What effect will the rising predominance of non-state actors have on the allocation of money in the defense budget? The era after the Cold War has brought a different setting to the international political scene. With that different setting, we also see different military needs than the U.S. had up to and through the 1980s. Whenever the enemy of the moment is no longer a state, but instead is an insurgent or terrorist group, how does that change where we should allocate money for defense spending?
Whenever we are fighting groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, how useful are aircraft carriers? How useful are nuclear weapons? How useful is airpower? Are either bombers or fighters more or less useful? No matter what the answers to these individual questions are, will the defense budget be adjusted accordingly, so that it allocates money to the most useful areas for the war we are currently fighting? Unfortunately, probably not. Instead, each branch of the military will fight tooth and nail to maintain their piece of the budgetary pie.
So, does maintaining the status quo on military spending hurt U.S. fighting power? Or does it maintain balance for the long term and save us from a readiness stumble in the future? If we did adjust defense spending so that it was directed toward fighting non-state actors most effectively, could that hurt us in the long run if conflict patterns change in the future?
The answer to this and what we should do about allocation of money in the defense budget depends on where and how we think conflicts are going to happen in the future? Is conflict going to continue to surround non-state actors? Or is conflict going to revert back to being between states? How confident are we about our answers to these questions? We need to use the answers to these questions to make decisions about the future of the defense budget, but we need to be very confident that our answers are correct before we use them for this purpose.