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By Devjyot Ghoshal
NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's military is overhauling its recruitment process for personnel below officer rank, aiming to deploy fitter, younger troops on its front lines, many of them on shorter contracts of up to four years, defence officials said on Tuesday.
India, which shares a heavily militarised border with Pakistan and is involved in a high-altitude Himalayan stand-off with China, has one of the world's largest armed forces with some 1.38 million personnel.
Soldiers have been recruited by the army, navy and the air force separately and typically enter service for a period of up to 17 years for the lowest ranks.
Under the new system, men and women between the ages of 17 and a half and 21 will be brought into the armed forces, many of them for a maximum four-year tenure.
India spent $76.6 billion on its military in 2021, the highest in the world after the United States and China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Analysts said the move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government would bring down the armed force's pension costs, which along with salaries, form the largest chunk of the defence budget.
"In the long run, it will certainly start bringing down the revenue expenditure," said Colonel Vivek Chadha, a veteran who is now a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
'PATH OF FIRE'
A total of 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year on four-year contracts with a quarter expected to be kept on at the end of that term, the government said.
"This scheme will strengthen the country's security and provide our youth an opportunity for military service," Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters in New Delhi, where he was joined by the three service chiefs.
Military officials said the new system, called Agnipath, meaning "path of fire" in Hindi, would help bring down the average age of the armed forces.
In the Indian army, the largest of its three services, the average age would drop to 26 from 32, its chief, General Manoj Pande, said.
"A more youthful profile will help train troops more easily in newer technologies, and their health and fitness levels will be much better," Singh said.
($1 = 78.0525 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; editing by Robert Birsel and Jason Neely)