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Basically, what would cause an army to go back to riding creatures in cavalry, as opposed to armored vehicles.

  • The mounts can be armored, but they have to be what you'd normally think of as creatures; horses, turtles, etc. Said mounts do not have to be real, but they have to be within the bounds of what we could create with modern breeding and/or genetic engineering within a 100 year timeframe.
  • The people the cavalry are riding against is a modern army, although you can make changes to this if that's what would allow cavalry to return.
  • The people riding the creatures are modern soldiers, although, as above, this can be changed.
  • The cavalry doesn't have to win, it just has to be there. Of course, if it doesn't win, modern armies probably wouldn't use them.
  • By "used", I mean in battle.
  • People are still using all the techniques of modern warfare; not just a wall of infantry.
  • Make sure the answers are resource-viable.

Thanks in advance!


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You need to remove the factors that drove horses off the battlefield. The most prominent of those are:

  • Machine guns, which slaughter them. Sufficient armour to protect against them is too heavy for horses to remain useful.
  • Barbed wire, which stops them.
  • Chemical weapons. It's almost impossible to protect horses against them.

Machine guns and barbed wire were in use at the start of WWI, and made horses impractical on the battlefield. They remained useful as transport across very rough country (and were used for that by some US special operations troops in Afghanistan in 2001-02), and for attacking rear areas (there were cavalry charges for that during WWII).

Tanks were introduced to allow attacks against machine guns and barbed wire, some time after it had become clear that horses weren't viable for that. Other fighting vehicles grew from that start as new needs developed.

Chemical weapons were introduced to try to break through the trench lines of WWI, but their success was limited.

To make horses valuable on the battlefield, you need a collapse of manufacturing, so that barbed wire can't be made in large quantities, and the millions of rounds of ammunition needed to feed an army's machine guns aren't available. Since both those things are fairly simple to make, you need to roll manufacturing back to an early nineteenth century state.

You can do this via resource shortages, or economic collapse, but either will have to be quite serious, and will have major effects on society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't even semi-automatic weapons be too much for horses? Or is that too difficult to hit? Maybe too difficult to hit with scattered forces but ironically not with a rows of infantry. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 2 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Fully automatic weapons putting a metaphorical wall of lead down range stop massed horseman and foot infantry charges. You can attempt to replicate the same effect with semi-auto weapons but it's a lot less efficient manpower wise. $\endgroup$ Mar 2 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ I think that you missed "the internal combustion engine" which largely obviates them. $\endgroup$ Mar 2 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung Indeed. What advantage does horse cavalry have over dirt bike cavalry? I mean, say you invent bulletproof armor light enough for horses to wear, which makes MG's ineffective, horse-fitting gasmasks, and precision artillery to shred barbed wire in front of them. Why can't motorcycles take advantage of these things more cheaply? $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Mar 2 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Yorik The Germans used that many horses because of a shortage of transport vehicles for supply and logistics. They were no longer intentionally fielded in battle. $\endgroup$ Mar 3 at 2:09
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Change the battlefield:

This answer is based on the on the one I gave in THIS question. Short of giving intelligent hexapod horses functional arms to carry weapons in, you aren't going to change horses enough to make them practical on the field. But if the battlefield itself became hostile to modern vehicles, then whatever transportation could still operate would reign supreme.

  • Man-portable super weapons: If every individual soldier has a relatively cheap, rugged weapon that can destroy any vehicle on the field, then planes, tanks, and possibly eventually even trucks and jeeps will become an expensive and wasteful investment. There will still be a need for transport, but weapons will make the form of transport as cheap as possible. Trenches would be ineffective except as a fixed and vulnerable means of concealment. My favorite weapon in this case would be some form of mini rocket launcher with various types of specialty munitions, but lasers, plasma guns, and the like are all fodder for these weapons.
  • EMP: If these weapons (or related weapons) unleash massive amounts of electromagnetic interference, then drones and robotic weapons will be rendered increasingly worthless. even vehicle ignition systems will be rendered obsolete, and trucks would need to move troops to the edge of the battlefield, then drop them there or risk being incapacitated. Even missiles today are extremely dependent on electronics, and would need long "dumb" portions of their attack to overcome abundant EMP attacks. Surveillance and communications on the battlefield would be operated by simpler and simpler systems as even radios were destroyed.
  • Abundance/supply: You can have modern forces, but if much of the world's industrial base has been shattered, then there may be significant forces around the world that only have limited access to trucks, tanks, etc. A world broken and rebuilt to only 20-30% will have variable tech, and horses may be relatively abundant while vehicles are scarce and short on parts.
  • Challenging terrain: The roads are really bad, the mud is epic, the trees are dense enough vehicles can't get through, the passes and roads through the mountains aren't wide enough for vehicles. The soldiers may FIGHT from the ground, but move on horses.
  • Raiding tactics: Your cavalry spends a lot of time on the move, burning villages, farms, supply depots, and the like in small, easily concealable bands. They ride into town, spray bullets everywhere, throw a bunch of Molotov cocktails, and generally try to make a mess of things. They would probably need to be able to steal the forage and other supplies they would need for their mounts.

So to actually carry men faster on the battlefield, or move supplies about in and quantity, you would need horses (or something like them). Infantry on horses with hit-and-run tactics would be more mobile than infantry. Any equipment in the direct field of conflict would get hauled by a horse or a horse-drawn cart.

Horses are still used in primitive conditions (especially in asymmetrical warfare) for hauling and mobility, but can't compete for these functions with modern equipment. So get rid of the modern equipment and see what happens. What is old is new again.

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    $\begingroup$ If a jeep is a "wasteful investment" then a horse is even more so. Care and supply for horses is expensive and time-consuming. And they won't protect you from mini-rockets. You can use dragoon tactics (ride to the battlefield, then fight on foot) to keep the horses out of the line of fire but you can do the same with mechanized transport. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Mar 1 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ Horses are incredibly difficult to use in that role though. A motorcycle is far cheaper, as they do not need to be bred specificly & just can be made. Faster (obviously). It uses less weight for fuel, horses need a lot of fodder. They're simpler to maintain too, as a horse needs a vet, which is effectively a doctor, & you'll want them as well trained as a normal doctor with how expensive these horses are, whereas a motorcycle just needs a mechanic. Same going for medical supplies vs spare parts. $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Mar 2 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ Vehicles can be EMP-hardened. A very simple diesel engine with glow plugs can probably survive an EMP, since they don't need big inductors to generate voltages for sparks. (This was a minor plot point in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, with the old engine on Harry's boat being so old it was basically impervious to the EMP-like effects of magic that fry modern electronics.) $\endgroup$ Mar 3 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ Diesel engines do not use spark plugs (diesel ignites only by compression). Simple diesel engines can be completely mechanical except for the starter motor. $\endgroup$
    – nonDucor
    Mar 3 at 11:58
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Break up infantry accompanying tanks.

enter image description here

https://alchetron.com/Charge-at-Krojanty

I was watching videos of drones blowing up Russian tanks. These tanks usually have infantry around them as tanks should. I thought that cavalry would be good for a surprise attack out of the forest. The Poles thought so too in the above depicted Charge at Krojanty. Now I understand there are fine points about how this really went down but Polish cavalry did really attack tanks and infantry.

In a forest operation horses can go places that vehicles cannot, and they can go faster than people on foot. A mobile operation harassing a force moving through a forest would be a good use of cavalry.

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    $\begingroup$ We learned about this in 4th grade history, and in our books it was portrayed as something only a dumb polack (forgive the word, I do not mean to slur) would do. How screwed up was that? Tanks are meant to be attacked by soldiers, they don't do well against fast moving attackers with rifles, grenades, and satchel charges. How do you make a soldier faster still? You put him on the back of a horse that can sprint at 30mph. The Poles were brave, effective, and only lost when they were massively outnumbered... public schools, eh? I think I was in my 20s before I realized how screwed up that was. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 2 at 15:48
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A specific example of depleted resources, a bacteria develops that has a particular taste for gasoline and other light-weight hydrocarbons. (Even more fun if it was developed secretly by some green-terror group and deliberately spread far and wide).

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    $\begingroup$ This post made me imagine a bacteria with a particular taste for horses lol. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 2 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ Lots of microorganisms eat cellulose but wood is still a viable construction material which can last decades. Even if fossil fuels were gone we could still use others (e.g. ethanol, wood, coal) or switch to electric motors and batteries. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Mar 2 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael: for lighter armored fighting vehicles, or especially Humvee in the horse-equivalent range, probably yes. But main battle tanks are incredibly fuel-hungry, so the energy density of current batteries might make them impractical or very short-ranged. e.g. an M1 Abrams gets about 0.6 mpg. But their turbine engines can burn just about anything, so yeah coal might work as a drop-in replacement. (It is a fossil fuel, but being solid might limit penetration of bacteria.) $\endgroup$ Mar 3 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ See Mad Max — just with horses instead of cars. $\endgroup$
    – coll
    Mar 3 at 20:58
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Depletion of resources

Maybe resources such as fuel has become so depleted that only large governments such as in the one in your world, are able to afford fuel for their armoured vehicles. This means most people use horses and other battle mounts as they of course don't need fuel. Also maybe iron and other metals have also became so rare that many can't afford to use them for vehicles.

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    $\begingroup$ Where would all the iron have gone? It is quite common, to say the least, and readily recyclable. $\endgroup$ Mar 1 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Making fuel less available may reintroduce mounted infantry, but that is not the same as cavalry. As per John Dallman's answer, you need to remove all the weapons and obstacles that make a cavalry charge suicide before cavalry can be reintroduced. $\endgroup$ Mar 1 at 23:15
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What about dragoons?

If – for some reason – motor vehicles became impossible to produce or use, horses would be a good solution for transport to the battlefield. Dragoons originally dismounted for combat but then started to fight from horseback.

Another option is rough or mountainous or forest terrain which would also suit horses (or goats) more than tanks or motorcycles. Maybe not for riding into combat, but at least for transport.

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    $\begingroup$ Just what I was going to say. Use in battle doesn't have to mean 'charge into battle'. I was going to edit your post to add something but instead I thought I'd just put it here. There are examples of horses being used by modern armies well into the 1990s. The case I was thinking of was in Australia where the remote, tropical 'top end' of the country has few roads and lots of rugged terrain. Horses were used for for long range patrols/reconnaissance in that area and could still be if the the need ever arose. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Mar 3 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon seeing some of the economic sanctions and how the supply chain of its domestic production is going to crash, it might be necessary for Russia to look into horses as a supplement to its military vehicles. After all, if you can barely produce a refridgerator then building and maintining a lot of fully armored vehicle is going to be tough. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Mar 3 at 10:42
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Better horses

  • Your horses have been reengineered for physical toughness. The usual graphene tendons and ligaments, diamond/lonsdaleite bone matrix and so on. This also works well on the soldiers and makes them more comfortable in the saddle.
  • Like your soldiers, your horses have remarkable regenerative capacity. They can regrow lost limbs rapidly if given sufficient nutrients.
  • Your horses have been reengineered for control. You can directly alter their autonomic reflexes so they are all consummate warhorses without fear of battle. Their coordination allows them to leap onto precarious platforms with great ease and confidence, ready to face off against the enemy. This also works well on your soldiers, at least from the government's point of view.
  • Your horses have built-in quantum encrypted neural communications. They can be controlled at the speed of thought, like Avatar without the nice hairstyle.
  • Your horses have a fully programmable biochemistry at the cellular level throughout their digestive tract. Their rumens and colons can generate a vast diversity of custom-coded chemical products, including explosive compositions, and package them in polymer enclosures. (The enemy still thinks this is horse***t, but they will learn better soon!)
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Change the battlefield (but not in the same way as the other answer):

With one hundred years of military motivated selective breeding, you could ride almost what you want depending of the terrain:

  • Ride big goats in steep moutain ranges. They can climb things that neither vehicules, horses nor men could.
  • Ride big felines in deep jungles.
  • Ride big ostriches in swamps...

There's a lot of places where vehicles aren't practical (and it's even more distinct when the terrain changes often).

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The US military already has a need for actual mounted cavalry, and various reports are issued on a yearly basis about the problems associated with the lack of.

While tanks and jeeps (humvees now, I guess) are meant to go offroad, they have limitations that preclude them from going through the roughest sorts of terrain. Often though, that's the exact place you need to send soldiers. Think "mountains of Afghanistan" though the problem isn't exclusive to that country. A soldier on foot can, in such terrain, move only 2-5 miles per day or something like that. It's not really an option to have them carry less stuff so that they can travel a few miles further.

The solution is for the military to have horses (and mules). They don't need gasoline or diesel, the things run on some grass or plant life you can usually find along the way. They can travel up inclines almost as well as humans themselves can, and they can carry alot of equipment with them if needed.

This solution isn't implemented for various reasons, one of which that the military has an incredible amount of inertia and often refuses to start doing what hasn't been done yet or refuses to stop what it has been doing. But probably the most pertinent is that it would cost alot to do this, for only small benefit. The animals are large, costly to maintain (and not just the animals, but having an actual corps or department to care for them, to train, etc), costly to move to the theater where they'd be used, and costly to return home once the mission is over. Even just training some soldiers to ride would be a not-inexpensive proposition.

Now, that said, this isn't "every soldier gets a horse" with big long lines ready to charge into the field of battle. This would be equipping a platoon or a company for specific missions, after which they might have the need again for a long while (or ever).

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Lack of (compact) fuel and strong, lightweight armor

This is really just an elaboration on John Dallman's answer - In a world without good compact power sources, animal power is needed. If we have strong enough armor to make an exosuit that is as effective against a machine gun as tank armor, then a horse could easily serve the same purpose as a tank. Riders could have similar armor and powerful rocket launchers to replace the munitions aspect of a tank.

Barbed wire is easily solved with some kind of lightweight plow (It already poses no cutting danger, but could still trip a horse), and the exosuit could incorporate a gas mask for chemical warfare

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  • $\begingroup$ With lightweight compact power sources and sophisticated powered exoskeleton designs, I'd say you'd be better off making robotic quadrupeds, boston-dynamics style. Easier to feed, easier to clean up afterwards, doesn't get spooked, easier to repair, interchangeable, etc. $\endgroup$ Mar 2 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime The key of this answer is that there aren't compact power sources. That part is similar to many of the other answers here. The difference for this answer is that there are good passive exoskeletons, essentially nice body armor. $\endgroup$ Mar 2 at 21:29
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TL;DR, it comes down to these points:

  • Cost of Fuel resources (extraction cost & natural availability)
  • Accessibility on Terrains (Wheels/Fans vs Legs/Wings)
  • Maintenance Overheads (Stables vs Garages, Engineers vs Vets)

Let us assume there's a stellar scientific research laboratory that has excelled in genetic engineering and mutations. They were able to create powerful war machines after mutating generations of domestic and wild animals. We are not talking horses or camels that run fast or elephants that are heavier. Imagine a rhino-horse that can run swiftly and can breakthrough enemy barriers including concrete walls. Mammoth elephant with the bone-strength of adamantium that can fully crush a tank if it stomps. Large wolf/cat-beasts that can bite/scratch steel.

Eventually it does come down to the source of fuel. Especially because fuel is the cost of operating a vehicle. Mutant-beast cavalry is a good fit for armies that reside in very inconsistent/difficult terrains which are devoid of fuel material and abundant in food. You can refer the climax fight of James Cameron's Avatar if you haven't already.

As someone had pointed out the use of modern artillery, either you can make the opponents not use them (which would be pretty anti-climatic) or design your army's battle strategies so that it will seem your army has the upper hand. For example, your army is fighting against the enemy in a rocky mountain rain-forest and the enemy has tanks and 4-wheelers, etc. As long as the enemy has all his ATVs/Aerial units functioning, they might win. Find a way for your army to get those numbers down, victory is yours.

Then again, battle strategy would be entirely up to your story scene. You might choose to keep a head-on battle also. Personally, not a favourite.

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  • $\begingroup$ I completely forgot to mention. Mutant/Rapid healing. Machines can't heal by themselves unless you add some extra sci-fi stuff. Creatures, however can heal over time. Now, improve their healing abilities through drugs or by feature, now you can essentially last in a battle of attrition against vehicles. $\endgroup$ Mar 4 at 7:07
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Ritualization of War

It could have become "dirty" or "not honorable" to fight wars with the stakes of the whole population of a country. Only a small military that is even standardised (every country has exactly 1000 soldiers, etc.) can do it similar to a sport. Think back to the concept of the duel over 100 years ago, that ha quite similar concepts.

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  • $\begingroup$ I missed your answer; mine was along the same lines (but had an enforcing world government or church). Just noting you came up with it first. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 12:01
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Big Government.

Really, really big, world spanning government. Or church, even.

While it's fine with civilian technology, any fief that takes on its neighbour had better use technology from prior to 1850, or it'll be instantly obliterated by the government's nukes or space mounted orbital laser systems immediately.

So horses it is! And duels. The Catholic Church tried to regulate and even ban crossbows for a while, it's not as silly as it seems.

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Your enemy has an equine phobia so intense it paralyzes them into utter inaction at the mere sight of horses or hearing the approach of their hooves clopping.

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One thing that would cause horses to turn back is several rows of pikes. This was a defense against superior cavalry numbers utilized by infantry on foot. It is difficult to forc a horse to impale itself in a row of spikes as long as say 19 feet long. This is what their main purpose was to defend against cavalry attacks before gunpowder became a standard in European armies in particular. Later, bayonets would be used the same way and perfected in a units ability (typically by battalion or company) to "form square" This required alot of training and discipline, if aught off guard and breached before they could form, usually in 4 sided "squares" 3 ranks deep as i battle at Quatre-Bras as a ptequ3lhere British (Scots and Coldstream-Guards forces repelled marshal Ney where they were held off after many repeated attempts to use infantry to force them to present a single line just to then try to force a way through by charging with cavalry before they could form square again

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome Daniel. This seems to miss the point of the question which is why an army would go back to using a cavalry, not why a cavalry would retreat. Please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways, and take care to read questions thoroughly before answering. (Also proofreading your post might help as "ptequ3lhere" is odd and confusing.) $\endgroup$ Mar 3 at 2:05

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