India may abandon its 'no first use' nuclear policy and launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan if it feared that Islamabad was likely to use the weapons first, a top nuclear expert on South Asia has claimed.
The remarks by Vipin Narang, an expert on South Asian nuclear strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before a Washington audience was though a negation of India's stated policy of 'no first use'.
During the 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Narang said, "There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first".
He said India "may" abandon the policy and launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan if it believed that Pakistan was going to use nuclear weapons or most likely the tactical nuclear weapons against it.
But, he pointed out, India's preemptive strike may not be conventional strikes and would also be aimed at Pakistan's missiles launchers for tactical battlefield nuclear warheads.
"India's opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theatre, but a full 'comprehensive counterforce strike' that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction," Narang said.
He said this thinking surfaces not from fringe extreme voices or retired Indian Army officers frustrated by the lack of resolve they believe their government has shown in multiple provocations, but from no less than a former Commander of India's Strategic Forces, Lt Gen BS Nagal.
It also comes perhaps more importantly and authoritatively, from the highly-respected and influential former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon in his 2016 book 'Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy', the nuclear strategist said.
"Serious voices, who cannot be ignored, seem to suggest that this is where India may be heading, and certainly wants to head," Narang said.
"So our conventional understanding of South Asia's nuclear dynamics and who, in fact, might use nuclear weapons first and in what mode may need a hard rethink given these emerging authoritative voices in India who are not content to cede the nuclear initiative to Pakistan," he said, adding that this would mark a major shift in Indian strategy if implemented.
"In short, we may be witnessing what I call a 'decoupling' of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan."
Sameer Lalwani, senior associate and deputy director South Asia at the Stimson Center, an American think-tank, said Narang's remarks challenged the conventional wisdom of South Asia's strategic stability problem.
Based on recent statements and writings of high-level national security officials (serving and retired), Narang argued that India may be exhibiting a "seismic shift" in its nuclear strategy from 'no first use' to a preemptive nuclear counterforce allowing for escalation dominance or a "splendid first strike" against Pakistan, Lalwani said.