Fitness for military service is not just about youth: The Tribune India

NPS Lieutenant General Hira (retired)

Former deputy chief of the Army General Staff

The Agnipath scheme has become one of the most discussed schemes related to the military. Since the decision was made by the government to implement it, service chiefs took pains to describe its benefits during the launch ceremony. The stated benefits are: a younger profile, more tech-savvy, and more diverse workforce available to the military. The anticipated age profile for admission is 17.5 to 21 years (raised to 23 as a single relaxation). A young person who is physically and academically good usually succeeds at the first opportunity. The age group of most Agniveers in the unit is likely to be 18-23 years old. The average age of a sepoy will be around 21-22 years.

The physical fitness requirement in the Army is highest in the infantry, these being foot soldiers. Therefore, it is appropriate to discuss this topic in the context of an infantry battalion. I’m an infantry officer. I have served with my unit in all fields, including active operations, so I can share my first-hand experience. The soldiers, who we really depend on the most, for the most difficult tasks, including those that require extreme physical challenges, are not the raw soldiers. With a few exceptions, the fittest soldiers are in the 22-35 age bracket.

Before discussing the reasons, I would explain about foreign armies that have taken such measures. In developed countries, their people are not willing to join the armed forces as a full career. Some of those countries had to resort to compulsory military service and the others had to incentivize military service for their people to serve for a short period in the military. We have seen that these military are not doing very well in operations. The argument presented for Agnipath is not based on any proven merit.

The type of physical fitness required of a soldier is not only related to age. An infantryman needs to carry 30 to 35 kg of weight into battle, because he needs to be self-sufficient in both logistics and ammunition. Some of them have to carry machine guns, mortars and other man-pack weapon systems. Additional charges are shared within the entire combat subunit. Even in the armies of the most advanced countries, soldiers have to carry so much weight. Technology has not helped 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, etc. Soldiers must have the necessary mass and strength in their bodies so that they can carry that much weight into battle.

Anyone who has visited any Indian Army recruit training center will have noticed that almost 80 percent of our recruits do not have the muscle mass required for a soldier. Genetically we are not as well formed as 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. In fact, their health begins to improve after they start receiving proper nutrition in the military. In the Indian Army, a soldier’s fitness graph actually starts to go up after he joins the army. He moves up until the age of 20, then flattens out and starts to go down around the age of 35. This is why a soldier is taken into the Army for 15 years and not allowed beyond that.

When it comes to fitness, Western countries are better off than we are. Even at a young age, its citizens have much greater body mass, including arm strength. Our recruits are good at running long distances, but they are very skinny, particularly in the upper body. It takes about five years of service for their bodies to develop and harden to carry the loads of battle.

Infantry units organize regular professional weapons competitions, such as mortar firing, MMG firing, anti-tank weapons, commando platoon, etc. They need to carry full battle charges and fire their weapons with the best accuracy. You won’t see many Jawans under the age of 21 or 22 participating in those competitions. Our most adopted batch of soldiers, even in the infantry that needs the most physically fit jawans compared to any other arm, are mostly not from Agnipath’s service group. It’s 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 crucial issue is youth profiling, why wouldn’t the infantry choose young soldiers for the most delicate tasks? When the entire subunit has to participate, then everyone goes, but that doesn’t prove the point that we’re taking the younger ones for their youthful profile. This whole argument that the Indian Army soldiers are old and therefore the Army needs Agnipath-type reform is a fabricated argument. People usually don’t do very well on their first exposure to gunshots. Operations need battle-hardened soldiers, not rookies. The word ‘veteran’, when used in the context of the Army, means exactly that. It is the combination of physical fitness, stamina, and experience that he offers in battle.

The second issue is about technology adoption. The younger generation is definitely more tech-savvy, but the Army won’t win by changing its soldiers every four years. Some of the weapon systems are so complex that the Jawans take a long time to learn to exploit them and gain confidence.

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

The government has also decided to do away with caste-based regiments in the Army. Our experience with regiments from all over India has been just as good. At the same time, we must 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 the government. Heavy regimentation, whether through caste bonding or long joint service, is one of the reasons Army units can suffer much higher casualties compared to most Western armies.

Taking the performance of an army for granted can be disastrous, as Russian President Putin has come to realize. Four years of service for a Jawan in our context is much less. It is likely to be disruptive and will need modification in the future.

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