Fitness for soldiering not just about youthfulness: The Tribune India

Lt Gen NPS Hira (Retd)

Former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

THE Agnipath scheme has become one of the most discussed schemes related to the military. Since the government has taken a decision to implement it, the services chiefs were at pains to describe its benefits during its launch ceremony. The benefits stated are: a more youthful profile, more technology-savvy and more diverse manpower available to the military. The age profile planned for entry is 17.5 to 21 years (raised to 23 as a one-time relaxation). A youngster who is physically and academically good, normally, makes it in the first chance. The age bracket of the majority of the Agniveers in the unit is likely to be 18 to 23 years. The average age of a sepoy will be around 21-22 years.

The requirement of physical fitness in the Army is utmost in the infantry, they being foot soldiers. Therefore, it is appropriate to discuss this issue in the context of an infantry battalion. I am an infantry officer. I have served with my unit across all terrains, including in active operations, therefore, I may share my first-hand experience. The soldiers, on whom we actually depend upon for the better part, for the most difficult of the tasks, including those which require extreme physical challenges, are not the raw soldiers. With some exceptions, the most adapted soldiers are in the age bracket of 22 to 35 years.

Before I discuss the reasons, I would explain about the foreign armies who have adopted such measures. In the developed countries, their folks are not willing to join the armed forces as a full career. Some of those countries had to resort to conscription and the others had to incentivize the military service for getting their people to serve a short stint in the military. We have seen that these militaries are not doing very well in operations. The argument being put forward in favor of Agnipath does not rest on any substantiated merit.

The kind of physical fitness required of a soldier is not just related to age. An infantry soldier needs to carry 30 to 35 kg of weight in battle, because he needs to be self-sustained for logistics as well as ammunition. Some of them have to carry machine guns, mortars and other man-pack weapon systems. The additional loads are shared within the entire fighting sub-unit. Even in the most advanced countries’ armies, the soldiers have to carry that much weight. Technology has provided no success to that. Technology has made some of the equipment lighter than before, but at the same time, it has added some more technical equipment for battlefield situational awareness and so on. The soldiers need to have the necessary mass and strength in their bodies so that they can carry that much weight into the battle.

Anyone who has visited any Indian Army recruitment training center would have noticed that almost 80 per cent of our recruits do not have the muscle mass necessary for a soldier. We are genetically not as well-built as the people in western countries. Only a small percentage of our recruits have had enough milk or ghee at home. The others come from very modest backgrounds. Their health actually starts improving after they start getting proper nutrition in the Army. In the Indian Army, the graph of physical fitness of a soldier actually starts going up after he joins the Army. It moves up through his 20s, then it flattens and starts going down at around 35 years. This is the reason why a soldier is taken in the Army for 15 years and not allowed beyond that.

On the issue of physical fitness, the western countries are better placed than us. Even at a young age, their citizens have much higher body mass, including arms’ strength. Our recruits are good in long distance running, but they are very lightly built, particularly in the upper body. It takes around five years of service for them to build their bodies and toughen up to carry the battle loads.

The infantry units hold regular professional weapons competitions, like mortars firing, MMG firing, anti-tank weapons, commando platoon and so on. They need to carry complete battle loads and fire their weapons to the best of accuracy. One will not see many jawans below 21 or 22 years taking part in those competitions. Our most adopted lot of soldiers, even in the infantry which needs the most physically fit jawans as compared to any other arm, do not mostly belong to the Agnipath service bracket. It is not just for competition, this factor applies across the board, whenever we need to pick up jawans for the most sensitive operations on the Line of Control or in insurgency areas.

If the crunch issue is youthful profile, why would the infantry not pick the young soldiers for the most sensitive tasks? When the whole sub-unit has to take part, then everyone goes, but that does not prove the point that we are taking the younger ones because of their youthful profile. This whole argument that the Indian Army soldiers are old and, therefore, the military needs a reform of the Agnipath type is a made-up argument. Individuals normally do not do very well in their first exposure to gunfire. Operations need battle-hardened soldiers and not greenhorns. The word ‘veteran’ when used in the context of the Army, means exactly that. It is the combination of physical fitness, endurance and experience which delivers in the battle.

The second issue is about technology adoption. The younger generation is definitely more technology-savvy, but the Army will not gain by changing its soldiers every four years. Some of the weapon systems are so complex that the jawans need a fairly long time to learn to exploit them and gain confidence.

Agnipath will help the government save on its pension bill. However, the other two arguments put up in support of Agnipath do not stand scrutiny against past experience.

The government has also decided to do away with caste-based regiments in the Army. Our experience with the all-India regiments has been as good. At the same time, we need to appreciate that regimentation in a mixed unit is a function of long service in the unit. Therefore, there is a direct link between the changes proposed by government. Strong regimentation, be it through the caste bond or long service together, is one of the reasons why the Army units can take on much heavier casualties, as compared to most western armies.

Taking the performance of a military for granted can be disastrous, like Russian President Putin has realised. Four years of service for a jawan in our context is too less. It is likely to be disruptive and will need modification down the line.

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