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Research Questions

  1. Why do external states provide military support to parties to a civil war?
  2. Do these motivations provide any indication of whether proxy warfare, and especially proxy warfare by major or regional powers, might increase substantially within the time horizon currently driving long-term U.S. defense planning (i.e., through approximately 2035)?
  3. If a state not currently engaged in proxy warfare were to decide to dramatically expand the geographical reach or military sophistication of its proxy activities, how long would it take that country to develop the necessary capabilities to do so?

The authors used both quantitative analysis and case studies of China, Iran, and Russia to examine the causes and likely future trends in proxy wars: civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state. The purpose of the project was to provide insight into the determinants of state support for violent nonstate actors, assess the risks that third-party support poses to U.S. overseas contingency operations, and analyze policy options available to the United States to counter such foreign support.

With the renewed focus in many regions on strategic competition, there seems to be a growing risk that states will feel increasingly threatened by their rivals and take greater steps to counteract these threats in the years to come. The case studies highlight how such an environment can often, though not always, lead to an increased interest in supporting proxy warfare. Of even greater concern is the fact that geopolitical drivers of proxy warfare can often be self-reinforcing.

The states considered in the case studies were usually able to develop at least a rudimentary capability for proxy warfare very quickly, within a couple of years, often building on the capabilities of prior efforts or regimes. Beyond this baseline capability, however, a relatively lengthy period of learning and growth to better develop proxy warfare capabilities appears to be common.

Key Findings

  • Geopolitical factors, including security and diplomatic concerns, are typically the primary motives for states that sponsor local proxies. Often major powers begin to engage in proxy warfare out of a sense of acute vulnerability to the actions of other states. As they develop their capabilities for this form of competition, however, they often begin to engage in proxy warfare on a much wider basis, often drawing themselves and other states into yet more such conflicts.
  • Ideological factors, including communism or shared ethnic or religious identities, also play a role, providing a motive for such forms of competition and sometimes providing ready-made local allies.
  • Economic factors, including both the direct costs of conflict and concern for the protection of investments and trade, tend to play a more restraining role, especially for those powers whose economic fortunes might be harmed by such conflicts.
  • Looking forward, there are indications that strategic 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.


  • Because proxy conflicts have the potential to impose costs out of proportion to the U.S. interests at stake, the United States should avoid direct military involvement where possible without sacrificing vital U.S. interests. The United States has a wide range of indirect military and nonmilitary instruments, such as economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, with which it can impose costs on other major powers that employ proxy warfare without the same risks of military escalation.
  • To further reduce the risk of direct military involvement, the United States should prioritize support to countries at risk for proxy warfare, providing diplomatic, economic, and potentially military support to these states in an effort to build resilience and deny competitors opportunities for political subversion.
  • To the extent feasible, the United States should seek to establish tacitly agreed-upon limits or rules of the road in strategic competition. Doing so may reduce the likelihood that the United States will be directly drawn into potentially costly conflicts.
  • The United States should make investments in intelligence collection to improve its ability to attribute proxy support to the sponsoring states and to publicize such connections as a tool to mobilize political and diplomatic support against aggressors.
  • The United States should commit to low-cost but important hedging investments to maintain capabilities within the U.S. military necessary to counter proxy warfare.

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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