of the day it should be kept in mind that wars are fought by humans and machines are only an enabling tool. Thus there cannot be any dilution in human resource and its experience. It is important to keep note of the fact that conventional and hybrid wars are here to stay and experienced human resource cannot be replaced by technology. [i] Lt Gen H S Panag (Retd), Army’s “Agnipath’ plan is ambitious but has flaws. Here’s how it can be made more attractive,” The Print,  21 April 2022,  

Brigadier Narender Kumar, SM,VSM (Retd) is a life member of the USI of India. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) anda former Distinguished Fellow, USI (New Delhi). 

Article uploaded: 09-05-2022 

Disclaimer:The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.