‘Agnivirs’ of the ‘Agnipath’ : A Bottom Up Examination by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

National Security doesn’t come cheap not where India is. The Nation must bear this burden. Paucity of funds will remain a constant. It is the Governments call to have an Army, Air Force and Navy it wants. It is not for the Armed Forces to self-finance  modernization by some arbitrary age or organisational amendments. It is also not for the Government to reorganise the Armed Forces for nation building at the cost of the primary task of defending the nation. Just as history is not sparing Mr Nehru for neglecting the Armed Forces of the nation, history will not spare those who blunt the most potent instrument of national defence.   





The feedback I got on the article Agnipath : An Insider’s View From Outside @  was unprecedented. Qualitatively and quantitatively this is the maximum feedback I got on all my writings. Generals who have commanded Corps and Divisions responded spontaneously. It spanned veterans, serving personnel and civilians. People are extremely sensitive to the outcomes of the ‘Agnipath’ proposal. The broad sense is that this proposal to have soldiers serving in the Army for just 3 or 5 years needs to be handled with extreme caution. Are we rushing into it too fast?  


The strength of the Indian Army lies in its battle experience, operational training, high levels of motivation, morale, camaraderie and team spirit built over years. The basic edifice of ‘unit ka izzat’ is unique to the Army. People felt that these battle winning factors stood us in good stead in Eastern Ladakh. The general view was also that Indian Army’s superior fighting capability enabled India to offset the superiority of PLA in equipment, logistic stamina and overcome the comprehensive national power of China. This differential in frontline capability made China retreat 8 kilometres, after vacating the defences it built in Finger 4 on the North Bank of Pangong Tso. THIS CAN NOT BE DILUTED AT ANY COST. 


The poor performance of the well-equipped Russian Army in Ukraine was pointed out repeatedly. Among the many reasons ascribed to this is the inability of the young Russian soldiers to adjust to battlefield conditions. In fact, the ill equipped but more experienced Ukrainian Army has been giving a good account of itself despite being vastly outnumbered. The general view is that India cannot afford to get caught in a similar predicament. It will be fatal for the nation.


The Aims of Agnipath


The feedback revealed that ‘Agnipath’ nee ‘Tour of Duty’ scheme which envisages 25% recruitment  for three years’ service, 25% for five years, and the remaining 50% for full term service has a threefold aim. Firstly to significantly reduce the age profile of the Armed forces. Secondly to significantly curb the ballooning salary and pension bills that are adversely impacting military modernization. Thirdly to instil discipline and a sense of purpose in youth so that they can contribute better towards nation building. The feedback also indicated that a decision has been taken at the highest levels of the government for implementation. It is believed that there is consternation in the Army which is putting up its point of view. However the fear is that the view might be just brushed aside. 


At the outset, if this scheme is implemented without thinking it through, we might be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’. I have no doubt that those who are currently serving are doing a great job at modelling, analysing and putting across all issues realistically. Afterall , they are in chair, bear the responsibility and have full facts and figures. However despite best effort and intentions, their words might not be heeded. The general impression could be that they are ‘resisting  change’ and not willing to accept a ‘great idea whose time has come’. Also, some who are in high positions may not be able to put their views across convincingly due to various reasons including being politically compromised. I will also not put it beyond our ‘unaccountable’ bureaucracy to play the spoiler due to its inability to grasp the nuances of battle and other ‘need not be said’ reasons. This follow up analysis based on logic and experience hopes to throw light into blind corners which caters for myopic vision.  


Bottom Up Analysis  


The good intent and benefits of this transformational proposal to the nation are fully appreciated. It is a matter of pride that the Army is the chosen vehicle for this transformation. However there has to be balance in any transformation. The balance revolves round two questions. Is it feasible to have an Army where 50 % of its soldiers have under  5 years’ service? Will such an Army be an effective fighting force to win battles against our formidable adversaries? If the answers to these questions is yes, then there is no issue. However it needs deep study and analysis.


This analysis is based on facts and figure from open sources, first principles and experience. In my last article I had proven that India does not have the capacity to recruit and train soldiers as per the ‘Agnipath’ proposal at present. In this article I will analyse the effect of this proposal on a cutting edge fighting unit – an infantry battalion/ artillery regiment/armoured regiment.  What will be the composition of an unit if this proposal is implemented? 

In this ‘model’, the rostered strength of a unit is a taken as 500. It implies five hundred people are held on the unit roster.  Of these, 10% , are permanently sent on Extra Regimental Employment like NCC, HQs, R&D establishments, MCOs etc. These 10% vacancies are given to units on a rotational basis. All those sent out have to be above 5 years’ service and are mostly JCOs/NCOs. Hence the residual War Establishment strength of the unit is 450. In this effective strength, those posted in the unit HQs and specialist sub units are taken as around 120 (27%). This is a conservative assumption.  Resultantly, the number of soldiers in  fighting sub units ie coys/btys/sqns is 330. That makes it about 110 soldiers per sub unit, assuming an uniform triangular pattern of three subunits per unit. The composition of these 110 soldiers is the crux of the issue.

Presently approx. 1.3 lakh vacancies (as reported)  have built up in the Army over a two year period due to lack of recruitment as a result of Covid (see box) . It implies that the vacancies per year are about 65000. For an Army with a sanctioned strength of approx. 12 lakhs, it implies that a recruitment rate of around 5.41% is the normal. This is a stable figure since it is based on a two year average. Let us assume that those recruited are sent to units on an even distribution. This is the base of the model. 


Hence for an unit with a strength of 500 , the number of recruits per year is 27 @5.41% annual recruitment (see box) . Over a five year period, the strength of soldiers under five years is five times this ie 135. All these young soldiers are kept in the cloistered and protected environment of fighting subunits due to their relative inexperience. A backward regression indicates that the number of soldiers in subunits with more than five year’s service is195 as shown in the box. When converted into an experience ratio it is 1.44:1. It implies that currently there are three experienced soldier for two young soldiers. To achieve this , the recruitment model works out to 73:27 (see table). From any perspective it can be safely said that at the cutting edge of a subunit, the experience vs youth should not be diluted below 70:30 (Model 4). If this is breached, we will end up with an experience inversion. It means having a three man trench with all youngsters, young drivers at the wheel of a long gun train negotiating head spinning Himalayan curves at top speed or a driver who cannot jockey his tank into a firing position or hull down defiladed position. All three conditions are fraught with danger of a military defeat. In Models 1, 2 and 3 the number of youngsters exceed the number of experienced soldiers. That is simply unaccepted. A 50 : 50 recruitment as proposed is beyond my imagination. 


Additionally, this bottom up model  also co-relates and reinforces the top down models (reproduced below), examined in my previous article. The recruitment ratios match in both the top down and bottom up models. This confirms that modelling is within limits of reasonable error.  Furter, this model does not cater for a three years’ service as proposed. It is only for a 5 year service model. I would also like again to mention that my calculations are very conservative. The actual situation will be even worse. Those working on this subject in Army HQs will confirm with their greater band width of information. This model is only a gross check but tells you a story. All in all the ‘Agnipath’ scheme as envisaged is not feasible to implement within existing recruitment and training capacities nor does it meet our operational requirements. If adopted, it will lead to disaster in battle. As simple as that. A veteran with whom I was discussing put it across light-heartedly – it is demonetisation of the Army using the rigid Chinese Zero Covid policy to Ukraine ourselves’. Cheeky but Hmm! 


Consolidated Feed Back


The consolidated feedback which follows throws up issues to ponder upon. However they are not all encompassing. There will be more complex issues involved in implementing this proposal. One cannot ignore them.  


Training and unit cohesion will be hit. The physical and mental standards expected of our soldiers in battle will be compromised. Very importantly lowering age will reduce battle fitness, which is a combination of experience, mental and physical fitness. Given the dynamics of the environment in our neighbourhood, we cannot afford a situation where 50%  of an unit strength is raw.


Capacity, to execute the proposal is important. One feedback suggested that “apart from the administrative hassles (we had to especially construct bunk beds in the AOC Centre once to meet the surge), IMHO, the period of training will perforce be reduced with units being tasked to complete the unfinished portion. This will have a major impact on their operational effectiveness”. This was substantiated by another view which stated  “ The issue of hygiene with overcrowding of training centres is very true. It reached unmanageable proportions at INS Chilka with intake going up more than 200%. Finally the C-in-C had to put his foot down in the Commanders Conference to either sanction funds under emergency powers or stop recruitment”.


Important issues regarding young soldiers with limited service liability were thrown up. The strength of any outfit depends upon the level of motivation. Can one expect such soldiers to have the zeal and motivation or be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice?  What will be the commitment and performance of such soldiers under stress? ? A young, inexperienced, virile, single,  trigger happy soldier must be between experienced comrades in CI situations when acting in amidst own people. Young soldiers in CI have great difficulty in understanding the social conditions in which they are operating. They have to be restrained. Indian army has been successful in not only winning the hearts and minds of people but in integrating wayward people into the national fold. Don’t risk this treasure. We will end up like the alienated US Army which had to vacate Afghanistan ingloriously.     


The envisaged proposal generates churn at the bottom. A constant turnover  in frontline units ie Infantry, Mech forces,  Arty, Armr destroys team spirit, bonding, pride and ethos of units; which is the greatest strength of the Army.  It might result in  COST EFFECTIVENESS but with OPERATIONAL INEFFECTIVENESS. Such changes should be undertaken only after a great deal of deliberation, diligent preparation and in a gradual and incremental manner.


An important  issue which emerges is that in a three year service model, the soldier after 44 weeks of training is available only for two years in a unit. Hence the three year service model should not even be contemplated. Less than five years’ service is unthinkable. The churn at unit level will be too much. Further let us not even think of reducing recruit training by simulation etc. The psychological change from a civilian way of life to being a good and steady soldier starts happening only after three to four years in an unit. That cannot be shortened. That is when the soldier starts anticipating in operations. Till then he is only reacting. It takes nearly 6 – 7 years to be fully trained specially to carry out tasks like missile operators, drone operators, gun layers, tank drivers, tank gunners, radar operators, technical assistants, snipers, OP assistants, IT specialists, communicators, surveyors, support weapon specialists etc. These are normal duties in a subunit. Lots to think. 


There is another peculiar problem. If the ‘Agnivirs’ are recruited , as envisaged, for limited period liability, there will be two types of soldiers in the unit. That will generate unit level problems of discrimination. If the units are to determine who will be retained, then we are generating  unit level politics on retention. There is no way we can burden the  CO with this task as I had written earlier. 


A very valid point is that the Home Ministry has been stone walling lateral induction of retired soldiers for the last fifty years. This fundamental issue needs to be resolved. The Government needs to resolve this pending issue before any further contemplation. 




Does it mean that we throw the idea out of the window? Of course not. This is the best time to try it out when such shortages are existing. We could recruit a limited number of youngsters for a five year term and put them through a trial. Simultaneously, the Government must pass rules to ensure that all these youngsters are side stepped into the society in responsible posts/jobs with a reserve liability for at least ten years with a dash of annual refresher training thrown in. Unless the intake and exit models are balanced, this concept will result in a massive failure like any other  open ended idea. We need to evolve into a balanced option over a period of time through informed open debate and thought. Let us not burn the rope from both ends.  

PS :- A later day, wild card feed back is that  why can’t a national building force called ‘Agnivirs’ be established exclusively for specified purposes?       


One response to “‘Agnivirs’ of the ‘Agnipath’ : A Bottom Up Examination by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Why doesn't the Govt realise “to maintain a standing Army is a Costly hobby but inevitable”. Can't have the cake and eat it too. GOI, Stop being penny wise …it's a question of National Security and India needs a dedicated Army and not Transient mercenaries.

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