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As I mentioned before, dragons are really hard to adapt to modern-day settings, when warfare is concerned. For every other race, even centaurs, it's fairly easy to find some kind of strength and the drawbacks tend to be fairly mild.

Sure, these dragons are about as big as a Clydesdale horse (183 cm at the shoulders). In fact, they only seem bigger because of their neck and tail, the latter of which is half the total body length.

Dragons have six limbs and are capable of powered flight, though only for a short period before switching to soaring. Their stamina is fairly low and while dragons can run fast and hit hard, they rarely get into melee range. Dragon scales act as ablative armor, roughly offering the same protection as an NIJ-rated level 3 armor plate, though it performs slightly above the criteria.

Dragons don't possess fire breath, they imbue their breath with "magic". In other words, they exhale swarms of specialized nano and micromachines to do various things. These swarms can be condensed into solid "crystals" and activated when the dragon needs to quickly replenish his/her swarm.

Obviously, offensive nanomachines are geared towards getting into people's bodies and giving them a good dose of botulinum toxin or cyanide. There are also bots that disinfect injuries and significantly hasten blood clotting, some can form into primitive sensory apparatuses that the dragon can use to spy/scry, and some absorb IR and radar.

The problem is that humans have access to this magic as well, and what they lack in individual power, humans make up for with numbers.

A running gag in the Foundation (a faction from my story) is that dragons are just diet F-22s. Sure, their "maintenance" will certainly don't make you go bankrupt, but they also lack the size, speed, weaponry, and armor of a regular F-22.

Nanomachines are rather powerful, especially their buffs, but they are utterly helpless against sealed objects and high-entropy bulk matter, such as flak cannons.

In layman terms, the only exclusive advantage of dragons, compared to humans, is their long lives.


We know that the Foundation, a peacekeeping military organization, low in numbers but mighty in tech; keeps dragons at the Defense Department, meaning they usually get to see live combat.

The biggest threat to them would be the Moster Hunters, a PMC that specializes in fighting mostly non-human forces. They aren't that large or well-equipped and had their assess kicked numerous times by the Foundation. Still, hate-crime seems to be a lucrative business, so they keep popping up like whack-a-mole.

Just like people, dragons are afraid of dying. In fact, most dragons seem to be extra scared of it, probably because of all those dumb dragonslayer movies. So, they won't be live-bait, do suicide runs or any unnecessarily dangerous action.

But then, just what role should dragons have on-field, in combat?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 17 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ This question appears to boil down to "what advantage do dragons have if you take away all of their advantages?" And as such, it contains its own answer: how many toys does your son have if you take away all his toys? $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 18 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler I'm sure they still have advantages. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jul 18 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler Just one. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 18 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles The OP specifically limits the scope of the question to their participation on the front lines of a battle. Long natural lifespan is not an advantage in that circumstance. Thus, no, they have no advantages within this scope. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 19:35

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(nb - I'm assuming the dragons have the ability to use adapted human weapons and technology in addition to their nano-breath)

Air Cavalry, Commandos, Airborne Infantry

Don't think fighter jets, think helicopters. They aren't diet F-22s, they're diet Apaches. Sure, they can't carry as much weaponry, but I'm sure some enterprising engineer will develop harnesses for them to use your world's equivalent of Stinger or Javelin missiles. Their maintenance and basing requirements are much lower than helicopters, they're significantly quieter, and they have the ability to move along the ground in order to avoid air defenses or early warning radar. Plus they provide their own "boots on the ground", giving them a mission flexibility that would otherwise require a larger combined-arms force.

A squad of dragons might be used to secure a landing zone while human infantry is airlifted in behind them. They could then deploy forward again to cut off enemy supply lines and establish ambushes while the main army force consolidates and moves up. They can help secure bridgeheads and beachheads with the ability to cross waterways at will.

They'd make tremendous recon troops, since, again, they can cross basically any terrain required in order to get to their intended vantage point. They'd also be exceptional in mountainous terrain as well. A dragon mortar team could set up on whatever high ground they needed to in order to maximize their coverage and effectiveness.

TL:DR - They have all the versatility of light airborne infantry/air cavalry without the giant logistic burden that actual aircraft impose.

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    $\begingroup$ So they're air marines. $\endgroup$ – Adam Miller Jul 16 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ they'd be excellent also for operations in enemy territory, as, unlike vehicles, they can presumably scavenge their own "fuel", ie they are much more self sustaining. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Jul 16 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ The other thing worth comparing the dragons to is an RQ-1 Predator drone. A Predator drone has comparable size to these dragons, and carry missiles roughly equivalent to what you would probably be able to attach to them. $\endgroup$ – user1937198 Jul 17 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Completely-vertical takeoff might be a problem for a dragon, but most of the sorts of situations where it'd be needed, the dragon can climb whatever wall is inhibiting its takeoff space. As for landing vertically, I could totally see one stalling to a stop mid-air, then using their wings more as parachutes than lift-surfaces, to drop straight down at a safe rate. This would likely require specialized training on the dragon's part, but no more so than the training a chopper pilot needs to fly up and down a tight space, and with less catastrophic results for failure. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "any terrain required". Helicopters can't walk and jeeps can't fly. $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Jul 24 at 16:28
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Strategy.

the only exclusive advantage of dragons, compared to humans, is their long lives

Humans live a long time. Probably humans live a long time because having some old ones around helped the tribe. They remembered things that were helpful.

Experienced individuals are still helpful today. Yes you can look stuff up but a written account does not do justice to the nuances of exactly how things went down and what happened next. Sometimes people don't write down the mistakes and the embarrassing stuff. Which is often the most important stuff, and dragons remember all of that. Dragons pay close attention and remember in detail; especially the details that meant they did not get killed. Many humans also appreciate those details.

Dragons are used as strategists. And sometimes sent out as noncombatant observers, because that is how you pay close attention.

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  • $\begingroup$ Funny, I've never thought of dragons as being particularly intelligent. But I like this idea. +1 $\endgroup$ – DJ Spicy Deluxe Jul 16 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ Highly intelligent dragons are prevalent everywhere, remember that dragon who helped and trained Merlin growing up? Or the Shadowrun dragons who almost made humans go extinct when magic appeared? $\endgroup$ – Blindy Jul 17 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ Judging a dragon's smarts by its imposing physique is the same prejudice that is a problem for really smart people who happen to also be superhot hotties. No-one can see past their super duper hotness, and interactions seem to somehow always be about their raw animal magnetism. I know. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 17 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, sometimes outdated experience may be detrimental. And dragons would have mostly outdated experience. Quite a few wars were fought with outdated and inefficient doctrines, and required fresh blood replacing experienced leaders to adapt a new strategy, because what used to work stopped working. Most obvious examples are Napoleonic Wars and the World Wars. $\endgroup$ – Alice Jul 18 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Alice The "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" symptom probably scales with the intended lifespan of the organism. I imagine something that can live much longer must have its mind built differently or else it would not be able to survive. If your survival is dependent on your intelligence, there's no way you could survive in a changing world for thousands of years if your mind becomes set in its ways after only 50 years. But becoming set in your ways after 50 years is much more reasonable if you're only going to live 100 years. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 18 at 17:52
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Urban Warfare.

Your dragons are no use in open-warfare with tanks and bombs and fighter jets. Well that's not entirely true. Some dragons are very talented tank/bomb/fighter jet pilots. But this is not common knowledge.

What is common knowledge is dragons are urban combat specialists. One or two dragons gives an infantry platoon a huge increase in versatility. Here are the things the platoon doesn't need anymore

  1. Medic and medical kits.

  2. Aircraft for reconnaissance

    (note dragons are silent compared to helicopters. Bonus points if they have night vision.)

  3. Aircraft for emergency evacuation (max one soldier)

  4. Smoke grenades.

  5. Tear Gas.

  6. Battering ram.

The aircraft seems like the most important. For a lot of operations you do not need an entire helicopter. One or two dragons is fine. This cuts down on costs and lets the platoon move much faster. By extension platoons can be moved around and repurposed much faster.

Tactics

Dragons are resistant to rifle rounds. But if your opponent has anything more powerful (like a grenade) then dragons are not an automatic win. They must be deployed with tactics.

Once common move is to pin down the enemy position and have the dragons flank from behind. Once they get into breath range, complete chaos ensues, the enemy formation breaks, they flee, and you shoot them all.

This is better than flanking with humans because it is (a) harder to accidentally shoot your own guys and (b) forgivable if you do.

Indoors

Dragons are just about small enough to fit through a doorway if necessary. Indoors dragons have a big advantage over soldiers because they don't have to be careful to not shoot each other. On the other hand, a group of soldiers that splits in two needs to be aware of where the other half is, in case you suddenly turn a corner and accidentally open fire on your friends. Dragons don't have this problem since they are immune to each others' breath weapons. So they can just roam about with no coordination and be completely unpredictable.

Question:

Would some of the breath nanites be considered chemical weapons and hence be considered a war crime?

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  • $\begingroup$ Since lethality can be tweaked, the nanites can't reproduce and decompose into harmless chemicals after a given time, I don't think it would be prohibited. Though nanomachines might fall under my Terminator Act... $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jul 15 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ BTW, what weapons do you see dragons carrying? They could have specially adapted miniguns and carry a lot of ammo. Maybe something like a large-caliber assault rifle, RPG, or grenade launcher? Endurance isn't great, but size matters when carrying ammunition. They could be a poor-man's helicopter gunship. Guessing regular guns will outrange nanobreath. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Jul 16 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus I don't see them carrying any weapons at all, since small arms fire is accomplished by the humans, and fitting any sort of large heavy gun is a huge hit to versatility. $\endgroup$ – Daron Jul 16 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus You could mount some sort of cannon if the need arises, and it would be much more mobile than something with wheels. But such a gun is probably TOO HEAVY for the dragon to handle the recoil, even bracing itself against nearby wreckage. $\endgroup$ – Daron Jul 16 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ What weapon could they use then? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jul 17 at 12:11
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Dragons are natural Fighter Jocks.

When it comes to powered flight, we humans are the limiting factor. Dragons are born to fly. They can take more G forces and can rely on their instinct for a lot of stuff. And what ever you do, do NOT get into a dog (dragon) fight with a Dragon, they will eat you for lunch!

And don't let their size fool you, the smaller the adult dragon, the better they can fit into an air-plane. The more they age, the longer they had to hone their skills.

With the current generation of fighter jets (the 5th) we have pilots who are younger then their planes. With dragons you might have some that remember flying in a Musquito or a Lightning...

And some dragons are so old and storied that they have become living legends. You want a fighter ace? (5 air kills) there will be dragons that have fought in 5 wars!

With all this, I doubt humans will be more then amateur pilots...

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    $\begingroup$ The weight of a dragon is a huge encumbrance which would make them questionable as fighter pilots, but as Drone pilots, they would be second to none. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 16 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ If they have the same weight / mass as a horse, sure. But make them just small enough to be in the 100 to 200 kg range and you have a fighter ace. $\endgroup$ – Flummox - don't be evil SE Jul 16 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ That is a good point, being a flying species they are probably much lighter than thier size suggests. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 16 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki 250 kg supreme-soarer Hatzegopteryx goes Brrrrrr. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jul 16 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki A harrier jump jet weighs about 5 tonnes. The fighters from Top Gun weight about 20 tonnes. An extra quarter tonne of pilot won't make much difference. $\endgroup$ – Daron Jul 17 at 9:22
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Heritage and Patroling

When everyone will be focusing on actual combat usage, I try to give it a little bit of different perspective. It is not always necessary that we use an animal in actual combat, in many cases symbolic representations are as important as any. Similar to the examples mentioned below, you can use dragons, to:

  1. Display your rich military heritage,
  2. Use as border patrols to have a drone-like view of rough and difficult terrains.
  3. Use as trained dogs to tackel the enemy one on one.

Horses

Horses may not be very useful in today's combat situations. But here are the Personal Bodyguards of President of India. These are not just showmen, they are highly trained to serve as a cavalry unit even to this day. Personal Bodyguards of President of India More info here See Also

Camels

Do you know that camels are also serving in armies in some parts of the world. Indian Border security foces uses camels for their desert border patrols. camel regiment

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    $\begingroup$ Never underestimate the convenience of a self-driving vehicle, even more so if it can fuel itself via grazing or scavenging, and can traverse terrain that cars and tanks can't. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 16 at 11:19
  • $\begingroup$ Two wonderful examples, upvoted. Re "Horses may not be very useful in today's combat situations. But here are the Personal Bodyguards of President of India. These are not just showmen, they are highly trained to serve as a cavalry unit even to this day.": Anti-riot? $\endgroup$ – Martín-Blas Pérez Pinilla Jul 17 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Martín-BlasPérezPinilla, No they are not Anti-riot. They serve only as president's bodyguards and take part in presidential ceremonies only. But they are trained to serve as Indian armed forces both with and without hoses, in case a need arises during wartime. $\endgroup$ – V.Aggarwal Jul 17 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ OK, I understand: real soldiers plus real horses (like the Light Brigade minus the idiot lord). Suggested edit: adding Wikipedia link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President%27s_Bodyguard. $\endgroup$ – Martín-Blas Pérez Pinilla Jul 17 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ People don't have trained dragons. Dragons have trained people. $\endgroup$ – cmd Jul 17 at 16:13
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TERROR

Humans have an atavistic fear of being eaten. We also have a fear of being hunted. In an urban situation the simple knowledge that a couple of bullet-resistant, intelligent, flying lizards are coming to Eat You may be enough to break resistance, or even keep a town/city from trying to resist you at all. The same would probably be true to a lesser extent even in woodland or more open areas since the dragons you describe seem sufficiently small and quiet to still sneak up on people. I mean sure, you might take one out with a heavy machinegun or grenade in a confined place... but is that a risk you want to run? Of course this is dependent on the amount of dragons in a given society. If you grow up with a Friendly Local Neighborhood Dragon on your street that fear isn't going to be much of a thing. Just like people raised with dogs aren't generally afraid of dogs no matter how big and scary-looking. But if dragons are fairly rare, and the nation has a cultural heritage full of dragons pillaging the countryside in days of yore, the psychological impact of dragons could be immense.

Think how you, Average Joe or Tommy infantryman, would react to the certain knowledge that the enemy you're fighting has trained combat tigers. Sure a tiger isn't bulletproof and can't spray nanobots, but JESUS IT'S AN APEX PREDATOR TRAINED TO HUNT ME! A flight of dragons would be that fear cranked up to 11. It would be less effective against experienced and disciplined infantry, but conscripts and ISIL-equivalents would probably be terrified enough to bail or surrender rather than try and face them.

They'd also be handy as Military Police. Sort of a combination horse/police dog/drone that could help out with rear-area security, chasing down escaped POWs, overawing potential resistance in captured towns, and similar activities.

In summation, while dragons may not be useful in traditional peer-competitor battle situations, they could prove exceptionally handy in urban warfare or combat against medium to low grade infantry and as police forces.

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Why use them in combat?

As sources of lethal nanomachines, they should be kept well behind lines. The lethal elements could then be delivered by small drones or other munitions.

If the dragons really are long-lived and able to learn, they might make good generals, with more knowledge and experience than any human commander could accumulate in a lifetime.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 especially as a big, slow moving target in the air would not be long-lived on a modern batlefield. $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jul 16 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Madlozoz A big slow-moving target in the air like an AH64 or an A10? All militaries of the world would beg to differ... $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 16 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham I dunno...there are discussions about whether combat helicopters are obsolete in modern warfare. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 18 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham the big slow-moving targets you mention engage from ranges of many hundreds of metres to a few kilometres away and only expose themselves for a few seconds at most. (Hollywood always shows everything as being at knife-fighting range because it makes it easier for audiences to understand, but it bears no resemblance to reality.) Dragons, as described, are an order of magnitude slower and do have to get to within point blank range to attack, making a dragon much more vulnerable. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 18 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham An A10 has a stall speed of roughly 220 km/hr, and usually flies significantly above that, even on a strafing run. Just how fast do you picture these dragons being? Also note that an A10 is not particularly versatile; it's pretty much limited to one niche role that the OP's dragons can't feasibly fill. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 20:13
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Un-Nerf them

You nerfed your dragons down to ridiculous and are now looking for a way out.

Well, un-nerf them. The size of your dragons is pathetic compared to almost everything else out there. In most fantasy worlds, they'd be baby dragons or Wyverns or something. The description of their breath weapon likewise leaves me unimpressed, where other worlds gives them not fire breath but fire breath that is hotter than anything else in the world, capable of melting not just metal, but stone.

In a world that has high-tech weapons, almost everything from a medieval world is a joke when it comes to combat effectiveness. A knight in full plate armour is no threat to a modern soldier with an assault rifle, even if he's riding a trained war horse. Same for fantasy creatures. Only the strongest, largest, most magical would be a factor - and you've taken the strongest, largest and most magical and reduced all of its factors until it's just another mid-level critter. No surprise you struggle to figure out how it could matter in battle, because it doesn't.

If for other reasons you need to keep your dragons at a power level that any party beyond 3rd level would laugh at, then you'll have to follow through and accept that they aren't scaring anyone on a battlefield.

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    $\begingroup$ The whole point was adapting D&D creatures to a modern setting. Dragons were a problem because of their size and that they needed specialized equipment to be effective. Also, let me assure you, most fantasy writers don't have any sense of scale and that I also heavily nerfed everything else. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Jul 17 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles None of that negates Tom's point, unless "also heavily nerfed everything else" includes all the technology the humans have, like fighter jets and helicopters, in which case the question you asked and the question you wanted are two very, very different questions. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ DnD dragons are super genus level intelligence (way above normal people). Can often shape shift. In the modern world they would be running it. But the original poster nerfed them down to just bigger than normal and can fly. $\endgroup$ – cmd Jul 27 at 20:08
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Dragons' low maintenance makes them a great option to hand out when you want to support resistance/insurgent forces.

It would be pointless to gift an F-35 to Kurdish or Syrian forces who don't have the air bases, pilots, mechanics, fuel, and spare parts that make up the $40,000 per hour cost of operating an F-35 - but dragons just need a few sheep and a cave.

A dragon has much less power than an F-35, but it still hits hard enough to decimate a supply convoy or unprotected base - forcing the enemy to build otherwise-unnecessary air defences everywhere.

You want them in regular armies too? Maybe dragons are used for squad-level air support thanks to their low maintenance.

The infantrymen know the air force is a great help - if they deign to show up at the right time. But it takes a while for a plane to arrive from a distant airbase, not to mention the bureaucracy, communications problems and inter-service competition.

As there's a dragoneer in each platoon, dragons can respond much more quickly to rapidly changing battlefield conditions. Why, a platoon without its dragoneer would be as naked as a platoon without its machine gunners or radio operator.

Every army officer knows the dragon has been the lieutenant's strong right arm since classical antiquity, when the Persian infantry arrived at Thermopylae without dragons, and fell in droves to the Spartans' integrated forces.

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  • $\begingroup$ For similar tactical reasons, a dragon would be very useful for counter insurgency actions. $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Jul 17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding squad-level air support, combining this with Salda007's answer suggests something like an integrated light tank destroyer/fire support vehicle role. Able to remain close to the squads, and respond quickly to any enemy concentrations with heavier support weaponry. $\endgroup$ – user1937198 Jul 17 at 16:16
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Dragons can do so much that traditional aircraft can't. Even if they have zero direct combat capability, they're incredibly useful.

A dragon is the ultimate all-terrain vehicle. If you need to evacuate an injured soldier, send a dragon. They can fly, swim, climb, crawl into (relatively) small openings, move debris, dig, communicate with others, and sense their surroundings. With some EMT training, they could even stabilize a patient before hauling them off. They can land on and travel across extremely uneven, slippery, or muddy surfaces without much problem (also why modern search and rescue teams still use horses). In a pinch, they could land or take off from something as small as a ledge, or possibly even from a vertical surface like the side of a tree. Nothing else at your disposal can even remotely do all of that.

Fixed-wing aircraft have a minimum safe airspeed that varies based on altitude. If they drop below that, they won't generate enough lift to stay aloft and won't have enough time to regain it before crashing. As a result, they can't handle low-speed, low-altitude operation. Helicopters can do it, but it's still risky due to the physics involved with flying close to the ground. They're also not very agile when doing so. The only thing we currently have that can do this well are extremely light aircraft like quadcopters, which have limited carrying capacities and range. Dragons can naturally do all of this without a problem. They can skim the ground at slow speeds looking for a target, then snatch them up (or drop off supplies) and zoom away. They can achieve the near-vertical takeoff of a helicopter with less horizontal clearance required, and then switch to "glide mode" to travel long distances fairly easily. In an urban warfare scenario, they can weave between buildings and around obstacles like nothing else.

One of the oft-overlooked benefits is the fact that they're made of flesh and bone and not metal (yes, that's a good thing). They're durable and resilient in a way that no artificial aircraft will ever be. One of the most difficult landings in the world of aviation is landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas. It's a nightmare for jet pilots, and even experienced helicopter pilots have trouble with it. Here's a scenario: a wave tosses the ship, causing the deck to lurch upward and impact the bottom of a landing aircraft just before it touches down. That's enough to bounce a jet off the edge of the deck or to knock a helicopter out of the air and onto its side. In both cases, it can be fatal for the aircraft and its occupants. When that happens to a dragon, he just says "ouch", picks himself up, and dusts himself off. The same goes for other situations that are problematic for aircraft, like heavy fog, strong crosswinds, clipping a tree/mountain/powerline, etc. Flying creatures are well-suited to handling rough landings and other types of external forces disturbing them during flight. Most of them can detect and adjust for such conditions completely subconsciously, similar to how you or I might react when going down the stairs and your foot slips off a step. Your brain and body are hard-wired for keeping yourself upright and stable in a way that no machine will ever be able to match (watch a slow-motion video of what a cat or squirrel does when falling from height).

Along the same lines, dragons can be deployed defensively against lower-speed enemy aircraft. Some law-enforcement agencies are training hawks to take down small drones. This low-tech solution is effective because the bird can latch onto the drone and the drone doesn't have the mass, thrust, or agility to resist. Your dragons can do the same thing. They're much larger than a hawk, so they should be able to take out even the largest of drones. They could likely disable a helicopter as well, hanging onto the landing strut and either attacking the occupants or jerking the craft around to de-stabilize it. What would you do as a helicopter pilot if a dragon flew up from the blind spot below you, jabbed a hole into your fuel tank, smeared paint across your entire windscreen, and then disappeared?

Of course, there are all sorts of oddball things you can do with them as well. Several dragons flying in formation can create a radar shadow that can mask attack craft behind it. Use a team of dragons to tow small disabled watercraft back into port (or capture enemy watercraft). Use them as scaled-up carrier pigeons to transport messages, maps, and plans from ship to ship without worrying about radio signals being intercepted. Easily rescue sailors that fall overboard or whose ships have sunk. Fly up high with a large mirror and blind oncoming infantry, or take a spotlight and mark targets at night. Quickly shuttle a POW back to base so that you don't have to waste infantry on guard duty. Cold-blooded reptiles would be better suited for desert infantry work than a warm-blooded human. A low-budget opponent could use dragons as dive-bombers, turning dumb bombs into guided weapons without any additional R&D or technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ Heh. Forget battles, S&R is going to be falling all over themselves to have dragons on their teams. OTOH, I wouldn't bet on near-vertical take-off. Large birds can't manage that; I'm not sure why you think dragons can. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jul 18 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ On a totally different note, I got the impression these dragons are sapient, and that's a huge difference in using them as messengers. One of the reasons to send messages via courier, especially in the military, is because a courier carries around a ton of background knowledge, experience and intuition that you just can't scribble onto a piece of paper. Think of sending the message "attack at dawn". Now think of sending someone with years of military experience who sat in on all the planning sessions with that same message. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jul 18 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ How visible are dragons to radar? If dragons are a surprise to the enemy, they don't have time to adjust their sensors. Maybe dragons stand out on IR (because they use a lot of energy flying) but aren't very visible on radar. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 18 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ @NomadMaker - I'm assuming dragons are very visible to radar since large birds are (and scales likely reflect better than feathers). Since they're also cold-blooded, I thought they might actually be less visible in the IR spectrum, especially if they cool themselves down at a higher altitude and glide down while expending little energy. $\endgroup$ – bta Jul 18 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ Cold-blooded is more about the animal being able to regulate its temperature. Exertion, such as flying, wil raise the body's temperature as much or even more than a warm-blooded creature. I'd make the creatures warm-blooded, because they would be able to cool themselves off easier, like birds. Cooling themselves might be more important for them then warming themselves. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 18 at 4:30
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Dragons have an advantage over aircraft: They produce less heat. Many weapons are heat seeking and won't work well on dragons, they need jet engines to lock on to.

Dragons can also land almost anywhere. Even a helicopter needs a fair amount of space to land and can be easily damaged if a rotor clips something. Dragons are more versatile, especially useful in urban environments.

Much warfare isn't about fighting other militaries, it's about fighting guerrillas and controlling the population. See for example the most recent Iraq and Afghan wars. Dragons would do well in a policing role, similar to how the police use horses because of their physical size and speed.

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As noted in a comment on the question, Charles Stross supposed in The Nightmare Stacks that dragons (or something very similar) could be used for air superiority in combined-arms operations. In his book, the result is a 1-1 draw between a pair of dragons and a pair of RAF Typhoons.

Unfortunately for the dragons though, the only reason they got the first plane was because the pilots had never seen anything like a dragon before, and had no idea of its capabilities. After a quick assessment of those capabilities, the surviving pilot had a good handle on how to take them down - and every other pilot then knew too. They just happened to get lucky in Stross's scenario because most RAF fighters are deployed overseas, and we only generally have a couple ready to scramble quickly because the expected threats needing to be escorted out of British airspace (i.e. Russian planes pushing their luck) tend not to be actively attacking. It was clear that had this gone on any longer, the dragons were toast when faced with a fast jet and competent pilots. I see no reason why this would not be the case for your dragons too.

So if dragons can't be air superiority fighters, what can they do...?

Air to ground close air support

After 40 years, the USA still does not have anything better than the A-10 Warthog for air-to-ground and close battlefield support roles. It was intended to be replaced by the F-35, but this has (almost) been cancelled and the A-10 has been prepared for another 20 years of active service. The key features which make it so suitable for the role are its low speed, the time it can remain on station, its impressive survivability, and raw firepower. Attack choppers such as the Apache fulfill a similar mission, with some extra flexibility but some loss of survivability.

Your dragons can fill this role in spades. They may not be quite as well-armoured as an A-10, but they will be able to manouevre much more tightly. As anyone who's watched a kestrel knows, being able to change your wing shape gives you a vastly different range of flight options compared to a fixed wing; and as anyone who's watched a pigeon trying to escape from a falcon knows, radical changes of trajectory make it much harder for anyone to hit you.

And that breath weapon is custom-designed for anti-personnel use. Anyone in an APC is probably safe, but anyone in the open is toast. Dragons may be vulnerable to flak, but strafing runs at treetop height are going to be very much their natural domain, and you're going to have to be very lucky to get AA trained on it before the dragon gets your AA gunner. Of course they'll be vulnerable to something like a Phalanx, but currently those aren't a regular feature of land warfare.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maneuverability is nice to have for a strafing run, but you seem to be vastly overestimating its benefits in that situation. You also seem to be vastly underestimating the A10's durability relative to these dragons (which are between the A10 and the Apache in durability, but closer to the Apache), and the importance of speed to survivability (an A10 is slow for a jet aircraft, but still way faster than any wing-flapper, and that helps it a lot to not get hit back as much). In short, a dragon would be far, far worse at filling the A10's role than you credit it with. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ "but anyone in the open is toast" Unlikely. It's established that both dragons and humans (so, pretty much everyone on the battlefield) has access to nanite tech, and that it's devastating offensively if it manages to affect you, but is completely negated by simple sealed suits. In such a situation, what idiot is running around in an active warzone, with soldiering equipment that doesn't include a sealed suit? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ "but currently those aren't a regular feature of land warfare" Yea, and your whole answer is about why they would be, if dragons were a thing, and were capable of what you describe them doing. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Najmon Jul 18 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewNajmon I noted the OP says they're capable of "powered flight". The exact type of power would be important. Flapping, yeah, not happening. Do they have their own jet though? (If you've read Guards, Guards then you'll get that - think anal afterburner, if not). I could also see some kind of JATO style rig being useful. TBH I think the OP's restrictions have painted him into a bit of a corner - I'm just trying to find options which aren't completely unfeasible. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jul 19 at 1:13
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Counterinsurgency

Remember that a single soldier with a rifle is also very weak against the kinds of weapons that you're describing. Ever since the end of World War Two, people have been predicting the end of infantry, and yet they are just as important as ever in a world of asymmetric warfare.

It sounds like the Moster Hunters are an insurgent force that keeps "popping up like whack-a-mole." That suggests that they're using irregular tactics. Dragons could play an important role in this kind of a setting. They could travel with supply trains and fly ahead to scout suspicious areas. They could engage in street patrols with infantry. They could use their celebrity power to make friends among civilians (Did you hear Cerbydon was in OUR NEIGHBORHOOD yesterday?! I love him!). All of these roles are important to the modern military and none of them require charging head-on into enemy AAA. And in modern combat, all of these roles are critical to combat.

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    $\begingroup$ Does a Terminator count as infantry? Or anti-infantry that makes infantry obsolete? $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 17 at 4:43
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As someone else mentioned, Charles Stross had an entertaining and detailed look at how dragons would fare in modern warfare, though his "dragons" don't have that much in common with traditional fantasy dragons - instead, they're magical creatures deliberately evolved into their roles, controlled by geas and fed with the souls of slaves and enemies by their psychopathic-elf masters.

There's also Sword Brother by David Weber, which pits a demonic-dragon against an american APC armed with a machine gun. That one is a lot closer to traditional fantasy, while still taking a detailed look at how modern military weapons and training would fare against magic.

The problem here is that there isn't really a way to combine dragons with modern warfare, unless - as you've done - you use "magic" to overcome their fundamental limitations.

First: physics. The largest flying animal known was the Quetzalcoatlus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatlus

And that's about the same size as the dragons you've proposed - and they do the "short hop and glide" style of flying you've proposed.

But, modelling suggested they only weighed up to 200kg, or roughly the same as two fully laden infantrymen. And the general rule of thumb seems to be that an flying animal can only carry around a third of it's weight; I haven't researched it, but I strongly suspect that an animal designed for "gliding" flight is probably going to be able to carry even less.

Overall, this means they have no real carrying capacity.

Then too, armour/skin capable of blocking conventional weaponry is heavy. E.g. a level 4 vest capable of stopping most armour piercing rifle-fire weighs around 15kg. Scale that up to something the size of a horse/dragon, and you're probably looking at 60-100kg. Which means that if your dragons are meant to fly, they can't have thick skin, and your "ablative" armour concept is definitely a no-go.

And that leaves you with a dilemma: either you drape them in armour (as per medieval horses) and weigh them down too much for flying, or you leave them unarmoured and easily wounded with conventional weapons.

And they'll also be slow - the Quetzalcoatlus probably topped out at about 80mph. And if they glide-fly, that suggests their muscle power is limited which in turn suggests their manouvering capabilities will be low. So they'll be easy targets for ground-based AA fire.

Then there's the question as their biology. First: their intelligence and their "trainability". In general, reptiles and birds are less "intelligent" than mammals; the former are cold blooded and don't have the energy to spare, and birds are warm blooded but have smaller brains. Overall, they're significantly less trainable than an equivalent mammal.

To be fair, birds can be trainable - e.g. crows, parrots. But whether they could be trained to "military" levels is debatable - and as anyone who's tried to train a cat will know, the fact that an animal is capable of learning something, doesn't necessarily mean it wants to, or that it'll be willing to perform on demand.

Then there's their physiology. Are your dragons warm blooded or cold blooded? If they're warm blooded, then they'll probably be more intelligent, and more active. But they'll also need a lot more food. And I'm guessing your dragons will be carnivores, so your human soldiers will need to carry around a lot of meat for them.

Equally, if they're cold blooded, they're going to be sluggish most of the time (especially at night), and will probably need long periods of rest and digestion.

As a guide: a komodo dragon can eat up to 80%(!) of it's body weight in a single sitting, which'd translate to about 150kg of meat for your dragon. Admittedly, the komodo dragon then potentially doesn't need to eat for a month, but it does then need a few days to digest. Which doesn't lend itself well to something being used as a weapon of war.

Still, I suppose you could feed human bodies to them, but that opens a large and controversial can of worms, unless you're engaged in total annihilation of the enemy. And even then, what happens if you get stuck in a siege situation? "Sorry Bob, you're today's dragon feeder. Here's a saw; there might be some shooting later, so you might want to take your other leg off and keep both arms...".

Any which way you cut it, feeding your dragons is going to be a logistical nightmare, far more so than horses (which can generally graze on wild flora when all else fails) and dogs (which are omnivores and require less food than humans).

And then, there's their fighting ability. Teeth and claws: great at short range, but you really shouldn't bring them to a gun fight, especially if you're effectively unarmoured.

Fire-breath (or your magic-nano-tech equivalent thereof. And how exactly do you reload a dragon with this stuff?). Range on this is going to be limited - the M1A1 flamethrower is limited to about 40m range, and despite the name, it doesn't throw fire. Instead, it throws napalm, aka the modern equivalent to greek fire: a viscous flammable liquid which will stick to anything it touches and continue to burn.

Then too, according to Wikipedia, the M1A1 carries about 40lb of fuel, and burns it at a rate of 0.5 gallons per second. Which I think works out at about 5 seconds of continual firing.

Put simply, your "nano-fire" doesn't have the mass to carry any distance, and won't stick-burn. Plus, a dragon won't have the carrying capacity for any significant amount of fuel, and it's debatable whether it'll be able to generate the pressures needed to attack anything more than a couple of meters away.

Finally, there's the time needed to birth, grow and train your dragon.

To use the Komodo dragon as an example, it takes around 8 months for the eggs to hatch, and then another 2-3 years before they become big enough to be considered an adult. And they'll need to be trained, exercised and fed for all of those years before becoming useful.

https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Komodo-dragon/

By way of comparison, during WW2, the US army produced over 10,000 tanks in 1942 alone, and the training for an M1 crewman is 15 weeks.

Put simply, your dragons are useless for attacking (no armour, short range weapons) and useless for scouting (large, unarmoured, slow moving). Oh, and they need significant amounts of food, take years to mature, can't be mass-produced, and will need human handlers when on the battlefield.

Overall, if you're trying to apply real-world physics to your dragons, you'll have to seriously tilt things in their favour with yet more "magic science technobabble" to make them even vaguely useful in a modern context. But at that point, they're a dragon in name only...

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