PROXY Capabilities – A Renewed Strategy of the 21st Century

By: Cheng Lai Ki


Photo credit: Diaz,J. ‘Russia is developing a drone army – including amphibious models’, SPLOID, January 16, 2014.

This is the first of a series of articles we will be featuring on Strife in the coming week looking at the role of Proxy Warfare in the 21st century by Series Editor Cheng Lai Ki.

The technological advancements over the last decade have allowed for the development of new tactics and strategies for security, intelligence and warfare options. These ‘advancements’ have undoubtedly augmented multiple state capabilities within those domains. In his book, War Made New, military historian Max Boot charts the technological developments supporting warfare throughout human history.[1]  Through the lens of the book, an argument can be made that mankind has consistently improved at one thing, warfare. However, a second consistency can be identified. This is an increase in the operational distance and capabilities of states. This phenomenon can be identified through modernised versions of traditional strategies or emerging technology centric methods. Regardless of the method employed, the warfare strategy for states to use either a willing third party actor or remote control ordinance can be categorised under the broader term: ‘proxy warfare’. This series explores this exact phenomenon and the collaboration between a state and its utilisation of non-state (or remote control) actors.

The term ‘proxy’ possesses multiple definitions depending on its associated strategy, tactic and theatre. Within the context of warfare, ‘proxy’ capabilities can be analysed against the three overarching levels of: Strategic, Operational and Tactical.[2] Expanding on the concept of ‘proxy’ capacities of both state and non-state actors has raised several debates over the decades, mainly around the areas of impacts, accountability, effectiveness and oversight. However, the objective here is not the deliberate these considerations but more to explore the broadening scope of ‘proxy’ capabilities themselves; which would range from large state level proxies to small individual private contractors or unmanned ordinances. When applied effectively, ‘proxy’ capabilities could provide benefits such as plausible deniability, increased distance from harm and the augmentation of existing skills.  The utilisation of ‘proxies’ is however, not a new phenomenon and has been around for centuries. Its earliest form can be represented by mercenaries. Mercenaries were (and still are) groups of ex-soldiers who contract out their skills to lords and kings with a force-limitation in a certain domain.[3]  The trend has only continued to expand and broaden in scale and associative categories through the years, leading to the development of the Private Military and Security Company (PMSC) and probably one of the most classic examples of ‘proxy’ warfare.[4] There are of course other forms, as mentioned, these can be in the forms of a remote control ordinance.

Strategically, ‘proxy’ capabilities can refer to the involvement of entire organisations (state or non-state) as an extension of power to influence distant geopolitics. Although the utilisation of a weaker state by a global super-power could be situated as a ‘proxy’ capability. Such partnerships could not just influence national security policies but also potentially the strategic considerations of other states. Operationally, ‘proxy’ capabilities would refer to the involvement of private organisations as either an extension of power or augmentation of existing capabilities. Traditionally, this can be represented by the involvement of corporate or non-state actors who provide security, intelligence or consultancy services to government agencies that would enhance existing capabilities. Within ‘operational’ domains, ‘proxies’ are fundamentally used to empower existing state-capabilities. For example, consider a state that wants to increase its capabilities to gather intelligence in inaccessible regions, they could deploy unmanned aerial vehicles or commonly referred to as drones for the conduct of surveillance operations.[5] Finally, on a tactical level, the effects of ‘proxy’ capabilities would have been the most evident. This can primarily be represented by the application of unmanned ordinances to tactically support military operations through the provision of critical and live battlefield information or fire support (i.e. Russian Uran-9 Ground Combat Drone).[6] More recently, the world has experience a surge in cyber augmented scenarios attributed to either supporting existing warfare capabilities or espionage operations conducted by states.

Despite the technological augmentations currently available to states, the concept of ‘proxy’ capabilities as explained earlier is not a new phenomenon. However, the number of capabilities that can be encompassed under the concept has now broadened; evident from efforts of awareness initiative such as the Remote Control Project – a project hosted by the Oxford Research Group stationed in London.[7] It is advisable that we under the notion and expansion of what can be considered ‘proxy’ capabilities available to states. State-actors are obtaining more effective ordinances to arm their unmanned systems to conduct more effective information gathering and strike missions. Cybersecurity companies and security/intelligence agencies are collaborating with skilled non-state agents to empower their existing capabilities to tackle advanced persistent treats.

This series explores this consistently broadening cope of ‘proxy’ capabilities within the 21st century and various associated issues towards their respective categories through a three-part series entirely written by Master students currently studying under the King’s College London, War Studies Department. Part One of the series addresses the most traditional form of ‘proxy’ capabilities of involving a third non-state actor to support existing state activities in conflict or contested zones.  Gregory Wilson will kick off the series by exploring the role of Russian Private Military Companies and their involvement within pro-Russian activities within recent theatres.

Part Two of the series takes a further step back and explores the technologically enhanced hardware dimensions of ‘proxy’ capabilities through an analysis of surveillance techniques by Saher Naumaan; and followed by a study of the application of unmanned ordinances by various countries by Rian Whitton.

Part Three of the series finally embarks into the most recent form of ‘proxy’ capabilities available to states. Elmer Hernandez first bridges the gap between the physical and cyber realms by analysing how state agencies are collaborating with non-state ‘hackers’ to support their ongoing counter terrorist operations. Finally, this series wraps up with an analysis of the current Investigatory Powers Bill in the United Kingdom and the involvement of private telecommunication companies by Mustafa Batuhan Albas.

The objective of this series is to reveal the broad – and expanding – capabilities for state-actors to have their existing powers augmented through ‘proxy’ capabilities. With modernisation and technological advancements, the world in locked into a cycle of consistent change. These trends slowly distance the capability of states away from symmetrical and more towards asymmetrical strategies. It is therefore vital that we understand these expansive dimensions before it completely redefines state strategies in warfare, intelligence and geopolitics.

Formerly with the Singapore Armed Forces, Cheng is currently reading for an MA in International Intelligence and Security at King’s College London where his academic interest revolves around private military and security companies and their roles as security by proxy in the contemporary security theatre. During his military service, he was a senior tactical and operational instructor for the Armour Formation. He was the researcher and coordinator for the 2016 King’s College London Crisis Simulation that replicated tensions in the South China Sea. 

[1] Boot, M. War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World, (New York: Gotham Books), 2012.

[2] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the Untied States, (25 March 2013).

[3] Singer, P. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of Privatized Military Industry, (New York: Cornel University Press), 2003.

[4] Kinsey, C. Corporate Soldiers and International Security: The Rise of Private Military Companies, (New York: Routledge), 2006.

[5] Kreps, S & Kaag, J. Drone Warfare, (Cambridge: Polity), 2014.

[6] Mizokami, K., ‘The Kremlin’s Tiny Drone Tank Bristles With Weapons’, Popular Mechanics [Online], Available from:, Accessed 26 March 2016.

[7] Remote Control Project, (London: Oxford Research Group) [Online], Available from:, Accessed 12 March 2016.

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