The Indian Army's strength is expected to be between 10-10.5 lakh after 10-15 years

One of the biggest reforms in the Indian military envisaged to achieve a lean and mean force, the Agnipath recruitment scheme, has become a law-and-order issue, triggering civil unrest across the country.

The Narendra Modi government has been trying to douse the fire, with first the military brass, followed by the National Security Advisor, having made appearances on national television in what looks like a desperate attempt at firefighting.

Videos and pictures of those who claim to have been defence aspirants destroying public property and indulging in arson and rioting have come as a shock to the Centre.

Meanwhile, the government has been in damage control mode with widespread violence as protesting youth have been part of riotous mobs in several parts of the country.

Reduction In Pension Bills The Real Reason?

While Agnipath has been hailed as a step in the right direction, there is no official word on the real intent, which is to cut down on pensions and salaries from the defence budget to give the much-needed impetus to capital procurement for the defence forces.

India Today has learnt that the long-term plan is to cut down the army’s strength to under 11 lakh from the current 13 lakh plus.

"This will be done in a phased manner over the next decade. It is felt if the Army has to move towards being a modern force driven by technology, it cannot be manpower intensive," said a senior government official.

It is estimated that after 10-15 years, the strength of the Indian Army will be somewhere between 10-10.5 lakh, and that figure could be maintained for years to come as the military looks to be a technology-driven force, cutting down on manpower.

With 75 per cent of recruits having to leave after four years, the burden of salaries and pensions in the long run will also be reduced.

Out of the total defence allocation of Rs 5,25,166.15 crore for 2022-23, the capital expenditure meant for new equipment and infrastructure development is pegged at only Rs 1,52,369.61. Year after year, a chunk of the defence budget goes into paying salaries and pensions, affecting the modernisation of the Indian Armed Forces. Effectively, only 30 per cent of the defence budget can be used for capital procurement.

In fact, the budget for pensions of defence personnel alone is more than that of the revenue expenditure of critical ministries like health. The number of personnel eligible for defence pensions has increased rapidly over the last few years.

The overall defence budget, which includes revenue expenses such as salaries and pensions as well as capital outlay, has increased by 9.8 percent for fiscal year 2022-23.

The allocation under capital expenditure is meant to procure big-ticket weapons such as fighter jets, submarines, helicopters, and other modern military systems.

Age Profile

Other than bringing down the strength to make the armed forces more efficient by shedding the flab, this will also bring down the age profile of soldiers.

"The Agnipath short-term recruitment scheme has been in the making for the last two years and aims to reduce the age profile of the armed forces from 30 to 25 years," Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari told India Today.

The need to lower the age profile has been felt since the Kargil conflict of 1999. The Kargil Review Committee had flagged reducing the age of soldiers and making units younger.

While the average age of a soldier in India is around 32, in the UK it is 25, and in the US it is 28.

Explaining how the new scheme aims at larger reforms to make the military more efficient, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari, while speaking to India Today, said, "We are well aware of the new domains of warfare and for that we need a new breed of air warriors. Force optimisation, both quantitative and qualitative, is also taking place at the same time. This scheme will give us an opportunity to redefine our HR policies and training schemes."

There is a view that while the eligibility to get into the armed forces remains the same, it presents an opportunity to pick up candidates for specialised jobs.

"We can observe an individual for 2-3 years, assess his calibre and aptitude, and see what kind of job the person is best suited for. When he re-enrols after four years, we can take on specialised training for the person," Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari said.

The scheme is limited to soldiers, or what the military refers to as "other ranks." According to the new recruitment policy, soldiers in the armed forces will be recruited initially for a period of four years, and only 25 per cent of those will be retained after that. The eligibility criteria to apply is Class 12 pass for general duty and Class 12 pass for technical, while the age criteria is between 17.5 and 21 years.

However, for the first year of recruitment, the age limit has been enhanced to 23 years to accommodate those aspirants who missed out as recruitment was on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has created 1.06 lakh vacancies in the armed forces. With the new scheme, these vacancies will only increase, but sources say that’s not a problem as the long-term plan is to bring down the numbers anyway.

No Rollback, But Tinkering Possible

The government has made it clear that the scheme will not be rolled back, but it could tweak certain aspects to douse the fire.

As part of reaching out to the youth and giving sops, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has approved a proposal to reserve 10 per cent of the job vacancies in the ministry of defence for Agniveers meeting requisite eligibility criteria. The 10 per cent reservation will be implemented in the Indian Coast Guard, defence civilian posts and all the 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings. The ministry of defence has said this reservation would be in addition to existing reservations for ex-servicemen.

The controversial subject has seen several veterans voice their concerns. While initially it was said the recruitment would be done on an all-India, all-class basis, there has been a change of stand on the existence of a regimental system. Several regiments of the Indian Army raised during the British Raj have a history of several hundred years. With the new system, recruitment for infantry regiments of the Indian Army, which is based on regions, could change. However, the army has now stated that there will be no changes.

"Signals emanating are a little confusing. This needs more clarity. Ownership should be taken up by the government of India and not the armed forces. The scheme could have been a pilot project for some, but after lessons were learnt, it seems it's been rolled out in a hurry," said Lt Vinod Bhatia (Retd), a former Director General of Military Operations.

At the latest press conference attended by senior officers in uniform, Lt Gen Anil Puri, additional secretary, department of military affairs, said the recruitment process will remain unchanged and the traditional regimentation system in the military will continue.

In the middle of all the chaos, three Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have reached the Supreme Court challenging the scheme. With the matter reaching court, the government has taken a stand that it be heard on legalities before any action or directions are passed.

The fate of the scheme hangs in the balance, but the real test for the government would be the number of applicants who turn up to be recruited as Agniveers as the registration is all set to begin.