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Right now, I'm facing a problem:

Dragons are useless.

enter image description here
This is dragons every time they come into contact
with any fireteam.

Most of my characters are non-humans. Among them, dragons have the problem of being, well, kinda useless in combat, thanks to firearms and helicopters. That is a problem, considering they're supposed to be going on adventures storywise.

I mean, dragons are a combination of the worst possible traits:

  • Large size
  • Natural armor
  • Flight
  • Six limbs

Those four HATE each other. Sure, you can experiment with hollow osteoderms, this question and whatnot, but at the end of the day, you will be left with something that ain't the most workable as infantry, and downright laughable as "The Dragon".

The most problematic elements of these creatures are their size, armor, and biology:

  • Size: Even though I constrained my dragons in size to be around as big as a large horse and only a fraction of their weight, they're still a bigger target, compared to humans.
  • Armor: Given that they need to be able to fly, dragons must suffer in other areas, not just muscle mass, but armor as well. Even if we assume that they can withstand a .30-06 Springfield where it's important, the enemy can simply just bring a larger (50 BMG) gun.
  • Biology: Though dragons are heavily altered in terms of genetics, which is what gives them their unlikely biochemistry and human intelligence, they're still "mundane" animals, as in that they're organic life ('cause fully-autonomous robots have been banned). So, if they get shot, they bleed, cry, and their abilities are decreased.

This is especially problematic since while they do have stronger (but no heavier) bones than even giant pterosaurs, damage in the right areas can compromise their ability to fly. Sure, dragons can grow about everything back (given they survive), and unlike military vehicles, they forage their own fuel and contribute to the economy.

Their advantages aren't all that compelling either:

Posture: Since they're based on felines, dragons are better at stealth than a shire horse and are able to crawl. Here's a crawling leopard, to give you a rough idea of what they look like: enter image description here

Speed: Dragons on the ground are more geared towards burst-strength, able to sprint faster than most horses (in part thanks to their increased stride length via spinal flexibility) but tiring out quickly.

Perception: Dragons obviously have very keen hearing, smell, and eyesight.

Flight: Dragons are capable of powered flight. Many of their flight characteristics (pole-vaulting into the air, primarily soaring flight, and speeds that exceed 90 kph) are similar to that of giant pterosaurs. Note though that if dragons are heavier than pterosaurs, their speed would likely increase, see this post.

Since giant pterosaurs could potentially tackle human-sized prey (and because their flight was for escaping and long-term travel) we can assume our dragons could also carry the weight of a human without becoming grounded.

They can also swim and climb.

Endurance: Dragons can cover roughly twice the distance as cheetahs in one day,) which means 22 kilometers a day, though dragons prefer to fly when safe.

Here is the problem:

While I'm in full control and I could easily crank up effective gun control in my world from "thoughts and prayers" to "9mm only", it feels like cheating. You'd expect that in a modernish setting, dragon characters would have to face off against firearms of any kind and (since I don't want to roll new characters) live to tell the tale.

So, would dragons be useless in modern warfare as combatants?

Just to be clear, dragons have human allies and/or superiors. I did say they contribute to the economy.


Update 1: I've previously made a question about dragons, equipped with autonomous grenade launchers

Update 2: Here's a video of a leopard crawling. My guess is that the highest vulnerable point of a crawling dragon would be their elbows and supracoracoideus muscle (top of their backs). The height of a crawling dragon would be determined by the deepest part of their chest, Here are two giant pterosaurs as reference:

enter image description here

Update 3: People have been in confusion about how strong was my dragons' natural armor.

Sadly, not even I know. My original plan was to make the muscle fibers, tendons, and bones of dragons more resistant to tearing and sudden impacts (bullets) by letting them synthesize and utilize graphene in their bodies. Now, spider silk can actually be reinforced with carbon nanotubes, but myosin heavy chains and collagen are very different from spider silk, even if all three are proteins.

This overall "upgrade" was meant to help them withstand the stresses of flight with any additional bullet-resistance being a welcome side-effect.

The dedicated protective layer would be their osteoderms/scutes that deviate from the normal bone microstructure, opting to resemble the abalone shell's instead, which offers the most optimal structure for impact-resistance.

As for things like biogenic silicon carbide, we do know that bacteria can efficiently bind silicon to carbon, even if they only used it to create organosilicons (which silicon carbide is not).

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  • $\begingroup$ Are we talking about intelligent dragons or animals? $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Oct 25 '20 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Vilx- Yes, they've human intelligence, are able to communicate with them and had integrated into society. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Oct 25 '20 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ For god sake, you should write "warning, TVTropes" before every link to tvtropes.org - I clicked "The dragon" and 15 minutes later, i have around 20 tabs opened and productivity at zero. $\endgroup$ – Jan 'splite' K. Oct 26 '20 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ There is a type of beetle, the diabolical ironclad beetle, a BEETLE, that can walk away from being run over by a car. If you're willing to have dragons at all, it's really not much of a stretch to imagine dragons that can withstand firearms. Maybe not missiles, but we keep finding out that the nano-scale properties of biological materials are really very very much better than we can manufacture yet $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Oct 26 '20 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ One of the problems is the dragons symbolize indomitable power in western European mythology. This works logically against humans in pre-industrial society. After all, they are huge and breath fire and have natural armor that is better than anything humans have. Unfortunately, bring in logic, science, and technology, and the dragon fails unless you have huge magic or make them technological masterpieces. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Oct 26 '20 at 18:35

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The vast majority of soldiers don't shoot guns

Warfighting isn't about an army of guys going "pew pew".

Mostly, war is about getting the right guns AND butter to the right places at the right time. Knowledge and logistics.

Consider the lowly E-2 Hawkeye. It's an Airborne Early Warning aircraft, propeller-driven and a great deal slower and more fragile than even a Boeing 737. That's a trait it shares with your dragons.

But the E-2 (and its also-ancient E-3 Sentry counterpart in the Air Force) are extremely high-value assets -- and the people who do have guns protect them even more fiercely than they protect air-tankers.

The dragon's role might be much like the E-2; being eyes in the sky, perhaps even backpacking an actual early warning RADAR. Sufficiently back of the battle lines, and fiercely protected. You see enemy fighters coming, at 30 miles range just switch off the RADAR and jink -- no fighter's active RADAR can spot an organic 30 miles away, so they'll lose you.

See, the dragon's role may be force multiplication

A great deal of warfighting isn't about shooting guns, it's about supporting the guys shooting guns. As said, getting them the butter they need, and also telling them where to be and what to shoot.

For instance, the dragon may not directly engage the enemy tank. But it may be working "very forward" to "laze" the enemy tank, steering in Hellfire missiles being chucked by Blackhawk helicopters beyond visual range (and thus, untargetable by the tank). The dragon has trained moving whilst holding the laser on target, so the tank has no chance to engage it. An actual dragon + over-the-horizon Blackhawks would be an unbeatable antitank combination, even against the varsity.

Artillery spotting is another rather useful role. In fact, if dragons have been warfighting for centuries, they could've done it for centuries. That's especially true in naval engagements.

What's more, not every theater of war brings a superpower's varsity team to the battleground: In fact, none do, because superpower vs superpower wars don't happen in the nuclear age. The enemy probably does not have air supremacy, and may not have a smart enough missile to target a dragon (a Sidewinder/Stinger/SA-7 won't even see a dragon). It may be enough for the dragon to simply loiter above AK-47 range and drop things, again with laser guidance. No need for Hellfire missiles, just a 20-pound laser guided bomb that the dragon walks right into the target.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the last bit won't work, because knowing you have dragons, the other side will bring along more AA guns. But in general yes, there is a lot of support roles where the dragons would be useful in. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Oct 26 '20 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec "Why didn't ISIS just do that, then?" is the crux of my last paragraph. Against a foe like Bosnia or Iraq 1991, you'd have to be very careful where you send your dragons (or your E-2 Hawkeyes). But against a foe like ISIS or Yemen, they're incapable of fielding competent AA weaponry so your dragons and E-2s can operate much closer. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '20 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Play your assets' strengths in the most beneficial way possible. $\endgroup$ – OnoSendai Oct 26 '20 at 15:45
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Dragons and humans can both be soldiers.

Your dragons also have guns. They are larger guns than humans use. Your dragons also wear body armor. Their vests are larger than those of humans and concentrate protection differently according to anatomy. Your dragons might not fit into small shelters where your human soldiers can take refuges. But dragons can escape to altitude and humans cannot.

Humans and dragons are hurt badly when hit by a gunshot. But human soldiers still soldier and so too dragons. Both kinds of soldiers try hard not to get hit by gunshots.

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    $\begingroup$ If you equip them like human soldiers, they aren't going to fly. A typical modern human infantry soldier is carrying 90 to 140 lbs. in personal protective gear, weapons, and other equipment; the low end is more than half the weight of your average soldier. You can't stack half the weight of a flying animal on that animal and expect it to actually take off. They aren't "escaping to altitude" without quick-release bindings, and in that case, they're leaving all their equipment behind. $\endgroup$ – ShadowRanger Oct 25 '20 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ A dragon would be flying Swiss cheese with modern weaponry. They'd be dead before they even knew they were under attack. Sensors would pick them up like a foghorn. $\endgroup$ – eps Oct 25 '20 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ A dragon soldier wouldn't be flying in combat, it indeed turns into disadvantage against guns. It would still come handy for moving behind the front line (logistics is big part of warfare) and their physical strength and dexterity would still give them advantage as they crawl around the battlefield. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Oct 26 '20 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ShadowRanger Jetpacks. Dragons have the advantage that you don't need your jetpack to be able to steer, or even provide direct lift: it just needs to push the dragon hard enough that their wings will work with the extra weight $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Oct 26 '20 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec As logistic support, it's hard to see how a dragon would be better than a truck or even a horse (horses don't get bored). As for crawling around the battlefield, their size makes the bigger targets and offers them less opportunity for cover. (What would a dragon sized foxhole or trench even look like?) $\endgroup$ – GrumpyYoungMan Oct 26 '20 at 17:40
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In this question: How could a single dragon pose a threat to more modern human settlements?

I gave the answer below. Now after the quote I will try to discuss your world. Just bear with me

Short answer. She can't.

I will offer solutions down after that.

we currently have fun things such as

  • ICBM.
  • Fighter jets that can easily push a top speed of 3000 km/h. [Source][2].
  • Bunker buster bombs that can penetrate up to 6 meters of reinforced concrete. [Source][3]
  • Tanks. I love tanks. Their guns has a very limited range of 3-12 kilometers. [Source][4]. Yes that 12 kilometers range of the T-14 seems suspicion and we can argue about that military value of it. But the humble M1 Abrams has a much more realistic current gen range of 3-4 kilometers which is my point.
  • "Short" air to air missiles with a mere 30 Km range. [source][5].
  • Longer missiles of 100 kilometres. [Source][6].
  • Artillery. With the lowest range being 100Km and longest 650km. [Source][7].

Just to name a few random military things we have. Now what could nature possibility offer to go against anything like that?

Nature is about evolving to fit the environment and survive. As far as we know not a lot of creatures had to evolve to compete with main battle tanks for food. So basically any biological creature would be dead against any modern army.

And if you work extra super hard to make a challenging creature it would take all of two hours for engineers to comp up with a weapon to kill it. Even if the dragon emits EMPs many military weapons are shielded against that. CBRN protection is a thing. Because we are such a fun species that we have to come up with scenarios in which our own kind are using the most destructive materials science can come up with and militarize to use against us. But don't worry. We also maintain nuclear submarines if our nuclear missiles and air crafts failed to destroy life on earth.

I'm not saying this for no reason. I'm saying this because we are as a species are historically proven to be be capable of coming up with the most genius or ingenious ways to to destroy what we worked so hard to build. So. Even if your dragons have week telekinesis it is still screwed. We simply can invent and tweak what we know and have.

But if you can hope into a fighter then press a button and a guided missile is launched against a dragon then I honestly can't think of any reasonable solution to that issue expect magic.

[2]: https://www.aircraftcompare.com/blog/fastest-fighter-jets/ [3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunker_buster#Modern [4]: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/a27023/russias-new-tank-will-out-stick-americas-abrams/ [5]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air-to-air_missile [6]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_(missile) [7]: https://www.army-technology.com/features/featurethe-10-most-effective-self-propelled-artillery-4180888/

With the fact that nature go nothing on our military then we can try to think of your question.

So, would dragons be useless in modern warfare as combatants?

Well. No. Dragons would make for very pathetic soldiers armor and biological capabilities wise. But so are the humans.

I want this to be the important point here. We have always created weapons to far surpass our ability to survive.

In both quality and quantity. This is a major point as you can work extra hard to armor your dragons with a super duper scientifically plausible armor then all a commander has to do is to simply increase the volume of fire and voila, no dragons.

But again humans themselves are pathetic meatbags that falls apart once supersonic ammo starts flying around, and we certainly experience critical existence failure once tanks roll into town. I always say this in monster settings: a tank rolls into town, everything dies.

However we still have human soldiers, don't we?

So. My suggestion is not think of it this way: What measures can I use to fully incorporate my dragon into the army?

Why? Because they are citizens and they can be used to fight, maybe politics as they are demanding that, maybe because you are down on numbers...etc.

Basically think of the creation of modern armies which open it's gates to all people capable of fulfilling the needed military roles.

Now you might think: won't dealing with dragon increase the dreaded budget? To which I say yes, but politics.

Basically the dragons are part of the people and get to join the army for whatever reason you decide on. The budget is increased a bit but your military engineers are not exactly saying: how to protect such fragile things? I like working with humans because they are known to be resistant to bullets.

So. Since we already suck at deflecting bullets then dragon not being able to deflect bullets should not matter.

The roles of infantry.

I don't feel like saying the obvious. OK. I will say it but not much.

The modern battlefield still needs the meatbag to do infantry rules because war, war never changes. I mean war still requires infantry even in the age of drones.

So. It is the intelligence, flexibility, speed, stealth...etc of human infantry that still makes infantry to be be useful and still a major part of the military.

You can still take a tank down with a squad of human infantry if you arm and train them well enough. Urban combat or jungle combat still require infantry. Policing still requires infantry...etc.

And as the old adage says something like: you can do whatever you want to it, glass it, bomb it, nuke it, but unless you have your dudes on it, it is not yours.

Bottom line: just reconfigure the social and military structures to have dragons as soldiers and you should be fine.

Not being able to take a 9mm round has never stopped the armies from recruiting humans.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm surprised nobody commented on it in the other post, but... "Fighter jets that can easily push a top speed of 3 km/h." 3 km/h is a nice, leisurely walking speed. More of a "strolling" or "ambling" speed, really. I suspect you may have forgotten some zeroes there. $\endgroup$ – Dave Sherohman Oct 25 '20 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DaveSherohman, Whoops. You are right of course. I edited both posts. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Oct 25 '20 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @DaveSherohman They weren't wrong though - the fighter jets do not have a problem pushing a top speed of 3 km/h. I mean, it's also true for a toddler on a tricycle, but it isn't less true for a fighter jet! $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Oct 26 '20 at 3:53
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From "thoughts and prayers" to "9mm only". This made my day xD. I will print this on T-Shirts and get rich.

To your question, Dragons would probably not even exist anymore, as humans would shoot all of them down. The main problem, as you know, is that a Dragon is good but a Surface to Air Missile is better. And considering Dragons are real in your world, you would expect that Humans have a few very efficient ways of downing a Dragon. Heck, it's not like they can fly away fast enough. So why waste a missile ? Something like a point-defense cannon will do the trick.

Dragons also have the problem that any heat-seeking missile will have zero problems finding them. And if that happens, it's game over.

So overall, I would say going into a battle against Humans as a Dragon is like showing up with a pen to a nuke fight.

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    $\begingroup$ I did allude to that dragons are a part of society, so they do get some level of help. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Oct 24 '20 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ Dragons are still going to end up dead if faced by anyone with a heavy machine gun. In fact even a light machine gun or automatic rifle would ruin their day. Their only chance is to assume the weapon is a musket / the blunderbuss or the people doing the shooting don't know what they are up to. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Oct 25 '20 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ What is a "PDC"? I'm reasonably knowledgeable about modern anti-material weapons, and I've never heard the term before. Do you mean an RPG? $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Oct 25 '20 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ This is the correct answer, these things would be torn to shreds with modern weapons. $\endgroup$ – eps Oct 25 '20 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDaleks a PDC is a Point Defense Canon. Idk if this term is actually used but it got stuck with me. $\endgroup$ – Erik Hall Oct 25 '20 at 20:07
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Sorry for my english... and well, it depends on some other factors. The problem here may be that you're thinking in the most confrontational parts of warfare, kinda like putting dragons go after tanks, and so on.

It seems to me they'd be great for scouting with their mobility and stealth. Apparently they can go through any terrain, given they can fly, walk/run and swim. It's important you also said they can climb, because even if they were to get their wings injured (and thus their flying capability compromised) they could still cross a great deal of different terrain. This is without knowing how good that eyesight is.

They also can serve as a sort of a 'better' helicopter. Not fighter jets, but they'd make a good flying infantry, to put it in some way. The whole mobility thing mentioned above means they should also be capable of moving provitions from one point to another. A line of dragon delivery of sorts, where they only have to go short distances (to make up for stamina) can be helpful to military.

And though you list it under the disadvantages I'd hardly call human intelligence one. Can they communicate? Their vocal cords may not permit it, but if they have literal human intelligence maybe they can understand human language. They're smart animals. It makes for great soldiers, letting them do all of the above by themselves, without guidance from a rider or so. They're their own soldiers.

Moreover, if they're part of society and they're part of military they should have dedicated equipment. How ridiculous you want to get on that is up to you, but even something simple like a smaller version of carpet bombing by attaching bags with bombs some rider lets open, or I don't know, boxes that open at a signal and so on, makes combat different. It would also change views on artillery: if they're good at scouting, they have amazing eyesight, and they can carry their own bombs, then the air strikes are a lot less blind.

A lot less area and boomies, too, but you're way more sure you're hitting targets.

I'd figure they'd could also get something that serves as countermeasure to stuff like tanks.

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If they're of human level intelligence, they can use human tactics and weaponry.

  • As for size, they do make a bigger target, but I imagine in military doctrine they would rarely work without support, like a modern Heavy Weapons Platoon integrated into an Infantry battalion. Sure, the dragon is a target, but you've got to get through all his/her battle buddies first--and if your military uses real tactics, that isn't easy. In a combat role, the dragon could use their greater strength and size to wield heavier weapons (recoilless rifle, heavy machine gun, autocannon, large energy weapons if your universe has them, etc.) then their human squadmates.

    In short, a dragon is like a tank--if one dragon is fighting all alone against the enemy, either your tactics suck or the battlefield situation has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Combined arms tactics are your friend.

  • Armor can go a few ways, and gunfire will always be a problem due to the simple fact that there's no such thing as bullet 'proof'. There's just various levels of bullet resistance.

    When humans don modern body armor in combat, it's not to become invincible, it's to make sure as many possible wounds one could get are survivable. The plates and carrier will stop much of the stuff, but they are also meant to make sure you can limp or be carried back to the aid tent, surviving long enough to be treated. This would be the same for your dragons--give the most vulnerable areas extra wearable armor, but know it won't always stop bullets.

I did find a picture, that while not quite to scale with what your dragons are, may help give you some ideas as to what to do in this regard.

dragon body-scale strength scale by Monika Zagrobelna

  • I think human intelligence, just like humans, is going to be the greatest asset of these dragons. They can apply strategy and tactics, and work with their companions to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, working together to reinforce each other.

If you want your dragons to avoid attacking altogether, you have an option still. Since you said they can carry a human, would make great medics that can rapidly fly wounded soldiers out of the combat zone. By the Laws of War (presuming your world has similar rules to the Geneva Conventions), these dragon-medics would be noncombatants and illegal to shoot at. They could also be light transports/Spec-Ops insertion pilots or advance aerial scouts, who fly lightly armed and armored planes to begin with in the real world, meant to high-tail it back to base if spotted and fired upon.

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As front-line soldiers, dragons would most likely be a liability. Other answers have pointed out that they are large, slow-flying (compared to aircraft), etc. They probably can't carry anything like a typical soldier's equipment load without being rendered unable to fly (unless you toss the square-cube law out the window, but your post doesn't suggest you want magic and it would significantly change the scope of this question). An ordinary human soldier could do everything they could manage on the ground while being half the size and thus harder to see and shoot at.

That doesn't make them useless as combatants, however. Consider paratroopers: their advantage is in being dropped behind enemy lines or in other normally impractical locations for infantry to reach, and then wreaking havoc; they shouldn't be getting anywhere near a standard battlefield. Dragons would be a wonderful asset for any sort of behind-the-lines action; just imagine those paratroopers trading some equipment in for jetpacks, allowing them to circumvent conventional defenses and infiltrate military stations behind the lines. Unlike those jetpack-equipped paratroopers, though, your dragons wouldn't need fuel, and they'd likely be a lot faster too!

Guerrilla warfare is another place where dragons could shine. Staying hidden might be a little harder with those wings, but it would greatly expand viable locations for ambushes when you no longer need to worry about having an escape route open on foot. Being able to fly around or over patrols and torch storehouses or raid supply convoys would be devastating. Major bases could use customized sensors and radar, but there's just no practical way to deploy that sort of equipment everywhere; your dragons would prey upon the small detachments, the boots on the ground that any army needs to actually hold ground. Trying to pursue fleeing guerrilla soldiers is a lot harder in three dimensions than it is on a two-dimensional field, and a three-dimensional defense is similarly a far more expensive endeavour in labour, time, and money.

Note that your dragons are flying at 90kph at least when they get into the air; even if they can only sustain that for around 90 seconds (yes, I read that link) before being reduced to soaring and gliding while they recover from that sprint, that's still far beyond anything human infantry can manage, especially when you don't have to worry about cliff walls or rivers or so on. Also, despite what you specified for their endurance, your dragons will manage a lot more than 20km per day; soaring fliers cover a lot of distance just gliding through the air. They can't be expected to beat a car on a nice straight road, but over rough terrain without any roads and competing against military vehicles (typically armed and armored, which cuts into their effective speed) is an entirely different matter.

Basically, you need to play to the strengths of your dragons. Don't expect them to fight in the trenches: given their greater size, that's just idiocy when you could use humans. The great advantage of your dragons is their innate mobility compared to humans: abuse that advantage at every opportunity.

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I think there's some great answers here already, so hopefully I'm approaching from a different angle that may not have been thought of before.

Instead of focusing on your dragon's weaknesses, let's look at their strengths.

You describe burst-speed, endurance, stealth, perception and flight as characteristics - in these I see a really valuable guerilla fighter, or ambush specialist.

Darting out from cover, creating maximum damage and then getting back out are key elements of guerilla warfare. The main idea being to wear the enemy down, and buy your own side time (https://www.britannica.com/topic/guerrilla-warfare/Strategy-and-tactics). Examples of this in the last century or so are the Communist forces whilst they built strength in China (1930's The Long March, https://www.history.com/topics/china/long-march), Australian Infantry vs Japanese along the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea (1942 Kokoda Campaign, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84663), the Viet Cong (1950's-60's Vietnam War, https://www.thoughtco.com/the-viet-cong-the-vietnam-war-195432), and modern Afghan warriors, on both sides, in the current Afghan war (this article concentrates on the Taliban, but of course whilst the Taliban were in power the Northern Alliance had to make use of guerillas against their oppressors :) 1970s - today, https://mwi.usma.edu/guerrilla-maneuver-warfare-look-talibans-growing-combat-capability/)

Guerilla Warfare, whilst usually employed as an example of asymmetrical warfare, is typically about finding ways to surprise, shock, and affect your enemy HARD. Whilst your dragons are large, there's ways and means to deal with that. If operating amongst a mixed-species civilian population where it's hard to pick out friend from foe, then there's part of the trick to the ambush already done - see any insurgent warfare going on right now (Phillipines, ISIS, Ukraine, etc). If it's more in-country warfare, then your dragons' abilities may come into play as follows (IMHO, anyway):

  • Burst-speed and Endurance: You describe your dragons as comparable to a cheetah for endurance, and faster than a horse at bursts. Both of these are better than regular human abilities, and depending on cover, would open up the range of a kill-zone as your dragons could burst in do their damage and hopefully get out nicely. A very rough modern example is probably the USAF signature Shock and Awe campaign. This paper goes wider, but I'm including it because it's still very interesting and analyses everything that is meant by Shock and Awe, from Blitzkrieg to Massive Bombardment: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1042817.pdf

  • Perception: With heightened senses, they have the ability to be much more of an early-warning detection system for your troops; sensing where an enemy is, how far away, with hearing they'd perhaps be able to identify certain features of the enemy's profile through voice, detecting how on-edge they are, language, discussion, etc. With a key element of modern warfare being about gathering information, having a dragon amongst your intel assets is a big deal. Here's info on Information Warfare (https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR661.html) and here's info on one of their tools, an AWACS aircraft (https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_48904.htm).

  • Flight: I can't find hard evidence on this I'm sorry - maybe someone smarter than me can help? - but I recall reading somewhere your average soldier on patrol doesn't look up - or down. This reading involved a battle in the Balkans during the breakup of Yugoslavia - I think the Croats were ambushing a column of Serbians coming into a mid-sized town. The Croatians hid their fighters up in buildings, or down in drains and sewers until the Serbs came into their killzone. This positioning meant the victims took a few more critical seconds to figure out that the shooting at them was coming from above and below rather than at the same level. I've read similar things about US troops in Iraq and Russians in Chechnya. I apologise I can't bring up hard evidence. Perhaps others can help (or my pointers might be able to help you do your own research in which case, happy hunting and reading! :D Either way Flight is an inalienable advantage to have particularly with first-contact situations in a fight. Your stealthy dragons would be able to effortlessly paradrop down into an enemy formation at will. Having aggressive horse-sized beasts suddenly drop into your safe-feeling group of buddies would be an unnerving idea in soldiers' heads. Here's some reading on the advantages of flight in battle: https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/classic/world-war-i-flight.htm

  • Posture (Stealth): As prowling feline-style creatures, it's probably worth remembering their analogues and what they can do. The leopard picture you posted is fantastic. That is an Alpha Predator. So in my mind what I'm thinking of about your dragons is that they are Alpha Predators, with the ability and means to sneak up and attack prey at close range, even without flight, with the disadvantage of size and armour. Combined with speed and endurance, this is a scary creature.

Finally, it's probably worth thinking of a few other analogues we have here on earth. We do not tame or farm bears, elephants, hippopotamus, great white sharks, wedge-tailed eagles etc, who are of comparable size to your dragons, but we know and fear them enough to stay the heck away from the things! Adding in elements like their intelligence factor and the points you have made, I think there is scope for a very intimidating warfighter in there.

So sure, a rocket launcher might take one out. An air-surface missile will be game over. But here's the thing - there's many ways to counter those for a human, so in your world there are ways to counter for dragons also. Even if it is an army of 50,000 of them (in which case a nuke solves all but then again, that causes other big problems also).

Hope my points offer something to consider. Sounds like your work will be very interesting indeed :) Good luck!

PS: Short addition re: sensors that others have talked about: in this situation, I'd walk your dragons to site and then have them launch in the air when it is too late to do anything about it. Forested areas are still dense places to cover with a predator drone for eg, as is uneven ground, or mountains with lots of caves or crags or other such hidey-holes. Or if you are creating the equivalent of the Vietnam war, or Blitz-era London, there may be miles of tunnels, or sewer systems or train lines, under where you are operating. Think about counters to everything! :D

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  • $\begingroup$ That wasn't a cheetah on that picture, it was a leopard, but it's still impressive. $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Oct 27 '20 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ /frantically checks the picture - /checks what I wrote - /curses the very ground upon which I pathetically writhe over like the worm that I am I am, of course, an imbecile, and apologise for my thick-headed ignorance. I blame the OP leading me astray by talking about cheetahs as well ;P Thanks for the clarification. I will fix :) $\endgroup$ – distracteded Oct 28 '20 at 13:02
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Urban warfare/crowd control:

Modern warfare does is not only high-powered guns. keeping groups of unfriendly civilians at bay without bombing down the whole block is important. So having naturally armored strong fighters seems appropriate.

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Your dragons are the product of a ridiculously advanced technological society. Like, can-survive-heat-death-of-universe.

To a casual inspection, they violate physics.

Dragon scales have a hardness that we cannot measure. Human science only has a vague idea what they are made of because of particle accelerator experiments, and it appears to be post-trans-uranic materials using some kind of exotic chemistry.

Dragon eggs and the organs that create them emit hard radiation; there appears to be transmutation involved in their biology. The shells are harder than dragon scales. The first nuclear bombs used dragon shells as basically perfect neutron reflectors.

When we do put enough energy into breaking a dragon shell (and in the last 20 years we have finally managed to do it), there is a catastrophic release of energy.

Dragon shells and scales also naturally decay. Over a period of a years, they release a surprisingly little amount of hard radiation (but enough that you don't want to be near them) and become a kind of sludge of slightly abnormal isotope mixtures of various materials.

The study of this is key to many modern technologies, like room tempurature superconductors, neutrino-panels (makes 50 W/m^2) and sensors, dark matter astronomy, etc.

The interior "biology" of dragons is also exotic, and not something humanity understands either. Scanning dragons with high enough energy tools can cause unfortunate reactions in their biology, and their bodies rapidly change upon death.

Now, you can kill a dragon. Artillery scale solid rounds won't penetrate its hide, but will cause enough acceleration that its internal biology is disrupted. Nuclear weapons and even large fuel-air bombs work as well.

The working theory is that dragons are evidence that we live in a simulation and that whomever wrote the simulation likes dragons. Dragon philosophers have assumed they are made in the image of god, but that is considered obvious by every dragon wyrmling.

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Dragons locked out of the sky by humans in jet fighters? Absurd. That jet fighter probably has a dragon at the controls.

As others have already pointed out, the problem of modern weapons is by no means unique to dragons; a helicopter is just as vulnerable to a SAM as a dragon, and an anti-materiel rifle will kill a human as easily as a horse(-sized dragon.)

Where dragons will have the advantage is where their natural gifts will save on either training or equipment, relative to the same mission undertaken by humans and human-piloted vehicles. Specifically, dragons will likely dominate most airborne roles - given their natural ability to fly, they’ll be far better adapted for and take far more easily to any role that requires flying or piloting

Take the helicopter example. You want to launch a commando raid on a target by helicopter. That means a squad of commandos, their equipment, and a transport helicopter (plus crew) that you need to fly past any air defences without getting shot down. Then you need to land, execute the mission, and somehow get the commandos back on the helicopter and back out.

If you instead have a squad of dragon commandos, you can skip the helicopter - they can just fly whatever route you’d planned for the helicopter. They’re smaller than helicopters and certainly quieter, so any route the chopper can safely fly, so can they. That means you just need the commandos and their gear, and no expensive helicopter to get in and out (and risk falling into the hands of the enemy)

Paratroopers? Same deal. Any path clear enough for a bunch of humans wearing great big parachutes is certainly clear enough for a wing of dragons to fly down, and you don’t even need to train them specially. Bonus points, you can have them fly themselves in and out if the conditions are right.

On the ground they might not be quite as effective as humans in a shootout (being bigger targets), but they can easily be at least as well equipped as their human counterparts. Their larger size and tough hides are an advantage in close quarters combat, and if their opponent needs an anti-materiel rifle to take them down while the dragon only needs a normal bullet (or jet of flame), the dragon will have the advantage in agility too.

In summary, your dragons will likely be at home in a combatant role in any airborne mission; even though they can’t overcome the usual anti-air defences, they can perform many missions independently that would otherwise require vehicles and don’t suffer from the defences any more than the vehicle they’re replacing would

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Any commander, when finally realizing what they've got here, would salivate at the chance of employing dragons.

Yes they are larger and easier to hit, but that does not automatically mean they will get hit or are useless.

Armor:

While their natural armor is nice, their ability to carry a lot of armor is even better. You can give up flight altogether and use the wings to mount kevlar wrappings as well as mount armor on the torso and head. This creates super-b protection. You could say "the enemy will just bring a .50cal" but that means the enemy now has to actually sacrifice one soldier to bring a hefty .50 cal. Even with less armor it would still have a high resiliance to small-arms fire.

Weapons:

This is where its at. Your dragon can carry +/-80 kilo's in flight. If we knock off 30 kilo's for armor you still have 50 kilo's of gear to pack. This gets even better if you forgo the flying ability and simply use it as an infantry-support weapon. The heavy machine gun has been an incredibly useful tool in making enemies duck for cover and stay in cover, but due to it being hard to handle its always been a defensive weapon or had to be mounted on vehicles. Your dragon has the mobility of infantry (higher even!) And can bring a heavy machine gun in an attack role. Even better is that it can easily reposition to a higher area and set up when necessary, or fall back at speed.

This makes dragons the perfect infantry-support platform. They can carry mortars with much more ammo and more easily than infantry squads. Most armored vehicles on the battlefield are Armored Fighting Vehicles rather than MBT's, and dragons would be excellent at hunting them with anti-tank weapons. They can carry loads more than infantry while walking to the battlefield, stash most somewhere and then walk/run/fly to positions that the enemy does not expect them to be. They can carry relatively small intelligence gathering equipment or ECM equipment and other good stuff like that.

Another weapon people seem to ignore: the wings. The wings can carry more than the weight of the dragon in the air (near the torso not the wingtips). This means that if a dragon were to smack you with his wing he could easily kill you, add a razor edge or mount a sledgehammer and you can go to town with it.

Battlefield roles:

Infantry support would be the most obvious role. It can carry plenty of heavy weapons and you could give one zero weapons but mount tons of armor up front so a squad can move up behind the dragon. However it could easily fulfill other roles. Give it an adapted shovel and it can dig trenches and fortifications quickly, infantry in modern war still build tons of trenches! Give it a bunch of explosives and this dragon can quickly demolish things like bridges. Their high speed and infantry-mobility make them some powerful tools for behind-the-lines actions.

Another perfect role is decentralized officer. Having on-the-ground information is important, and a dragon has enough capacity to carry a large radio set and still be mobile. The dragon officer doesn't have to rely on what his radio tells him alone but can give orders based on what he sees on the ground, then move to the next group of soldiers that need his attention. The birds-eye-view capability can also help judge a situation in a way that you can't when on the ground. One of the best uses of such officers would be to fly behind friendly lines and guide supply routes or quickly catch up to groups that have lost contact and might have been ambushed.

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This depends almost entirely on intelligence and tactics. If the dragons are dumb (animal intellect), they're useless to more advanced humans (although the ability to take off at will is nice, they're not durable or all that fast, still need fuel, and can't carry as much as planes, etc.) If the dragons have human-level intelligence, they’re far less useless, but still not all too useful due to their lack of useful limbs, and due to the fact drones outclass them. (I'll be assuming dragons are animalistic.) However, if their allies have intellect, dragons can become a major force in combat, although not that much. How, you ask? The answer is tactics (and armament). Take this example:

That’s a dragon what are you talking about

If the dragons have artillery (missiles?) mounted to their backs, they will be much more useful. If they just hover/circle above a fight and drop bombs or even large rocks over the enemy position, far out of the range of small arms fire, they will be much more useful. They can also serve as cheap transport/supply droppers that can be stationed close to the battlefield to take advantage of their ability to pretty much be ready at a moment’s notice (compared to planes at least). They also don’t really need maintenance from what you’ve told me; they can get their own “fuel” too.

As I said, if dragons have machine guns mounted to their backs, they’re not as useless. Their actually quite small size and good enough stealth may make them good at ambushes/hit and run, perhaps with machine guns mounted to their backs, or maybe poisoned claws, and their resistance to small arms fire and favored close quarters combat weapons like knives (if they can withstand bullets they can probably withstand knives). Don’t forget Kevlar exists also. Strap 2 of those hand-held rocket launchers to their sides and adapt them to allow the dragon to fire them, and you have effective air support that can zoom in on unsuspecting soldiers at 50 mph and be gone before any return fire occurs (night ambushes with dagonightvision goggles would be viable).

Finally, remember this: Humans are just as (more) vulnerable to bullets. Even if dragons are larger, they can fly and provide air support out of range of counterattacks (because gravity).

TL;DR: Dragons are, at stock configuration, weak. They do have a niche due to their ability to be ready really fast (unlike planes) and not being incredibly loud (unlike helicopters), and their lack of maintenance, but they’re pretty much infinitely slower than planes, have pretty much no carrying capacity, and have garbage durability if they can be effectively made completely useless by one lucky shot with a revolver (whereas a plane has somewhat decent armor).

P.S.: Dragons too weak? Buff them. You’re the writer. Make up something (maybe the dragons evolved to have a ton of muscles in their wings to allow for stronger armor?).

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Helicopters? Give the dragon a helicopter version of a sidewinder. The dragon comes in at treetop height (they're good at low level flight), pops up and launches the missile. The helicopter also has heat-seekers but nothing for them to target, it can only return fire with guns and the dragon doesn't get close enough for that. (AFIAK nobody has put a radar-guided missile on a helicopter and even if they do it's not going to track a dragon very well as they're organic, not metal.)

(The different version of the missile is because a standard aircraft-launched missile has a minimum airspeed the dragon isn't going to meet. Most US missiles also come in versions with an extra rocket booster that gets them up to the speed the missile needs to fly.)

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Dragons are large. They fly, not particularly fast, but are very maneuverable. They're armored, but vulnerable to heavy weapons. Sounds like an attack helicopter.

enter image description here

Exhibit A: A mechanical dragon.

Attack helicopters operate in very hostile environments using terrain as their primary defense: you can't hit what you can't see. A dragon would be even more capable of hugging the terrain, and even landing and proceeding along the ground. Attack helicopters often hide behind hills and ridges only popping up for a quick peek or to fire a missile before descending back into cover. A dragon would be even more capable of this tactic, they could crawl up the hillside and use their long necks to peek over.

You can supplement your dragon with carry an electronic warfare suite powered by a small generator. While a search radar might be too large and power hungry, laser and radar warning receivers are plausible; a simple tone in an earpiece would give them advance warning of a guided attack. They could carry electronic counter measures, everything from flares and chaff, to sophisticated jamming equipment.

While an attack helicopter has advantages in search radar, dragons have a great advantage in situational awareness. A helicopter pilot is sitting in a cramped, noisy cockpit with restricted views. A dragon has no such restrictions and is in their natural element. Ambushing a dragon in flight would be much harder than ambushing a helicopter.

Your dragon has an integrated flame thrower for close work, people are terrified of flamethrowers. They can supplement this with fire-and-forget weapons like the Hellfire anti-tank missile. And they can deal with pesky air attacks with AIM-9 Sidewinder anti-air missiles. Just like an attack helicopter.

And like an attack helicopter, your dragon will have support. In How To Train Kill Your Dragon I explained how a single dragon vs an entire Marine Expeditionary Unit was no contest, the dragon was going to die. In contrast, you're talking about a dragon as an integrated combat unit. While we discuss head-to-head match ups all the time, in combat everything is integrated. Your dragon isn't going in alone. It has air cover. It has recon. It has other friendly units on its flanks. Rather than worrying about what happens when your dragon gets shot, the question is how it works with other units to not get shot. An integrated unit uses their strengths and relies on their buddies to cover their weaknesses.

As for bullets, its your world, make your dragon's armor as thick as you like. You could declare that its armor is effectively invulnerable to rifle fire, and you'd need a .50 cal or better to harm it; those are pretty rare. Maybe armor scales (haha) with dragon size, the larger dragons are less vulnerable, the smaller ones are more vulnerable but more nimble.

Anti-air weapons, particularly missiles, are not particularly powerful. They don't need to be, with a few exceptions air targets are largely unarmored and fragile. Anti-air weapons are designed to spray shrapnel like a shotgun to maximize their chance of hitting the target. Depending on how you define your dragon's armor, this shrapnel can be simply annoying. Or it can be wounding enough to send the dragon back to base to heal, a mission kill, but not knock it out of the sky like it would a conventional aircraft. In a world with dragons they may become more powerful, but this would come with a trade off in size, cost, speed, and maneuverability. The more it costs, the fewer a dragon has to face. This leads into the final point.

Even the thinnest tank armor is effective if the enemy doesn't have anti-tank weapons, and most soldiers do not have anti-tank weapons. A dragon that can shrug off even intermediate rifle fire like 5.56 NATO is very dangerous; most soldiers are not armed with anything heavier.

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  • $\begingroup$ I imagined natural dragon armor to be an ablative osteoderm layer, made out of biogenic silicon carbide (it's tricky, but not completely impossible) tiles, connected with organic polymer, able to take even a 7.62, but becoming weaker after each hit. Would that be useful? $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Oct 27 '20 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles You should include that in your question, and any other parameters. The tl;dr of the answer is you don't need armor to operate aircraft even in high threat environments, so any amount is gravy. Bullet proofing is measured by the ability to resist a certain type of ammo a certain number of times. You'd need Type III or SAPI levels of protection, usually a metal or ceramic plate, totally feasible that dragon scales are equivalent or better. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_body_armor_performance_standards $\endgroup$ – Schwern Oct 27 '20 at 0:52
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I don't see how a pistol could harm a fully grown mature dragon, the way I imagine it - scales would harden up with maturity becoming a full body bulletproof suit. Older the dragon, harder those scales become.

And lets admit it, no one is shooting down a dragon with a nuke/ICBM. We do not use them to shoot down planes in wars we have right now, why would they be used against a dragon? Not realistic at all. As a human I would try to shoot down a dragon the same way as a helicopter or jet plane.

Even then, modern aircraft can evade missiles, I do not see why a dragon cannot do the same. Fire up an object in front of you, fly through, missiles detonate in flames behind. Dragons have brains and senses, so they will use them same as people do now or better.

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Have your dragons fly above the range of typical small arms and outfit them with the 25mm APW from Fallout:New Vegas.

This will force the enemy to commit anti-aircraft resources (fighter intercept, helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles) to counter your dragons. While those resources are busy, send in swarms of fighter jets that cause even more damage.

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Your dragons have really good armour, organically grown into their hides. The substance is graphene.

I'm not an expert on modern warfare, but I'm guessing if it can stop bullets then missiles would probably not be effective against them either.

Also, bear in mind, your dragons don't have to fly high up in the sky the way that planes do. It could strafe low to the ground and therefore be a lot harder for SAMs to hit. After all, your dragons mainly attack by breathing fire on surface combatants, so they want to be close to the ground anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ A bullet is blunt, and far below muzzle speed when it hits. Missiles explode at short distance, and not so much the blast that is dealing the damage but the shrapnel: nearly muzzle-speed equivalent, plus it's sharp and pointy. IOW missiles deal a whole lot more damage than bullets, so your assumption about that is wrong. (The notion of a low-altitude flying flamethrower does indeed make sense.) $\endgroup$ – toolforger Oct 25 '20 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ Where was fire mentioned in the post? $\endgroup$ – The_CIA Oct 27 '20 at 3:18
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What a useful combatant! A dragon can carry heavier guns than a human. Still less than a tank, but it's better at climbing over rubble, and if the footing's too bad, it can just fly. Trouble with a sniper in a high position? Let the dragon circle around and take him from behind by flying.

Better yet, it can do stealth missions to far behind enemy lines.

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  • $\begingroup$ Stealth? They would be picked up by modern sensors quite easily and immediately destroyed before they even knew they were being targeted. Modern sensors can pick up tiny birds, these things would be glowing like a searchlight. $\endgroup$ – eps Oct 25 '20 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, is there anything we can do about a dragon's size on radar images? I mean, they can simply just fly low for the most part, but... $\endgroup$ – Mephistopheles Oct 25 '20 at 22:55
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Since we're dealing with mythical fictional creatures here, to be fair, we can use any and all abilities of any similar creatures. Godzilla could heal, regrow from a severed limb, and shoot devastating beams of destruction. Dragon scales could be 1,000,000 times stronger than the strongest metal known to man, making the scales impenetrable. Any creature capable of withstanding the chemical forces necessary to breathe fire could melt metal on impact or generate electromagnetic forces that repel ammunition back towards attackers. A dragon is what you make it, like anything else.

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