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Research Questions

  1. What military challenges are posed by VNSAs who receive military support from state sponsors?
  2. What are the implications for U.S. defense capabilities generally and U.S. Army capabilities specifically?

The authors examine the military implications of intrastate proxy wars: civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state. The research was conducted using a review of existing literature and case studies of four particularly relevant instances of proxy warfare, including the First and Second Indochina Wars, the 2014–early 2022 Donbas War, and the Houthi Rebellion.

At the strategic level, the increased lethality of violent nonstate actors (VNSAs) complicates traditional models for responding to insurgencies and other forms of irregular warfare, while the risk of escalation forecloses potential options for responding to these challenges. At the operational level, state-supported VNSAs' combination of lethality and greater capacity for dispersion can impose multiple dilemmas on forces like those of the United States. These strategic and operational challenges have implications for U.S. Army doctrine, education and leader development, training, and potentially personnel and organization.

Key Findings

  • VNSAs supported by states tend to be much more lethal than those without state support.
  • These enhanced capabilities make them much more threatening to U.S. allies and partners, potentially forcing the United States to intervene on their behalf to protect them.
  • State support to VNSAs frequently combines much of the lethality of conventional warfare with the challenges of operating against a highly dispersed enemy that has taken advantage of complex terrain and integration among civilian populations. This combination poses a number of dilemmas for the forces combating them, including whether to mass against a lethal enemy or disperse against one that targets the population, whether to emphasize force protection (such as the widespread use of armor) or ability to interact with the population, and whether to prioritize overwhelming firepower against a dangerous enemy or the use of discriminate fires so as not to alienate the population.
  • If the U.S. Department of Defense focuses 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.


  • Continuously update relevant doctrine to reflect changes in the operating environment and changes in broader U.S. government practices for such contingencies.
  • Periodically review force structure and force design to ensure that appropriate forces with appropriate organization either are available for such contingencies or can rapidly be regenerated.
  • Retain irregular or hybrid elements in at least some important training events for conventional forces.
  • Manage leader development and education so that opportunities are not only available for retaining or developing proficiency in these forms of warfare but are also either rewarded or, at least, not perceived to be punished in terms of career advancement.
  • Maintain and, in some cases, develop appropriate regional expertise, particularly among Foreign Affairs Officers and some intelligence specialists.

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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