The Center for Strategic and International Studies, the American Enterprise Institute, and War on the Rocks collaborated to address a shared concern: a lack of understanding about how defense strategy and security objectives are translated into concrete budget choices. To meet this challenge, the three organizations built the Defense Futures Simulator. Integrating detailed budget data, decades of subject matter expertise, and sophisticated data science, the Defense Futures Simulator will serve as a publicly available resource for those who wish to understand how much the United States is spending to achieve its defense objectives, and how that might change in the future.

What the Defense Futures Simulator does

The Joe Biden administration’s leaders have asserted that they view China as the “pacing threat” for the Defense Department. Yet how strategic priorities are translated into specific programs in the budget remains largely vague and imprecise. The Defense Futures Simulator will change that, making the process of aligning strategy and resources more accessible, transparent, and engaging. Doing so will allow for more informed debate about overall spending levels and trade-offs across an expansive range of issues, from grand strategy to specific acquisition plans.

Different defense strategies require different investments

The Defense Futures Simulator allows users to see how various defense strategies and choices would alter the Defense Department budget. Users first decide whether they want to adjust the current strategy. For example, some users may focus on great-power competition – while others may prioritize counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. They then select a certain budget level. Once these inputs are finalized, the simulator uses a data science algorithm to reflect how the user’s strategic preferences and budget constraints might change the US military’ s size, composition, and capabilities.

As a final step, users can review the force and refine specific programs as desired. Users can compare the price of military platforms and other investments across the armed forces while accounting for the relative cost of ground, sea, air, and space forces-including personnel, equipment, operations, and maintenance-not to mention different military strategies. Users can repeatedly test and revise different strategy and program choices while considering the budgetary ramifications of their decisions.

Informing the conversation

The Defense Futures Simulator will elevate and inform public debate on defense issues. The US military must have the personnel, equipment, and training to remain effective and efficient in the face of growing challenges. Even before COVID-19, the United States faced fiscal challenges that constrained defense resources. The defense policy decisions facing the country require engagement from policymakers and other interested stakeholders-most crucially the public. By democratizing defense analysis, the Defense Futures Simulator will help all parties understand, debate, and decide the pressing issues facing defense strategy and budgets.

For more information and to use the simulator, visit our site or contact us at

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Photo: CSIS