How could zombies beat the army?

How could the military fail to survive a Zombie Apocalypse like the one presented in The Walking Dead?  This is one of those questions I like to run through my mind, and was spawned recently by some forum discussion I read on this very topic.  While I would generally say that the US military stands a good chance of surviving a Zombie outbreak and likely preventing a full ZA event, I can see several scenarios that would essentially eliminate the US military as an organized and cohesive fighting force.

First, let me establish some parameters.  For one we’re only dealing with The Walking Dead style zombies, relatively slow, stupid and terminally aggressive.  The modern ‘fast zombies’ as seen in the Day of the Dead remake or the more recent World War Z would be exceptionally difficult to fight.  The other parameter is that I am trying to establish a set of conditions that would prevent the military from continuing to operate as a large scale organization.  Even in the worst scenario I can imagine small groups of soldiers being able to maintain a functioning group and protect small areas, but at that point I would be hesitant to refer to them any longer as members of the US military, even while they may be upholding the finest traditions of the service.

So what are the conditions that could lead us to the breakdown of the US Military?  We are talking about the best trained and one of the best equipped military forces in the world.  I think looking at training and equipment is a good place to start.  First, let’s look at equipment.  There is no argument that the US military has some very effective weapons for delivering death and destruction, but there are some important considerations.  First a lot of the heavy hitting “area effect” weapons would probably be relatively ineffective against large scale zombie attacks.  One of the most interesting chapters in the World War Z novel is the battle of Yonkers, where the US military tries to stop a zombie horde from escaping the New York City area with a mix of artillery and air strikes to almost no effect.  Zombies don’t care if they get limbs blown off or pieces of shrapnel lodged in them.  They can presumably continue to function even if their organs are pulverized, excluding the brain naturally.  So much of our heavy weapons would terminate very few zombies per shot.  Don’t forget that we only have so many bombs and shells in stock, and if there was a large scale Zombie outbreak it’s highly unlikely that more supplies would be quick to arrive.  Training is a trickier matter, modern military training is very effective, but against an enemy with no chance backing down or running away, there may be a deleterious effect on combat effectiveness.  Still at large, organize combat operations against Zombies you would expect soldiers to be rather effective on the whole.  Take care to note the key points in that last statement.  In large groups I have little doubt that a combat force would prevail against zombies, it’s when the soldiers are in small groups that they will see their effectiveness break down.

So now let me walk through a scenario with you and how I think it would cause the collapse of the US military in a ZA event.  First, let’s start with the setup of the outbreak itself.  A key factor is the scale of the initial event.  The ZA initial outbreak needs to be widespread, say a killer flu that causes a death rate 10 or 20 times the normal rate.  On a normal day about 6,000 people die every day in the US.  So looking at 60,000 new Zombies every day as a base number would start things in motion.  It is also important that the outbreak be spread across a large number of cities and regions.  A concentrated outbreak would be considerably easier to put down.

Next comes the initial response.  Hopefully it is not hard to see how police and emergency workers would be quickly overwhelmed.  Every day they are faced with thousands of newly dead, homicidally violent individuals.  Despite our love affair with the Zombie genre, no responsible Police officer, EMT or Doctor would ever assume that these people are actually zombies where the only option is to put them down.  The working assumption is going to start with the notion that these are sick people who need to be restrained and treated.  That very point is going to result in a massive casualty rate among those in our first line of defense.  Police officers, medical workers and other emergency responders will all be exposed to a very high risk of bites and scratches from the dead.  Within a few days or at most weeks, I would expect there would be very few of these people left in a condition to help the civilian population.  By the time people start to abandon the ‘restrain and treat’ notion the first line of defense will be gone and there will no doubt be an ever growing level of zombie activity in affected areas.

While the first responders are succumbing to their injuries, the National Guard will no doubt be activated to fill in the gap.  The trouble here is that chaos is probably starting to take hold in urban centers.  Zombies may not have reached critical mass, but they would certainly have some neighborhoods locked down and would be expanding.  If the Guard units are sent to try to maximize civilian protection, they are going to be operating in small units and face a significant chance of being overwhelmed in small groups.  Combine this with the inability to easily distinguish the recently dead from civilians trying to escape a zombie induced riot and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine many soldiers waiting to fire until it is too late.  Certainly, some units would manage to survive, but many more would be taken out by the hordes.

At the back of these initial events is the command and control element.  That brings us to areas of psychology and decision making.  Would the President decide to nuke a city to stop the zombies there?  Would governors order their guard units to rescue civilians or quarantine affected areas?  Would soldiers obey orders to put down the zombies that are still hard to distinguish from civilians?  The more aggressively military forces try to save civilians the more likely military units will find themselves overwhelmed.  I say that because to maximize the numbers rescued you’re going to have to spread yourself thing against an enemy that is continually growing in numbers.  There are also no true safe places, outbreaks can and will happen in safe zones disrupting movement and supplies for any military force in the field.

At this point, let’s presume that moderate efforts to protect and then rescue civilians were taken.  Guard units take heavy casualties, but still maintain cohesion and fall back to the outskirts of major metropolitan areas.  By this point the crisis has hit the severe level and regular military forces are going to be deployed.  Presumably by now, a general sense of kill not restrain will have taken hold.  This is also the point where the military will either hold together and contain the outbreak or things will completely fall apart.  There won’t be another time where the troops are well equipped, coordinated and prepared.

With the ZA event reaching the final stage, the military will be faced with several unprecedented conditions that will impact them and if they aren’t managed successfully they will fall.  First are they spread out too thin?  Against hordes of Zombies, you’re going to want large groups of soldiers with large stocks of ammunition.  Heavy weapons would certainly be used, but in many cases their effectiveness will be limited.  On the other hand, tanks and heavily armored vehicles can make effective zombie killers for as long as the fuel lasts and the engines keep running.  At this point however, that might not be long as supply lines have likely faltered or are nonexistent.  Another factor to consider is that in a true ZA event, combat units may suffer from high desertion rates, as soldiers may choose to attempt saving loved ones instead of following orders.  The longer a ZA even lasts, the more plausible I see there being soldiers walking off the lines to save their families.  If the conditions in the field seem like a lost cause, it would have to get harder to keep new recruits and part time soldiers in the field instead of helping keep their immediate loved ones safe.

One area that provides a potential point for regrouping is the Navy.  Presuming that ships are kept out at sea and can manage any Zombie outbreaks on board, they would be relatively save platforms from which to operate militarily.  If they are fully provisioned, a naval group, especially one with a Marine force could be used to clear coastal areas even after a ZA event.  Of course the Navy could also provide direct support for evacuation and rescue operations that could open up the chance for zombie outbreaks on the ships and the over extension of combat ground forces that causes them to be lost.  Even so, any force at sea represents the best chance for continued military cohesion.  That said, in a worst case scenario it isn’t hard to see them expending most resources trying to help people to the point where there might not be much ammunition or other provisions to launch an offensive campaign.

Overall, I think I’ve laid out a plausible scenario which would result in the collapse of effective military operations on the mainland US.  I would say that I think the above scenario is rather unlikely, ignoring the near impossibility of a ZA event in the first place.  The critical factor in my opinion is the initial outbreak.  If it is widespread with a relatively large number of Zombies being created in the first days against an unassuming nation, then I think the worst case outcome is moderately likely.  On the other hand, a more limited outbreak would give the government and military forces time to identify the problem and address the Zombie outbreak before a critical mass of zombies could be created.  The basic notion being that a small number of slow zombies are hardly a threat, it’s when there are a large number of them that they become hard to stop

So that’s my thought experiment for the day.  Let me know what you think!