Strategic competition with the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China has become the new orienting challenge for the U.S. national security community. While many officials and writers envision strategic competition across many domains, the increased likelihood of proxy wars in strategic competition does not gain much purchase in the strategic planning documents of the U.S. government, including the recent Biden administration’s Interim National Strategic Guidance. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy and the supporting 2018 National Defense Strategy acknowledged that the United States faces a re-emergent period of strategic competition from both China and Russia. The Biden administration appears to embrace the competitive nature of the relationship between democratic states and authoritarian rivals, and the necessity of military modernization, but does not address the range of malign methods that the competition could lead to. In response to the strategies, the U.S. military is adapting from protracted counter-terrorism missions to deterring large-scale, conventional wars. This is a natural reflex for the Pentagon, yet strategic competition does not automatically generate symmetric and conventional contests.
As Aaron Stein and Ryan Fishel recently observed, “The U.S. military will need to resist the urge to conflate direct, head-to-head conflict with great-power competition. Napoleonic, linear conceptions of war may be less relevant between large, nuclear-armed states in the 21st century.” Proxy wars, an area of increasing study and rigor in the academic community, represent an indirect and non-Westphalian mode of conflict that is increasingly relevant in future conflict.
The purpose of this article is to explore the character of proxy wars in the context of the emerging strategic environment. It offers insights into the array of forms that proxy wars can take, identifies shortfalls in how such conflicts are currently conceptualized, and offers recommendations to update U.S. military doctrine to prepare for this more prevalent and likely form of armed conflict in this century.
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Dr. Frank Hoffman is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. Mr. Andrew Orner is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a research intern at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. The views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.