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Inspired by this question, I am wondering something similar. In a modern war a dragon that simply flies over enemy forces and torches them with its fire breath there are several ways of taking it down with aircraft and anti-air weapons.

But in earlier history I know this would not be the case. A big flying thing that breathes fire and just shrugs off arrows and musket shots because of its thick hide would be a game changer for nearly every battle I can think of. Rome would rise or fall in a matter of years, the Golden Horde would be even deadlier, the Alamo would be remembered because a dragon was there, it could melt stone walls and Stonewalls to shorten the Trojan and Civil Wars, Waterloo would be Fireloo, the Kettle War would have to be renamed because a lot more than just a kettle of soup was hit and so on.

But my question is: when is the turning point where the inclusion of a dragon does not mean an automatic victory for the side it is on? Would this be around World War I, with the Red Baron taking it down? Or perhaps World War II with its many and more powerful aircraft? Or maybe later still?

Note, whatever the situation it is the first time a dragon is deployed in war, so combatants have to figure out on their own how to kill it.

Notes on the dragon:

  • The dragon is the same size as Smaug as he appeared in the movie adaptation of The Hobbit.
  • The dragon can breathe fire, and it uses this as its primary form of attack when claws are not a better idea for whatever reason.
  • The dragon is willingly aiding one of the sides and acts to the best of its abilities.
  • The dragon is capable of discerning friend from foe and will not intentionally cause friendly fire.
  • The dragon is clever enough to think of a way to counteract any attempts to shoot it down that are in progress.
  • Small arms fire cannot penetrate its scales, which cover all of its body.
  • When met with a way that could reasonbly kill it before the dragon can destroy the attacker it will attempt to retreat to formulate a plan or call for backup.
  • The dragon is willing to fight and risk possible injury, but it will not risk death.
  • If the time period allows it, the dragon is outfitted with communication devices that allow HQ to feed it intelligence.
  • The dragon has received training in non-electronic communication devices and is aware of locations HQ can send it messages from (signal flags, sound-based communications et al).
  • The dragon has senses on par with the most potent senses in the animal kingdom. It can opt to lower their sensitivity to be on par with that of a human to prevent it from being blinded, deafened or otherwise disabled by impulses that would cripple delicate senses, but not that of a human.
  • The dragon has no hoard or family members with which it could be blackmailed into desertion/treason/whatever.
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    $\begingroup$ "Small arms fire cannot penetrate its scales" what does "small" mean? To be honest, from a psychological point of view, it would be a game changer in a pitched battle today. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Jul 31 '15 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ remained -> renamed ​ $\endgroup$ – user3576 Jul 31 '15 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ Most of our tech are inspired by nature, I'm pretty sure there will be researchs perform on the dragon to advance military science regardless if the creature like it or not. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Aug 1 '15 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that "winning battles" and "winning wars" are two very different problems - it's quite possible to win all the battles while losing wars, and vice versa. The simplest response to a nearly invulnerable asset at the head of an army would be to have multiple independent war parties, avoiding any large-scale conflict, especially involving the dragon. When faced with an invulnerable obstacle, you'd usually attack elsewhere - most often, the logistics. Castles were mostly invulnerable in the past, but they still fall. Tanks lose when they run out of fuel and ammo. Poison the food supply $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 3 '15 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ Almost four and a half years later, this is still one of my favorite questions. So good! $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 5 at 14:05

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From about 1933 onwards, a dragon on your side is no longer a win button as that year saw the deployment of the Flak 18 by German army. It first saw action in the Spanish Civil War a few years later. The Flak 18 would later improve into the Flak 36 and 37 used in WW2. This weapon was built on the requirements demonstrated in WW1 to be able to apply rapid fire, high caliber ordinance to a fast moving aerial target. Bunched up, a Flak group of 20 or 30 guns would be able to put 184 kg of metal in the air every two or three seconds.

The OP doesn't list the dragon's maximum flight ceiling but I think 14 thousand feet (4267 meters) is reasonable because that's how high civil aviation can fly in an unpressurized cabin and without supplemental oxygen. A Flak 18 is perfectly capable of hitting targets in that flight envelope.

The Flak 18/36/37 had the added benefit of quickly turning into antitank weapons so even if the dragon decided to come in very low, the Flak guns would be able to aim and fire. Other Flak guns from other countries, while more powerful, lacked this "shoot low" capability until after significant changes were made to their mountings.

Flak guns, especially American varieties became especially potent in 1944 with the introduction of the VT proximity fuse that radically improved the lethality of anti-aircraft artillery shells. With VT proximity fuses, direct hits were no longer required as the shell would explode by itself once in range of a target. The average number of shells required to down an enemy aircraft went from about 2400 shells to 400 shells with VT fuses. That dragon is really going to be unhappy.

After Flak guns, anti-aircraft weapons became guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) with greater range, accuracy and lethality than anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). SAMs are now capable of hitting targets beyond visual range with the assistance of powerful radar.

While a dragon may be able to survive a direct hit to the chest of a 9 kg shell traveling somewhere between 400 m/s and 790 m/s, he's going to be really unhappy about it. (Equivalent energy delivery is getting hit by an automobile at highway speeds. It really hurts. That may be lethal hit without shrapnel.) Damage to his fairly fragile wings from the shrapnel of a proximity fused shell is even worse.

Any unit with AAA cover of Flak 18s or better would face significantly decreased threat from a dragon.

A threat from WW1-era fighters is not significant as fighters of that era only had relatively small caliber machine guns as weapons which the OP states the dragon is immune to. Secondly, aircraft of that era (and even today) lack the maneuverability to counter what amounts to giant, very smart eagle. The differences in flight performance between a dragon and a Sopwith Camel are huge. The dragon wins a close maneuvering fight every time. However, by WW2 for sure, the dragon cannot hope to pursue and catch any of the leading fighters from any country.

Depending on the dragon's flight characteristics, WW2 fighters might have had a chance as they were capable of mounting higher caliber guns (30mm). If 30mm guns aren't big enough, the dragon will maintain air superiority till the introduction of air-to-air missiles in 1956.

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    $\begingroup$ @knave they might be effective but it seemed a safer bet to categorize them with "small arms fire". Also, at this point we go beyond the vague values of "resists small arms" to "can withstand a 10g round at 1000m/s...which is more than the OP provided. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 1 '15 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ “maximum flight ceiling [...] 14 thousand feet (4267 meters) is reasonable” — Rüppell's vulture is considered to be the highest-flying bird, with confirmed evidence of a flight at an altitude of 11,300 m (37,000 ft) above sea level. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCppell%27s_vulture) $\endgroup$ – Christian Lescuyer Aug 1 '15 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ Even if the dragon did have a greater maximum ceiling than the 88, the dragon still must attack in melee or close range so it must come down into the range of 88s in order to do damage. It could lift rocks to that height and drop them but its aim will be awful and make it very very tired. $\endgroup$ – Green Aug 1 '15 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Random trivia: "Flak" stands for "FLugAbwehr Kanone" and is German for "anti flight cannon". $\endgroup$ – Nolonar Aug 3 '15 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Lohoris – "The birds have a specialized variant of the hemoglobin alphaD subunit; this protein has a great affinity for oxygen, which allows the species to absorb oxygen efficiently despite the low partial pressure in the upper troposphere." That's from the Wikipedia article to which Christian Lescuyer linked. $\endgroup$ – Kenny Evitt Aug 3 '15 at 16:22
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First of all, let's not delude ourselves. The dragon in this scenario is not a soldier, it's a ruler. Even if some human leader manages to convince it to work for him until any opposing human factions are destroyed, the dragon is afterward quite likely to turn its blowtorch around during the very next contract negotiation session.

That said, I think I could probably take this guy out with a sufficient quantity of black powder. Just fill up a dozen hogsheads with smallish nails and gunpowder, load them onto a wagon, cover them with oilcloth, and put that wagon in your army's supply train. When the dragon, on its usual harassment patrol, swoops down and exhales forcefully on it, kaboom. Oh, sure, the shrapnel can't penetrate his hide, but he's got eyeballs, don't he? And, perforce, he's looking right at the target. Blinding him will really bring down his resale value. You could even load up all your foot soldiers with smaller versions of this bomb as a deterrent.

Since Wikipedia dates the development of gunpowder to 9th century China, I suppose this means that the answer to the question as stated is "the 9th century", or perhaps a few centuries later for Europe.

Another, less technological, method might be to poison the dragon's food supply somehow. I'd suggest infecting all the enemy's livestock with anthrax. Though the earliest known use of the word "anthrax" in English dates to 1398, anthrax and diseases like it have been known since ancient times, which would mean the answer to the question as stated, using this approach, might well be "since the dawn of civilization".

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, a large detonation is likely to knock him out of the air, and quite possibly give him a concussion. That moment of vulnerability can be leveraged as well. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 31 '15 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ I never thought the answer to 'how do I protect people from fire' would be 'strap bombs to them', but I must admit it could work. Either that or backfire horribly, but I'd rather be blown up than cooked alive. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 31 '15 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh It would work... right up until the enemy changes tactics and starts launching volleys of fire arrows (or similar flaming "grapeshot" loads from catapults) at your men from a distance. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 31 '15 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ This answer doesn't really address the question as stated. $\endgroup$ – Dan Henderson Jul 31 '15 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ @DanHenderson In an effort to answer the question more explicitly, I have added the dates of the discovery of gunpowder and anthrax. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 31 '15 at 18:59
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Ballistae and similar weapons were in use from 400 BC, and so were several incendiary weapons. A shot from a ballista at close range should cause significantly more damage than most small arms fire. Given the need to kill a dragon, it's reasonable to assume weapons technology would almost instantly be adapted for that purpose. Therefore it's feasible to have such weapons ready and being used in an ambush as early as 1000 BC, as long as the defender has a few weeks notice.

The first battles would be lost, and actually killing the dragon would depend on an ambush, but it's certainly no longer instant victory of the war for the side the dragon is on. Even at 1000 BC, large wars had many armies sometimes each of them over 10'000 men strong.

And let's not forget about the poisoned sheep. It's horrible to think about how advanced the poison making skills of our ancestors were.

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    $\begingroup$ That's weird, when I picture dragons eating, I also always picture them eating sheep, never cattle. I guess I must've gotten this stereotype from books, movies, and/or television shows, but I honestly can't come up with any examples. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 31 '15 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DougWarren They were prominently featured in How To Train Your Dragon, but I think I got the association from some books long before that. youtube.com/watch?v=Trn5FQowIaE $\endgroup$ – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Jul 31 '15 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter It was also in Loom, the LucasArts adventure game, long before HTTYD - but I'm sure that has also been drawing on prior art, so to speak. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 3 '15 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ "As long as the defender has a few weeks notice" ... and the dragon was kind enough to fly right into the line of fire. Ballistae were siege weapons, with almost no mobility and slow as hell to reload. Useless against a moving target, not to mention a flying one. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Aug 3 '15 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 Most birds land often. I don't see why this should be different for dragons. And the point of an ambush really is that the enemy will be right in the line of fire. $\endgroup$ – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Aug 3 '15 at 22:24
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First off — this question leaves what is perhaps the single most important parameter of the dragon undefined, and that is the dragon’s flight envelope.

Since this is something that neither the question nor most authors bother to define, we have to take a different approach. Using the numbers from the D&D 3.5e System Reference Document (150′ fly speed, Poor maneuverability which gives a 45°/5′ turn rate, half move for minimum speed, and double move for dive speed) with a bit of help from the diagrams for aerial maneuvering provided in the Draconomicon and the actual (not grid-quantized) turn radius of roughly 7′ — an adult red dragon stalls at 7 knots, can pull 1.4 g’s at a corner speed of 15 knots, and can cruise at 59 knots with a dive speed (Vne) of 118 knots.

Combined with the flight endurance of a dragon, this is fantastic for close air support — our dragon can loiter all day long waiting for a target to get pointed out to it, and then swoop in and accurately roast it with its breath weapon before pulling out of the run and climbing up to circle overhead once again. However, these slow speeds work against it in a dogfight with anything built in the monoplane era — WWI-era fabric-and-wire biplanes would be in trouble for many reasons, but the metal monoplanes of even the Spanish Civil War or WWII would pose a handful for a dragon of the OP’s type to deal with, as they have heavy enough guns to cause it a headache (assuming that .50cal BMG is no longer “small arms”, which is generally considered true). Furthermore, the higher airspeeds these fighters are capable of mean that they have enough specific energy and excess power to leave the dragon in a dust in a dogfighting scenario. Trying to survive a rolling scissors with something that’s flying a few hundred knots faster than you is a bad idea!

The swept-wing jet age just makes matters worse. From Korea onward, the .50 BMG was largely replaced by automatic cannons as the dogfighting gun of choice, and this means that the dragon now has a much larger and heavier round being thrown his way, and many more of them too as rotary and revolver cannons come of age. Worse yet, that Ernst Mach guy comes back to have his revenge on Smaug, as dragons are categorically not equipped to deal with the terrors of transonic aerodynamics. Does our dragon know what to do when he’s diving after some seemingly helpless airliner and suddenly finds himself utterly unable to pull up because he got into a Mach tuck while chasing down a DC-8? (And yes — a DC-8-43 flown by a Douglas flight test crew broke Mach 1 in a dive, recovering safely at 35,000′.)

In short: the dragon can’t escape a jet, can’t get into position to kill a jet, and probably couldn't hit a jet if it tried, considering it’s never tried to shoot down a Mach 1 target before!

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  • $\begingroup$ If the OP cares to define the flight envelope of their dragon, I will more than happily update this post with new parameters. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Aug 2 '15 at 4:22
  • $\begingroup$ Well a dragon probably isn't very aerodynamic anyway, how much of a problem would it be if a dragon(or any living creature) could go above Mach 1 in speed? $\endgroup$ – Skye Sep 18 '16 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Sky -- the main problem is that drag shoots up as you near Mach 1, which would be extremely taxing on the creature. Controllability would be another problem, as well -- the creature would have to evolve a full movable tail (basically, a 2nd set of wings) instead of the more or less passive horizontal tail found on a bird... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Sep 18 '16 at 15:09
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Just going by the title of your question, the answer would be, "Just how strong and/or powerful are you assuming that this dragon is?"

In the body of your question you give a bunch of details to answer that. These make your dragon pretty formidable. In a sense one could say that, as you say that the dragon is impervious to small arms fire, then it is invincible unless someone can attack it with something more potent than small arms. I guess that would mean canons.

Many possible means of attack come to mind:

  1. I think in real life, though, there is no such thing as "imperious to small arms fire". Does it literally have no vulnerable spots? Could not someone with a slingshot or a bow and arrow take out its eyes? Or fire down its throat?

  2. If someone shoots at its scales with a musket, does the bullet bounce off doing no harm at all? Or could repeated hits on the same spot eventually break through?

  3. What if someone managed to drop a very heavy object on it, like from a catapult, or dropping a boulder off a cliff as it flies by? Wouldn't the shear momentum bring it down? Or is the dragon immune to the laws of physics? A bullet-proof vest can protect you from bullets, but it won't save you if a truck hits you at 90 miles per hour.

  4. Start fires and fill the sky with smoke. Now the dragon can't see. At the least it is unable to attack targets it can't see; at best it might fly into the ground or the side of a mountain.

  5. Poison darts. Well okay, there's that invincible armor again. But again, what if we shoot him in the eye, or in his ears, or down his throat?

  6. The dragon you describe sounds so awesome that it must be at least semi-magical. If so, then magic exists in this universe. Can we find some magic to counter the dragon?

  7. Is there some acid or other chemical that will destroy or weaken the scales?

  8. Can the dragon be confused and disoriented by bright lights, loud noises, or overpowering smells? You say it can scale down its senses. Hmm, that sounds like you're just trying to give the dragon all the benefits of something and none of the drawbacks. But if the defenders shine a blinding light in its eyes, can it somehow scale down its sensitivity to light so that it is not blinded, but at the same time still be able to see to attack the enemy? If so, then we're close to "the dragon is invincible and no weapon can defeat it", in which case by definition the dragon is invincible and no weapon can defeat it.

As @talmu says, if a dragon was introduced into a battle as a total surprise on the enemy, it may well be that they would have no effective response and it would win the battle. But once you knew the enemy had a dragon or dragons, wouldn't you be racing to find some weapon to counter it? If this is the most powerful weapon your enemy has, and it is proving decisive in combat, it stands to reason that you would deploy major resources to counter it. In real life, every creature has SOME weakness that could be exploited.

On the more realistic side, people managed to hunt and kill mammoths in ancient times. The dragons of legend were able to be killed by individual strong and brave heroes. There are theories that "dragon" is just an old name for "dinosaur", and if a dinosaur showed up today I bet a stout hunter could kill it without recourse to major military hardware.

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    $\begingroup$ Especially since Smaug himself, the prototype, was killed by an arrow shot by a human. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Jul 31 '15 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Though Smaug, at least according to Peter Jackson, is immune to the laws of physics! $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Aug 1 '15 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout Well, yes, if the dragon is the size of an elephant or bigger, then it's difficult to see how it could fly given the laws of physics, square/cube law and all that. (Do I need to explain? I'll assume not.) Note that dinosaurs were huge, and dinosaurs could fly, but the ones who could fly were not huge and vice versa. (Okay, by current definitions pterodactyls et al were not dinosaurs, but most lay-people think of them as such.) $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 2 '15 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Jay -- the main issue that keeps dragons from being feasible is thrust, not lift -- if you've ever taken a seat aboard a wide-body (two aisles) airliner, you've flown in something bigger and heavier than Smaug, as lift is simply a function of airfoil design and wing area/aspect ratio, while getting high thrust out of wingbeats is far more complicated than doing it with a few high-bypass turbofans. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Aug 4 '15 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay Well, I think by definition, to get airborne, your lift must be greater than your weight. One way to generate lift is by passing air rapidly over an airfoil, which requires sufficient thrust to generate the necessary speed. So you can use thrust to generate lift, but to say that means you don't need lift is just a very odd way of saying things. Like saying that a poor man's problem is not that he doesn't have enough money, but that he doesn't have a job. $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 4 '15 at 3:54
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I'd say as soon after the dragon-lacking side learns of the dragon and its power as their resources and resourcefulness enable them to respond. If it's discovered during battle, that battle will be lost, but likely not the whole war. Following this, every effort will be made to acquire information about the dragon and its weaknesses.

It may resist arrows and breathe fire, but it probably has to eat and/or sleep, and there must be a means by which its human owners control it. People on the losing side will sacrifice their lives to acquire information on and then sabotage (or capture!) this weapon.

This is the risk and expense of having such a high degree of power concentrated in one relatively small asset - not to mention one which can't be manufactured, easily repaired, rebuilt if destroyed, or easily recovered if stolen. The dragon will draw the full attention and efforts of its enemies, because desparation is a powerful motivator. The type of covert action that will result can only be fended off with prohibitively extensive defenses.

Unless there's already a great technological imbalance favoring the side with the dragon, technology will have little to do with the sustainability of a long-term war plan based around a single dragon.

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You reference Smaug from the Hobbit. May I point out that Smaug was killed, not by wizard's magic, but by a human with a giant crossbow, which is pre-medieval technology. Both the Dwarves and Elves had successfully fought dragons before, and although neither relished doing so again, they would and could defeat even Morgoth's army of dragons, never mind just one.

So the answer is, even with Smaug's highly implausible biology, by the middle ages human armies would be defeating dragons. With difficulty, and not always, but they can do it.

By the 19th century, with its TNT, Gatling guns and artillery, dragons would be an endangered species, and extinct by the 20th.

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  • $\begingroup$ Crossbow or longbow? $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Aug 3 '15 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat steve is probably referencing the movie, which used what was essentially a small ballista, made of iron and shooting an iron projectile if I recall. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I think you might be right that it was a longbow in the book with a normal arrow just with an expert shot. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Aug 7 '17 at 16:32
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Somewhere around 1700

The exact answer would depend on how much armour it's scales provide, assuming handgun, rifle and machine-gun fire can't damage him things look like this:

  1. WWII: I suspect most AA canons would be able to blow our dragon to smithereens, so here he's actually worse than bombers.
  2. WWI: Here starts appearing simple AA cannons (not counting those designed to combat air balloons) so depending on the strength of the scales he will probably be at risk against them.
  3. 1750+: The best we've got against something flying that can deliver a real impact is a cannon, so our dragon can be downed, but the difficulty to hit a moving flying target with a cannon here will make it almost impossible. Also this would be similar to replacing the roadrunner with a dragon, and seeing how the coyote reacts.
  4. 1500+: We still only have the "cartoon" cannon here but they are less powerful and precise, so even a hit in relative close range might not be fatal for the dragon.
  5. 1500-: Before, we start having catapults and trebuchets as the only effective weapons againts it at a distance, in close quarters maybe pole-arms or swords might do something, but it's doubtful the dragon would get close enough to allow such attacks.

Take into account the dates are not very precise as the scales are not well defined in it's protection and I am not willing to learn ballistics and physics for this right now.

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All of the answers on here so far have held on to an implicit assumption in the question, one that's worth challenging: the idea that only one side would have a dragon fighting for it. This goes against everything we know about the history of warfare; decisive, game-changing weapons don't tend to remain decisive for all that long, because the technology behind them ends up spreading.

In one of the most dramatic examples, the Manhattan Project conducted its first nuclear test in 1945. Later that year, the technology developed by the Manhattan Project was used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to bring an end to World War II. It was later discovered that one of the physicists on the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs, was a spy for the USSR, and between him and a few other spies, the Soviets were able to complete their first working test bomb in 1949, just 4 years after the USA.

With these dragons providing such a decisive advantage on the field of battle, it doesn't matter what period of history they appear in; other people are going to want in on the game. It might take a while--depending on circumstances, they might have to go so far as to steal a dragon egg and raise the hatchling to maturity themselves--but it would happen, and from that point on, a dragon appearing on the field of battle would no longer be an instant-win condition.

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    $\begingroup$ True, and one could say that same for other military technologies. Britain didn't keep the tank secret for very long. Whoever invented the crossbow didn't maintain a monopoly. Etc. If introducing the dragon enables you to win the war quickly -- either by itself or combined with other military advantages -- the other side might not have time to raise its own dragons. But if they can hold out long enough, etc. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 31 '15 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ Add to this the fact that, unlike a tank or an atom bomb, you presumably need two adult dragons in order to create a baby dragon. So dragons must already be a part of the ecosystem, and likely a pretty prominent part. $\endgroup$ – Doug Warren Jul 31 '15 at 19:31
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His scales may be impervious, but his wings can not be! Unless his flight is magically powered (which...given the proportions of most dragons it would almost have to be) wings have to be very light and thus unarmored and unprotected.

Just a few holes in one wing will throw off a dragon's ability to maneuver, not to mention be quite painful. This means a collection of archers firing at it is still a danger of grounding it.

Of course, that would mean the easiest solution is to start out grounded. become a walking siege weapons while protecting delicate wings. The question then becomes exactly how impervious is it's scales, can someone stab through them to it's heart? Nights with lances can pierce even the heartiest of armor medieval armor, is the dragon really able to resist that kind of force?

Then there are the options that don't require wining in a direct fight. It's one creature, and one creature can be taken out with sufficient creativity and effort through subtler means.

Most obvious, poison it's food supply. A dragon must be eating a massive amount of food, if you can contaminate any of it, the dragon will go down. There are likely substances that are deadly to dragons but not humans, so poisoning the water supply to sicken the dragon is possible even if you're opposed to killing humans.

Frankly if you can reach it while it's sleeping, you can kill it. It won't hear you coming, because no matter how good its senses, it will be surrounded by an army, and thus will have learned to ignore the sounds of people moving around it. Getting to the dragon is no doubt a massive challenge (he will have human guards) but assassination attempts are still possible.

For that matter the dragon likely has to hunt for his own food; there is no feasible way the enemy can carry enough food to provide for it in their supply trains. Thus poisoning it may be much easier by planting subtly poisoned animals. If the military is feeding it, destroy their supply lines and it will likely abandon them soon; he has to have a massive metabolic rate, particularly when breathing fire, and so must eat an impossibly huge amount to compensate for it.

With two evenly sized militaries the dragon would definitely ensure a win. However, with enough work and creativity there are ways to take him out. They are difficult and expensive, but still possible, even in medieval times.

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    $\begingroup$ Knights with lances can pierce even the heartiest of medieval armor, is the dragon really able to resist that kind of force? If the dragon has a flamethrower in his throat that can barbecue the knight (inside that oven he calls a suit of armor) or his horse before they get into lance range, that's a bit of a moot question. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 31 '15 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Jay True enough, although most depictions of Western dragons give them a secondary weapon that also has a greater range than a lance: their tail. Not to mention snapping their wings to buffet at the encroaching enemies, or doing any number of things to spook their horses, which are notoriously panicky creatures under the best of conditions. The knights' mounts would have to be specially trained to not be panicked by a dragon, which would almost certainly require the trainers to have access to dragons of their own, and then it stops being an instant-win condition because both sides have one. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 31 '15 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ TLDR: The idea of a person on horseback successfully charging an enormous alpha predator is inherently ridiculous. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 31 '15 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Perhaps each knight carries a shield made out of the most heat-resistant substance they have available -- I'm guessing asbestos wasn't common in the Middle Ages but clay and ceramics certainly were -- and then a group of knights forms a testudo and advances. Then it depends how effective the dragon is with claws and teeth. Or maybe each knight just carries a large heat-resistant shield, they run up staying behind it, then when they reach the dragon they bring their weapons out from behind the shield. I think I'll try this the next time I meet a dragon and have only a sword. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 31 '15 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ If the dragon is frequently deciding battles and decimating the enemy, there's a fairly plentiful source of food, i.e., the fallen soldiers. If the dragon was eating the fallen soldiers, the side opposing the dragon could give many of their soldiers a pouch of arsenic or whatever poison would be effective, and have a decent chance of either killing or incapacitating the dragon. This would work at most once, but that could potentially be enough, depending on the specifics of the situation. $\endgroup$ – E.D. Aug 7 '17 at 15:42
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I see no reason why chain shots or nets would chain nets could not take this dragon down. Both types of shot could be fired from ballistae or catapults. Which could be roman era.

My next choice would be a cannon, so around 18th century. A direct shot would take one down.

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  • $\begingroup$ Possibly taking inspiration from naval warfare? Shrapnel cannons / chain shot, etc. $\endgroup$ – Alex Johnson Oct 19 '16 at 14:40
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The battle at Agincourt (1415) demonstrated the plate-mail piercing qualities of the longbow, and crossbow bolts have stronger piercing qualities. So a "soft spot" like that of Smaug would definitely have been accessible by a bow at reasonably short range like in the Tolkien book, with a war catapult like in the Jackson film probably not even requiring a soft spot.

However, it would require a short-distance shot since in particular an upwards travel will take a lot of kinetic energy. Since a dragon is not really a ranged weapon/fighter, this is not an unlikely combat scenario. Of course, the risk for any opponent would be rather high, so eliminating more than single dragons can be expected to come at very high costs.

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If we try to be a scientific as is possible when considering an impossible creature, I would say stamina is going to be a dragon's weakness. If its diet is meat, as opposed to gasoline, it will have to eat massive amounts to extract enough energy for dynamic flying in a battle, rather than a lower-energy flight based around gliding on thermals. It also needs to extract fuel for its fiery breath from this food. So, a dragon would need to spend a lot of time eating and even longer digesting and even then it would become fatigued fairly quickly. I don't think there's any era when it would be impossible to defeat an opposing army that had the services of a dragon. The key would be to minimise losses during the dragon's relatively short uptime and strike hard at the opposing army during the dragon's downtime.

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I'ld go with the ballista or cannons as well, but additionally to all the answers given already:

I'm not an expert in medieval warfare, but wouldn't basic flanking make the dragon somewhat useless? With that size and fire as it's main means of attack, friendly fire wouldn't be avoidable as soon as two sides clash into each other. At that point, the dragon wouldn't be able to throw fire whitout either hitting allies or at least hindering it's own allies with all the smoke and heat.

And since one dragon can't be everywhere at the same time, split groups of cavalry flanking ground units, could be effective.

Anther tactic would be to only fight in areas where the dragon would be at a disadvantage, like a forest. Yes, obviously the dragon could burn it all down, but it would also endanger it's own troops (since they'ld have to be there too) and he wouldn't be able to spot the enemy troops if they hide well. So ambush tactics would become a lot more important - you can't burn down what you can't find.

Additionally, if we go with the 'forest ambush' strategy: The dragon wouldn't really be involved. At all. If we assume it's medieval technology, there wouldn't be a good way to tell the dragon where the enemy is, and the dragon would certainly be too big to walk through a forest - so the beast would have to fly around until it's commander/troops exit the forest. This leaves those troops at a disadvantage, since they probably are confident to use their dragon as weapon.

Finally, if we assume that they really are using a dragon as main weapon with success, other areas might start lacking: Combat experience of soldiers, army size (who needs a big army if you have a dragon?), weapon technology, etc - in the end, one side might gets so overconfident with a dragon as weapon, that they're almost helpless if that dragon ever has a bad back and can't fly, or a problem with it's throat. Or maybe just the flu.

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Let's take this to 2016, with a dragon destroying much of New York.

This thing has a datalink to its HQ. It can resist small arms fire. It can use signal flags and other non-electronic communication.

A vital part of fighting this dragon would be to destroy its senses and immobilize it.

Kill anyone signaling it with non-electronic communication, alongside jamming its datalink. Fire at its eyes to blind it. You can electrocute it as well. If this thing can fly as high as a Ruppell's Vulture at 11,500m. The F-22 Raptor can take care of that with ease, seeing that the Raptor has a flight ceiling of 20,000m. The Raptors can either shoot the eyes and ears to destroy its sensory, or shoot its limbs and wings to immobilize it (shooting its wings will ground it; shooting its legs will prevent it from walking) In fact, the Raptors can injure it easily by sending a heat-seeking Sidewinder at its belly, injuring its vital organs.

Immobilizing it would include grounding it by crippling its wings and limbs. Since it can resist small arms fire, 20mm is a sufficient round for the task (I don't know the hard and fast limit of where the small arms caliber ends). If you can launch a 120mm HEAT round to its limbs, all the better.

With its vital C4ISTAR (Command, Control, Computers, Communication, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) systems and mobility crippled, the dragon is helpless and can be taken out from a safe distance, say a barrage of 155mm shells with unnerving accuracy (M982 Excalibur can give you this kind of accuracy). When you have to fire line of sight when the dragon is grounded, just be sure you don't stand in the way of the dragon's mouth.

If you want that thing alive, it's another story.

TL;DR modern-day military tactics and technology can beat a dragon as described, without much, if any, difficulty.

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  • $\begingroup$ Don't put questions in your answer. Put them as comment to a question itself. Answer should contain only an answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 17 '17 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, modern day technology can defeat a dragon, but that wasn't the question. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Jacobs Apr 18 '17 at 17:44
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If the Dragon can be used on one side then its a possibility it can be also used on the other side. So at the point when the losing side has learnt to use dragons it wouldn't be a instant Victory.

Certainly, if using dragons in war at any time in history would be a possibility, then the other side would always have a intelligence input about it. Then the losing side would have used their available resources at that point to manage the situation. Necessity is the mother of all inventions. Either they would prevent the war or make it equal to fight. There would always be a possibility of deterrence like in the case of nuclear powered nations....

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Rohan. Welcome to Worldbuilding SE. Your point of view is correct, but the Original Poster specifically ask for a single battle. And assuming, e.g. that there is only one dragon in the whole world, it can only turn on one side. Indeed later the losing side would be more prepared, but the question is how effective it would be for the first battle. As it is, you don't answer the question. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Aug 1 '15 at 10:23
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Reading through just how physically and mentally powerful it is, it seems to me that nothing short of an atomic bomb would stop it, so the end of WWII.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Parker. We generally expect more detail and explanation in answers. In this case perhaps an answer would mention why and how your assertion is the case including the logic behind the decision. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 31 '15 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ I was going off of the notes listed. It can thinks its way around enemy strategies. It takes powerful ammunition to damage it, plus it will not fight to the death so will escape when it thinks it'll lose. It can't be coerced/blackmailed, so it'll only switch sides or stop fighting if it chooses to. It's an uber-dragon designed to have few weaknesses. If it was written as a different size and style of dragon I would have a different answer. $\endgroup$ – Parker MacInnis Jul 31 '15 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ "will not fight to the death so will escape when it thinks it'll lose"... how does that translate into needing an atomic bomb to stop it? Killing the beast is not the only way to defeat it -- if you force it to avoid battle, it provides no benefit to its allies. $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Jul 31 '15 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ By mid-WWII, everything has anti-aircraft capabilities. The dragon may be able to out-think the enemy, but there comes a point where the only winning tactic is to stay away from the fight. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 31 '15 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ There's also the limitations of the dragon's flight envelope to contend with at that point... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Aug 5 '15 at 0:34

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