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Research Questions

  1. What are the motives and trends for great powers' use of proxy warfare in intrastate conflict as a tool of strategic competition?
  2. What are the military implications of these wars?

This report synthesizes the findings and recommendations from two companion reports on intrastate proxy wars: civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state. One of these companion reports examines motives and trends for great powers' use of proxy warfare in intrastate conflict, while the other examines the military implications of these wars. The authors conducted the research for these reports using a quantitative analysis of proxy wars since 1946, case studies on major powers that have sponsored surrogates in such conflicts, and case studies on the military implications of such conflicts.

Looking forward, there are worrying indications that geopolitical factors may be driving countries, including Russia and Iran, to more frequent use of proxy warfare, and China might return to such forms of competition under certain circumstances. Ideology seems less likely to fuel proxy wars than it did during the Cold War, however, and China has a number of economic incentives to avoid such practices.

The prospect of the increasing use of proxy warfare has a number of implications for U.S. defense policy. Violent nonstate actors supported by states tend to be much more lethal than those without state support. These enhanced capabilities appear to make them much more threatening to U.S. allies and partners, potentially forcing the United States to intervene on their behalf to protect them.

Key Findings

States sponsor local proxies for a complex combination of reasons

  • Geopolitical factors, including security and diplomatic concerns, are typically the primary motives. Major powers usually begin to engage in proxy wars out of a sense of acute vulnerability to the actions of other states. As they develop their capabilities, they frequently begin to engage in proxy wars on a much wider basis, often drawing themselves and other states into more conflicts.
  • Ideological factors, such as communism or shared ethnic or religious identities, also play a role, providing a motive for competition and sometimes providing ready-made local allies with similar ideologies.
  • Economic factors, including the direct costs of conflict and concern for protection of investments and trade, usually play a more restraining role, especially for those powers whose economic fortunes might be harmed by such conflicts.

The prospect of the increasing use of proxy warfare has several implications for U.S. defense policy

  • State-supported militants usually pose greater threats to governments than those without such support. The United States may get drawn into such conflicts to protect its allies and partners.
  • If the U.S. Department of Defense has focused exclusively on high-intensity, conventional warfighting contingencies, it is likely to be poorly prepared for the challenges posed by nonstate actors who are functioning as proxies for other major powers.

Recommendations

  • The United States should conduct a strategic-level assessment of key U.S. allies and partners that are potentially vulnerable to proxy warfare. Such states might be prioritized for investments in their resilience.
  • The United States should consider additional investments in capabilities for detection and attribution of state support for violent nonstate actors.
  • The U.S. Army should consider a number of relatively inexpensive investments in hedging against the risk that it might get drawn into proxy wars in the future, including some changes to training, leader development, and personnel policies, even as it allocates most resources to support preparation for high-intensity conflict against near peers.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, U.S. Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program with the RAND Arroyo Center.

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