After trade and immigration, those interviewed mentioned defense spending as the aspect of U.S. foreign policy that mattered most to them. But they tended to express strong support for sustaining defense spending out of a sense of patriotism and a deep belief in the importance of a strong national defense. They did not associate defense spending with economic benefits for the middle class as much as Coloradans or Ohioans did.
The data show how defense spending directly benefits Coloradans far more than Nebraskans. And within Nebraska, it is heavily concentrated in the greater Omaha and Lincoln areas. These metropolitan areas have prospering, diversified economies that are less dependent on defense spending than Dayton, Ohio, for example, whose regional economy is anchored by the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Under the circumstances, Nebraskans understandably expressed various views about the economic implications for the middle class of cutting or increasing defense spending.
Offutt Air Force Base
Lieutenant Jarvis Offutt was Omaha’s first air casualty in World War I. Offutt Field, approximately 10 miles from downtown Omaha, was named in his honor. In the lead up to and during World War II, it came to host military airfields and a bomber plant. The plant produced the B-29 bombers—the Enola Gay and Bockscar—that dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly after the war, Offutt Field became host to Offutt Air Force Base and the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).1 Over the course of the Cold War, SAC was responsible for the deployment and maintenance of nuclear-armed bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It also was responsible for the flight operations of the Looking Glass, the airborne 24/7 command-and-control center for responding to a nuclear attack on U.S. soil.2
Offutt benefited from a spike in defense spending in the 1980s, enabling it to upgrade its facilities, including for the 55th Air Wing, now the second-largest air wing in the U.S. Air Force. The 55th Air Wing’s mission includes undertaking intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and command-and-control activities to ensure that the United States maintains global information and electronic warfare dominance.3 After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, then president George W. Bush flew to Offutt to operate out of the U.S. Strategic Air Command headquarters.4
This history is important because it explains why so many Nebraskans, especially those who came of age during the Cold War, strongly support the presence of Offutt Air Force Base in their state regardless of its economic impact in Nebraska. The substantive role the base played in the nation’s defense was of paramount importance to them. Meanwhile, they assumed the economic benefits were largely confined to Sarpy County where the base and over 9,000 of the state’s total 16,634 defense personnel are located.5
Economic Impact and Geographic Distribution of Defense Spending
The assumptions interviewees made about the economic impacts of defense spending across their state were accurate but perhaps understated. Defense spending does not have as significant an economic impact in Nebraska as it does in Colorado and the United States as a whole (see Table 7).
Moreover, most counties in Nebraska do not feel the direct effects of defense spending, since so much of it is concentrated around the greater Omaha area and to a lesser extent the greater Lincoln area (see Figure 6).
Undoubtedly, Sarpy County, with a population of over 184,000 (almost 10 percent of Nebraska’s total population), and the greater Omaha area would be significantly affected by a downturn in spending at and related to Offutt Air Force Base.6 As of 2018, defense personnel account for over 7 percent of Sarpy County’s working-age population.7 The knock-on effects for other industries in the area would be substantial were this number to drop precipitously. An Omaha-area resident who works in business development assessed that a significant downsizing or closure of Offutt (not currently in the cards) would be “catastrophic” for the immediate areas surrounding the base, as they would see demand for services dry up, businesses shutter, land valuation drop, and revenues from property taxes tank. It would “certainly crush Douglas and Sarpy Counties [and] by extension, Pottawatomie County [in Iowa],” he added.8 Still, the wider Omaha metropolitan area, which includes Douglas and Sarpy Counties, would be far better positioned to absorb the shock than more rural defense locations, given the size and diversification of its economy.
Most other counties across Nebraska would be less affected by changes at Offutt Air Force Base than they would be by major increases or decreases in the strength of the Nebraska National Guard and Air National Guard. These forces now comprise over 4,000 personnel in total, which are dispersed across the state. However, even with the guard units, the largest numbers are concentrated near the main population centers of Lincoln, Omaha, and the tri-cities (Grand Island, Hastings, and Kearney). Military veterans are likewise located across the state, though their numbers are greatest near Offutt.9
Contending Views About What to Do About Defense Spending
Given that the direct economic effects of defense spending are not widespread across the state, most Nebraskans experience the impacts of defense spending on the middle class in more indirect ways, from how it conforms with their values and worldviews to the opportunity costs it entails.
The interviewees’ predominant view was to sustain whatever levels of defense spending were required to keep the nation safe, prevent global instability, and deter a major war. A focus group participant in Scottsbluff/Gering captured this sentiment well: “I don’t think we have any choice but to have a strong military. . . . I’m a veteran, and I had some familiarity with how the service works or it doesn’t work. . . . It’s important that the rest of the world know that we have the capability [of] defending ourselves if need be. Now, there’s been some craziness in that spending and in [what determines] an effective military strategy and military defense capability. But it’s certainly part, in today’s world, of . . . what you have to have.”10 He added that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had been an important part of the strategy of deterring major conflicts and had “kep[t] Europe . . . in a stable status for, well since the end of the Second World War.”11
Generally speaking, no one appeared to argue against the need for a strong defense. The point of debate was how to achieve that objective in a way that still freed up more resources for investments in America’s middle class. One focus group participant in Scottsbluff/Gering suggested that “we can still bolster our defense and not have so many servicemen abroad. Keep those dollars local, within the United States’ borders at least.”12 A retiree in Lincoln called for halting spending on the production of tanks and missiles that were being used, in his view, to prop up “dictators” and “repressive forces.” A school teacher in Omaha opined that, with the hundreds of billions already being spent on defense, it should be possible to reduce the total amount by “maybe 30 [billion]” or “take . . . 5 percent off, [and] put that [into] education.”13
Another focus group participant in Omaha argued that savings should be achievable through eliminating wasteful defense spending. He conjectured that defense contracts were overcharging U.S. taxpayers, “spending $10,000 for a coffee maker . . . or 50 bucks for like a nail or whatever.”14 Others more familiar with the details took issue with these specific examples, though they concurred with the broader point about the need to be judicious about how the United States spent its defense dollars.
There appeared to be a consensus that the greatest requirement for judiciousness was in determining where and when the United States militarily intervened in other countries, especially given that such interventions, in addition to the losses of life, could cost hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars that might otherwise be invested at home. A focus group participant in Scottsbluff/Gering stated, “Our current administration has done a good job of not getting us into anything new . . . it’s quite the feat, you know, when you consider the last twenty years of what we’ve gotten [ourselves] into . . . with politicians [on] both sides of the aisle. You know, to not have a new war is pretty substantial.”15 Whether supportive or critical of the current administration, those interviewed appeared to concur on this key point: the bar should be very high for militarily intervention.
1 United States Air Force, “Fact Sheet: History of Offutt Air Force Base,” August 2005, https://www.offutt.af.mil/Portals/97/Documents/AFD-130718-033.pdf?ver=2016-02-17-122154-040.
2 Offutt Air Force Base, “Wing Makes Move to Nebraska,” April 26, 2017, https://www.offutt.af.mil/News/Article/1163199/wing-makes-move-to-nebraska/.
3 United States Air Force, “Fact Sheet: History of Offutt Air Force Base,” https://www.offutt.af.mil/Portals/97/Documents/AFD-130718-033.pdf?ver=2016-02-17-122154-040
4 Offutt Air Force Base, “Offutt Forever Linked With 9-11,” September 6, 2011, https://www.offutt.af.mil/News/Article/311755/offutt-forever-linked-with-9-11/.
5 Office of Economic Adjustment, “Defense Spending by State: Fiscal Year 2018.”
6 U.S. Census, “Quick Facts: Sarpy County, Nebraska, and Nebraska,” data extracted January 2020, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/NE,sarpycountynebraska/PST045218.
7 Total defense personnel in Sarpy County taken as a percentage of the Sarpy County population ages sixteen years and over; Office of Economic Adjustment, “Defense Spending By State: Fiscal Year 2018”; and U.S. Census Bureau, “American Community Survey, 5-Year Estimates 2018, Age and Sex: Sarpy County, Nebraska,” https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?g=0500000US31153&t=Populations%20and%20People&tid=ACSST5Y2018.S0101&y=2018&hidePreview=false&vintage=2018&layer=county&cid=S0101_C01_001E, accessed March 5, 2020.
8 T. Abdel-Monem, S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, J. Walther, and D. Rosenbaum, interview with a resident who works with/promotes business development, Omaha, July 10, 2019.
9 Nebraska Military Department, Nebraska National Guard, and Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, “2018 Annual Report,” https://ne.ng.mil/Shared%20Documents/Annual-Report-2018.pdf; and Office of Economic Adjustment, “Defense Spending By State: Fiscal Year 2018.”
10 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, Scottsbluff, July 23, 2019.
13 Focus group conducted by T. Abdel-Monem, S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, D. Rosenbaum, and J. Walther, Omaha, July 10, 2019.
15 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, Scottsbluff, July 23, 2019.