In Yangtse, the Chinese attempt to capture our post came to nought recently. It put my antlers up on many issues. However one issue continued to nag me – the Agnipath and Agniveer scheme. There is need for introspection and analysis of this issue.
Our seasoned, well trained and alert troops with proper drills and rehearsals saved the day. From most analytical inputs, and knowledge of Himalayan high altitudes, the Chinese attempt at Yangtse was unsuccessful due to some factors. Their troops were probably not hardy enough to overpower our picket. Alternately, they were probably not adept enough to out manoeuvre our picket, sit on our tail and prise it out by making it untenable. Lastly it could also be due to inability to create an adverse situation for us on another part of the LAC through sheer grit, determination and mountaineering skills. They probably did not have the Bana Singh variety of junior leadership to overcome seemingly unsurmountable odds in unhospitable enemy terrain. However, one thing I am sure of is that their mid-level leadership at battalion and brigade level are out of whack. All these issues need elaboration.
A recent report in the SCMP indicates that as PLA modernises at break neck speed, it is short of talent to man its hi-tech platforms. It also appears that they do not have adequate officers available for command appointments. Though the report pertains to the Navy, I am quite sure that a similar situation exists in the Army also. In fact manpower and combat leadership in PLA is suspect across all Services. Very clearly, the leadership at the local level is part of the mega problem. What am I talking of ? When we prised the Pakistanis out of the dominating heights on the Siachen Glacier, our leadership at battalion and brigade level was so resolute that they trained, motivated and prepared their soldiers to surmount odds beyond belief. They induced the X factor in our men on a sustained basis. I see that missing in the Chinese attempt at Yangtse. From available inputs, it appears that their leaders resorted to communist strong arm tactics through overwhelming numbers with the belief that they can scare our troops. It does not work that way in mountains and it did not.
Another Chinese report suggests that the PLA uses small, highly skilled units which are called ‘sharp knives’ for special operations. It is their belief, based on lessons drawn from ‘regional wars’ (god knows which ‘regional wars’ China has fought!), that in the future battlefield, such units will pay dividends. Such an input came to my notice first, through one of my officers who had participated in the 2007 Sino-Indian ‘Hand in Hand’ joint exercise. He had then told me during debriefing on return, that such special troops collected from all over the PLA were fielded for the training routines along with the battalion which we sent. It would be very reasonable to assume that the PLA fielded one such ‘sharp knife’ unit at Yangtse. This failure puts focus on the PLA and its personnel.
In Aug 22, just after the Taiwan Crisis, despite a huge bump up in nationalist sentiment, it was reported that ‘Taiwan crisis was not expected to spur major boost in people’s willingness to join the Army’. Very clearly, the Chinese youth are not motivated enough to join the Army due to many reasons. These include declining birth rates, single child phenomenon, low military pay and other societal issues. 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 were being given priority. Technical experts who can quickly learn to operate advanced and hi-tech weapons to increase PLA’s combat effectiveness are being sought. PLA is also seeking expertise in internet, communications, engineering, surveying and drone operations as it modernises. It is also reported that some voluntary recruitment takes place due to three reasons. Firstly due to personal affection towards the army because of influences from relatives and friends or some kind of a family tradition. Secondly due to the employment that the PLA provides due to rising unemployment. Thirdly due to opportunities for better post service employment and becoming a civil servant. However PLA is still falling short as per their own reports..
The morale and motivation factor also needs focus. Researchers at the PLA National Defense University of Science and Technology draw heavily on U.S. Army studies in seeking to develop attitudes of valour (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 the 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.
At a macro level, Xi and the senior Chinese military leadership opine that sorting out the manpower problems of PLA’s is the core of making the force combat ready and a world-class military. The enlisted force has been the weakest link in China’s military modernization for decades. It inhibits unit readiness and operational capabilities. As per a People’s Liberation Army Daily editorial, PLA suffers from ‘peace disease’ . The international opinion is also that lack of combat experience is a major inhibitor for China.
The rank and file of PLA consists of 50% conscripts and 50% NCOs. The length of service and percentage of NCOs was recently increased so that there is adequate experience in their ranks. There has also been a constant effort to increase the technical quality of conscripts. However, their physical fitness is a question mark. There are also reports that on line gaming is an addictive problem in the PLA. A holistic analysis reveals that the PLA has some real manpower and HR problems. It has not been able to achieve the ideal ‘man – machine’ balance. It is trying to find the most effective means of training the individuals from varied backgrounds so they best can be integrated into battle fit unit teams. One can also surmise that the PLA has major problems at unit level due to inadequate training, motivation and morale.
All this needs to be contextualised in the Sino India conflict matrix of the recent past. In Galwan, the Chinese unit was presumably a ‘sharp knife’ one since it was reported then that their special forces had been deployed there. It is now well known and established that many more than four Chinese soldiers died in hand to hand combat there. In fact the causalities have been so many that China has not had the guts to reveal the actual number. In the Kailash Range operation, the PLA was completely outclassed. It could not react to the Indian ‘in the face’ manoeuvre in super high altitudes. In Yangtse, again a high altitude area, it could not take its aggressive plan to a logical conclusion. These actions need to be seen in a contextual continuum of the issues plaguing the PLA. Strikingly, a force composed of 50% young inexperienced conscripts has repeatedly, been no match to the experienced soldiers of the Indian Army. The poor performance of inexperienced Chinese conscripts co-relates well with their counterparts in the Russian Armed Forces. The ‘Agniveers’ of China and Russia have fared poorly in operational conditions.
In all the cases, our troops were experienced. That brings me to the point. This is still the era when Agniveers have not yet entered service. Once they enter service, things will change. How will they change operationally? That is a million dollar question if we do not use our grey cells. Therefore, one would be interested to know as to how many soldiers of less than four years’ service, (in percentage terms) participated in these operations and what their performance was. It would also be interesting to wargame the outcomes of these recent skirmishes when a fighting unit/subunit is made up of upto 60-70 % of Agniveers as it will eventually happen if the scheme is rolled as it is without modifications to suit our operational condition. This wargame must be conducted with the unit and sub unit commanders who participated in these operations and not with some apple shining staff officer who will come up with a politically acceptable answer irrespective of the reality. The feed back from an honest down to earth introspection will indicate the tweaks which have to be carried out in the present Agniveer framework. Thereafter it is the moral duty of those in chair to take such actions which are in the best interests of the nation and not to cater for vested interests. It needs some spine.
At the cost of repetition and sounding like an alarmist, I would like to reiterate that the Agniveer framework is operationally detrimental unless modified. The drawbacks and dangers have been outlined in my articles @ https://gunnersshot.com/2022/06/17/agnipath-operational-challenges-by-lt-gen-p-r-shankar-r/ and https://gunnersshot.com/2022/06/13/tour-of-duty-the-kindergarten-army-by-lt-gen-p-r-shankar-r/ . In fact, the wide-ranging interaction I have had with those in uniform suggests that many agree with my views and are keen to modify the scheme at the appropriate time. However, like all things, once the public gaze has shifted to other hot topics and the focus will shift elsewhere and the issue will be forgotten till the next crisis. Till then the Agniveers will start trundling in to fill up the ranks. In such a case, slowly, steadily and surely our operational capabilities will degrade to the level of the PLA. That loses us the winning formula. That is unacceptable. My opinion is that we should not wait for that to happen. We must modify the Agnipath scheme based on our operational feedback and make it work for us. There should be no compromise on that.
Let me leave you with a few thoughts. Indian Army has a proud tradition of endowing an ordinary soldier with extraordinary combat capability to overcome unsurmountable odds in high altitude mountains. It instils ‘True Grit’ in our men which most armies seek elusively. This ‘X’ factor cannot be diluted since it is often the difference between victory or defeat. In fact, the US Army is not foolish to come to Auli and exercise with the Indian Army in hills They know the value of the tough Indian Army. It is therefore the onerous and solemn responsibility of the current politico-military hierarchy to keep this cutting edge sharp. We have something precious that cannot be lost. Otherwise, history will not forgive those who have neglected this aspect. Lastly, fools learn from their own mistakes. Wise men learn from others. I would suggest that let the Chinese be foolish.
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