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Research Synopsis

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Research Questions

  1. How do VNSAs adapt to changes in their operational environments?
  2. What kinds of adaptations do they make?
  3. How might the Army anticipate such adaptations and take steps to mitigate them before they occur?

Violent nonstate actors (VNSAs) — terrorist groups, drug trafficking organizations, and others — are increasingly part of the environment in which the Army and other government forces operate. Such organizations pose durable and direct threats to U.S. security interests. The capacity of VNSAs to wage war, inflict violence, and engage in vast transnational criminal activity make them a persistent danger. Countering these organizations is difficult because they are generally flexible and structured in ways that facilitate their ability to adapt to changes occurring within their operational environments and, in some cases, beyond. This report summarizes research into how VNSAs adapt to changes in their operational environments and provides recommendations on how the Army might anticipate such adaptations and mitigate them before they occur. The authors have drawn from a series of historical case studies and relevant literature to offer insights on the most common VNSA adaptations and means of detecting and mitigating each. Among other observations, the authors note that VNSAs reach their peak adaptive capacity within the first five years of their existence but that not all VNSAs have the same level of adaptive capacity.

Key Findings

The most VNSA adaptations occur within the first five years of a VNSA's existence

  • The VNSAs examined adapted to their environments quickly and then retained an adaptive capacity through their life cycles. This suggests that an opportunity to limit a VNSA's ability to adapt shortly after it emerges and, possibly, reduce its ability to remain operationally effective.

Not all VNSAs adapt with the same frequency

  • The pressures (or strategies) that counter-VNSA forces exert, coupled with changes in the operational environment, may lead to different levels of adaptation.

Of the 46 VNSA adaptations examined, 12 occurred in roughly one-half of the periods and two-thirds of the cases examined

  • The 12 adaptations occur frequently. Knowing that these adaptations are the most likely to occur can inform how resources are focused, the development of indicators for their detection, and the creation of means for mitigating their occurrence or the effects of their occurrence.

Limiting access to warfighting assets could hinder VNSA's ability to adapt

  • To reduce VNSA capacity to adapt, strategies and efforts should focus on limiting VNSAs' access to military, technological, and warfighting materiel and on VNSAs' ability to seize and hold terrain.


  • Identify, monitor, and take proactive steps to limit VNSAs' evolution in the first few years following their emergence.
  • Incorporate operational environment and organizational variables related to higher levels of VNSA adaptation into operational assessment frameworks, such as political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure, environment, and time.
  • Focus strategies and efforts on limiting VNSAs' access to military, technological, and warfighting materiel and on VNSAs' ability to seize and hold terrain.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, U.S. Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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