If the United States fights with China or Russia, what type of war will it be? Will it look like the high-tech conflict envisaged in The Kill Chain or will it be closer to the plot of Ghost Fleet? Much of the U.S. strategic debate has been dominated by the perceived need to deter and prepare for large-scale, conventional conflicts — what some in these pages have called a Napoleonic conception of war. But great-power competition does not always manifest itself by direct, protracted, and high-intensity wars.
Throughout history, great powers have often competed by supporting proxy forces. The Cold War, for example, was hardly a “long peace” when one considers the numerous externally abetted, intrastate conflicts and shadow wars that took place. There is no reason to think that U.S. competition with China and Russia will be any different than earlier periods of history.
Both China and Russia have a history of adopting indirect approaches and good reason to avoid competing with the United States in overt and direct military clashes. China has a history of supporting proxies in North Korea and Vietnam, and some analysts argue that it continues to wage sophisticated influence operations and use salami-slicing activities short of direct combat, including through aggressive use of its merchant and fishing fleets as surrogate assets. Likewise, Russia has an extensive background with indirect strategies and deep operational experience with promoting separatists and mercenary forces in unconventional campaigns. One need only look at Russia’s recent and continuing conduct in Ukraine and Syria for proof of its reliance on indirect ways of war.
American policymakers and officials should recognize that proxy wars are one of the most likely ways whereby the United States will come to blows with its great-power adversaries. American strategy and doctrine should reflect that strategic reality and should prepare the United States to successfully confront proxy forces working on behalf of major rivals.
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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.