Everything you need to know about the U.S. military’s defense strategy to protect humanity from the walking dead.
- By Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.
The U.S. military has always been the one place in government with a plan, forever in preparation mode and ready to yank a blueprint off the shelf for almost any contingency. Need a response for a Russian nuclear missile launch? Check. Have to rescue a U.S. ambassador kidnapped by drug lords? Yup, check, got that covered. How about a detailed strategy for surviving a zombie apocalypse? As it turns out, check.
Incredibly, the Defense Department has a response if zombies attacked and the armed forces had to eradicate flesh-eating walkers in order to "preserve the sanctity of human life" among all the "non-zombie humans."
Buried on the military’s secret computer network is an unclassified document, obtained by Foreign Policy, called "CONOP 8888." It’s a zombie survival plan, a how-to guide for military planners trying to isolate the threat from a menu of the undead — from chicken zombies to vegetarian zombies and even "evil magic zombies" — and destroy them.
"This plan fulfills fictional contingency planning guidance tasking for U.S. Strategic Command to develop a comprehensive [plan] to undertake military operations to preserve ‘non-zombie’ humans from the threats posed by a zombie horde," CONOP 8888’s plan summary reads. "Because zombies pose a threat to all non-zombie human life, [Strategic Command] will be prepared to preserve the sanctity of human life and conduct operations in support of any human population — including traditional adversaries."
CONOP 8888, otherwise known as "Counter-Zombie Dominance" and dated April 30, 2011, is no laughing matter, and yet of course it is. As its authors note in the document’s "disclaimer section," "this plan was not actually designed as a joke."
Military planners assigned to the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska during 2009 and 2010 looked for a creative way to devise a planning document to protect citizens in the event of an attack of any kind. The officers used zombies as their muse. "Planners … realized that training examples for plans must accommodate the political fallout that occurs if the general public mistakenly believes that a fictional training scenario is actually a real plan," the authors wrote, adding: "Rather than risk such an outcome by teaching our augmentees using the fictional ‘Tunisia’ or ‘Nigeria’ scenarios used at [Joint Combined Warfighting School], we elected to use a completely-impossible scenario that could never be mistaken for a real plan."
Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for Strategic Command, acknowledged the document exists on a "secure Internet site" but took pains to explain that the zombie survival guide is only a creative endeavor for training purposes. "The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario," she wrote in an email. "This document is not a U.S. Strategic Command plan."
This isn’t the first time zombies have been used to inspire trainers or the American public. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) built an entire public awareness campaign for emergency preparedness around zombies. "Get a kit, make a plan, be prepared," one CDC poster warns as a dead-eyed woman peeks over a blanket.
But the military appears to have come up with the idea first. And of course, should there be a zombie apocalypse, the military indeed has a plan.
CONOP 8888 is designed to "establish and maintain a vigilant defensive condition aimed at protecting humankind from zombies," according to the plan’s purpose, and, "if necessary, conduct operations that will, if directed, eradicate zombie threats to human safety." Finally, the plan provides guidance to "aid civil authorities in maintaining law and order and restoring basic services during and after a zombie attack."
The "worst case threat scenario," according to the plan, suggests a rather dark situation: a zombie attack in which there would be high "transmissibility," lots of zombies eating lots of people, zombies infecting humans at a rapid rate, and little or no immunity and few effective countermeasures.
Under "Zombie Threat Summary," the plan highlights the different kinds of zombie adversaries one might find in such an attack. They include not only vegetarian zombies ("zombie life forms originating from any cause but pose no direct threat to humans because they only eat plant life"); evil magic zombies ("EMZs are zombie life forms created via some form of occult experimentation in what might otherwise be referred to as ‘evil magic’"); and also chicken zombies.
"Although it sounds ridiculous, this is actually the only proven class of zombie that actually exists," the plan states. So-called "CZs" occur when old hens that can no longer lay eggs are euthanized by farmers with carbon monoxide, buried, and then claw their way back to the surface. "CZs are simply terrifying to behold and are likely only to make people become vegetarians in protest to animal cruelty," CONOP 8888 notes.
The catalog of the walking dead also includes zombies that come from outer space; those deliberately created by Frankensteinian bio-engineers; and humans that have been invaded by a pathogen that turns them into zombies.
The plan reviews, extensively, the various phases of saving the world from zombie rule and reads not unlike the phases of a counterinsurgency campaign: from "shape" to "deter" to "seize initiative" to "dominate" to "stabilize" and, finally, in the final, confidence-building phase, "restore civil authority." That final phase includes the directive to "prepare to redeploy the forces to attack surviving zombie holdouts."
Finally, "[a]s directed by POTUS and SECDEF," using military-ese for the president of the United States and the defense secretary, "provide support to federal, state and tribal agencies’ efforts to restore basic services in zombie-related disaster areas."
If the military’s mantra is to "be prepared," then writing a zombie survival guide — even if it is just for an imaginative exercise — makes sense. "I hope we’ve invested a similar level of intellectual rigor against dragon egg hatching contingencies," one defense official quipped.