A leading nuclear strategist Vipin Narang said yesterday, at a conference on nuclear policy, that there is increasing evidence that India could launch a preemptive first strike against Pakistan if it feared a nuclear attack was imminent.

“There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at a conference on nuclear policy hosted by Carnegie, a think tank, yesterday.

He added that the first strike will not be aimed at urban centres and conventional targets of a retaliatory strike intended to punish and prevent an escalation, but against Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal, to preempt a nuclear attack altogether.

“India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries (launch vehicles for Pakistan’s tactical battlefield nuclear warheads) 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,” he said. 

As evidence for his theory, Narang cited recent remarks and policy prescriptions from leading Indian strategists and a book by Shivshankar Menon, who oversaw nuclear targeting for India as National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Narang also quoted Menon as telling Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst with Business Standard, that “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for”.

Narang supported his theory by citing this paragraph from Menon’s book, “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy”, which was released in November : “There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS (nuclear weapon state). Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.”

New Delhi declared its no-first use strike policy in 2003, undertaking to not start a nuclear war in a neighbourhood.

Times of India released a report today in which it said there are also worries in India that New Delhi might not have full information on the whereabouts of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and tactical warheads that are much smaller and mounted on lorries to be driven around to escape detection through satellite imagery.