Soldiers’ fitness isn’t just about young people: The Tribune India

Lieutenant General NPS Hera (retired)

Former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army

The Agnipath scheme has become one of the most discussed schemes related to the military. Since the government made the decision to implement it, service heads have been struggling to describe its benefits during its launch event. The benefits listed are: a younger, more tech-savvy profile, and a more diverse workforce available to the military. Planned age for entry is 17.5 to 21 (raised to 23 for one-time relaxation). Usually a good guy is both physically and academically at the first opportunity. The age range for the majority of Agnivers in the unit is likely to be 18 to 23. The average lifespan of a Seboy would be around 21-22 years.

The Army’s physical fitness requirements are paramount in the infantry, they are foot soldiers. It is therefore appropriate to discuss this topic 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, and therefore, I may share my first-hand experience. The soldiers, on whom we actually rely best, for the most difficult tasks, including those that require intense physical challenges, are not the raw soldiers. With some exceptions, the most adapted soldiers are in the 22-35 age range.

Before I discuss the reasons, I would like to explain about the foreign armies that have adopted such measures. In developed countries, their parents are not ready to join the armed forces as a full-fledged profession. Some of these countries had to resort to conscription, and others had to incentivize military service to get their people to serve for a short period in the army. We have seen that these armies do not do well in operations. The argument made in favor of Agnipath is not based on any proven feature.

The type of physical fitness required of a soldier is not just about age. An infantryman needs to carry 30 to 35 kg of weight in battle, because he needs to be self-sufficient for logistics as well as ammunition. Some of them have to carry machine guns, mortars and other weapons systems. Additional loads are shared within the entire combat sub-unit. Even in the armies of the most advanced countries, soldiers must carry such a heavy weight. Technology hasn’t helped. Technology has made some equipment lighter than before, but at the same time it has added some other technical equipment for awareness of conditions on the battlefield and so on. Soldiers need mass and strength in their bodies to be able to withstand such a large weight in battle.

Anyone who has visited any Indian Army recruitment training center will notice that almost 80 per cent of our recruits do not have the muscle mass needed for a soldier. We are not genetically as well-built as the people in Western countries. Only a small percentage of our recruits have enough milk or ghee at home. Others come from very humble backgrounds. Their health actually started to improve after they started getting proper nutrition in the military. In the Indian army, the fitness graph of a soldier starts to rise already after he joins the army. It moves upward during his twenties, then flattens and begins to decline at about age 35. That is why a soldier in the army was kidnapped for 15 years and not allowed to go beyond that.

On the issue of fitness, Western countries are in a better position than us. Even at a young age, their compatriots have a much higher mass, including the strength of the arms. Our recruits are good at running long distances, but their build is very light, especially in the upper body. It takes about five years of service for them to build up their bodies and get stronger to withstand the loads of battle.

Infantry units hold regular professional weapons competitions, such as mortar shooting, MMG shooting, anti-tank weapons, commando platoon, etc. They need to carry full combat loads and fire their weapons with the best accuracy. One will not see many Jaws under the age of 21 or 22 participating in those competitions. Most of our adopted soldiers, even infantrymen who need the most physically fit jaws of any other arm, often don’t belong to the Agnipath service arc. It is not just about competition, but this factor applies across the board, whenever we need to pick up the jaws of the most sensitive operations on the Line of Control or in areas of insurgency.

If the critical issue is young people, why shouldn’t the infantry choose young soldiers for the more delicate tasks? When the whole sub-module has to participate, then everyone goes, but that doesn’t prove the point that we take the little ones because of their youth page. This whole argument that Indian Army soldiers are old, and therefore the Army needs Agnipath type reform, is a made-up argument. People usually don’t do well when they first get shot. Operations need soldiers experienced in battle, not junior soldiers. The word “veteran” when used in the context of the military, signifies exactly that. It’s a combination of physique, stamina and experience achieved in battle.

The second issue relates to technology adoption. The younger generation is certainly more tech-savvy, but the military is not going to gain by changing its soldiers every four years. Some weapon systems are so complex that jaws need a fairly long time to learn how to exploit them and gain confidence.

AgniPath will help the government to save on the 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 also decided to get rid of the caste regiments in the army. Our experience with All India Regiments was good. At the same time, we need to estimate that the regulation in a mixed unit is a function of the long service life of the unit. Therefore, there is a direct link between the changes proposed by the government. Strict organization, whether through class bond or long service combined, is one reason why army units can incur much greater losses, compared to most Western armies.

Taking the military’s performance for granted could be disastrous, as Russian President Putin has realized. Four years of service for jawan in our context is too little. It is probably broken and will need to be modified in the future.