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In my story a medieval civilization of elves is facing an invasion from a modern day earth power. They have prophetic powers, which have predicted the invasion will happen in ten years, and have that time to prepare.

The earth power is similar to modern day Russia, with a similar airforce and mechanized infantry. The fantasy world power is an empire of elves who are part of a vast empire spread across an area the size of North America.

The elves have technology similar to ours in the 1500s. Their magic grants them food generation power superior to modern day earth, so their population is similar to ours, at around 1 billion. They can also craft wood dwellings that are slightly tougher than native trees quickly, and train pets slightly better than modern day animal trainers can.

From their prophesies, they know that the invasion is coming in ten years, that the invading power wants their vast untapped riches and wealth, isn't open to negotiation and is fine with genocide, and know about nuclear bombs, modern spying technology, poison gas, biological weapons, and the common weapons of doom. Portals of varying sizes will open at random locations across their land and invaders from the foreign land will spew out soon after.

They are fine abandoning their cities if needed, and are politically unified enough to organize a huge amount of manual or violent labour to resist invasion. They have quick communication continent wide by horse back message posts.

Airpower is a major issue. How would they best adapt their civilization to handle such an issue? That is the main question I am curious about. How would a fairly intelligent, coordinated, but vastly technologically inferior species try to mitigate airpower? An obvious basic answer is, attack them at their airbases, but that's obviously quite hard if it's surrounded by machine guns and artillery.

Could they lure airplanes low enough to hit them with siege weapons? Could they damage them with smoke if they burnt a city the invaders were bombing? Could they defeat airbases better somehow? Better answers will explain how a medieval civilization could adapt use preparation time to reduce the power of airpower from a numerically inferior but technologically superior civilization.

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    – L.Dutch
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:02

18 Answers 18

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Subterfuge and misdirection, dilution of targets.

Build false villages all over the frikkin' place, abandon the cities and become nomadic. None of the villages is permanently unoccupied, but you move under cover of darkness, and live without night lights. As others have noted, you dig out so sleeping quarters are underground.

Make the chances of an aircraft actually hitting a village with people in it about 1 in 10.

During the day, camouflaged outlooks can signal villages visually, like using semaphore flags from over a mile away. (The earliest known record of a telescope on Earth was in 1608; it is not implausible that your medieval villagers have telescopes.) That's a speed of light communications system!

Put them in pairs or triplets, they can alternate watching the skies and checking their telescopes for a neighbor signalling. The semaphore system can be adapted to send all sorts of messages, including counts of aircraft and compass direction.

The elves will know what's coming long before it arrives, and be well away from the line of flight or deep underground when it does.

The defense is hiding. It isn't invulnerability, but if you make aircraft so ineffective at causing death, it isn't worth the time and expense of flying them, and wasting expensive bombs on blasting empty villages.

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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, the Russians have some small experience with false villages. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ modern Russia has infrared and nightvision, tuning out the lights will do little. and all you are doing is making it easier for the modern enemy to occupy your land. there is no reason to bomb a city that is crumbling and abandoned but that just makes taking over the territory easier not harder. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ A mig-29 (for example) has a top speed of over 1500 mph, so a warning from "a mile away" is about 2 seconds notice. Assuming no delay to actually pick up the semaphore flags... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ This approach does pit your ability to build fake villages against their supply lines' ability to prosecute them. This may be important. The OP did not specify how capable the attackers supply lines are. They may or may not be overwhelmed. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @RichFarmbrough Even more amusing is when you try to chain the semaphores together to lengthen their reach. It turns out that "optical telegraphs" (using semaphores) can transmit at somewhere around 600mph. A B-52 Stratofortress has a speed of 650mph. I thought it a rather interesting coincidence that those speeds were so close together. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 17:19
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Surrender

With a modern military that is willing to commit genocide using nuclear, biological or chemical warfare there have no hope of mounting a serious defence.
Bird strikes on planes and assassinations as in other answers will only provoke mass retaliations from the amoral invaders.

Much better to just offer up when the invaders want in exchange for being left alone. If they want to strip mine a mountain to get minerals just let them, in fact work with them and try to learn the technologies. Maybe in a generation or two of being helpful enough civilians will be sympathetic to your cause that the military will be prevented from mass slaughter or you can learn enough of the invaders technology to meaningfully fight back.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, with a superior immoral enemy, there's nothing they can do. Trying to hold the wanted resources ransom so they won't nuke you? Then you get bio weapons that leave the resources alone. Or get whittled down with brute force alone. The only way out is to stop the portals from opening at all but that's probably not much of a story. $\endgroup$
    – KC Wong
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ This is, in essence, the concept of an open city, you stop defending yourself and hope the invader will not care enough to destroy you. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ The other benefit of this strategy is that if the enemy now has a civilian population present then weapons of mass destruction become less appealing to use. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yep - this. The problem is protecting food sources. Any large civilization is going to have to have concentrated croplands and animal farms. Those are going to be vulnerable no matter how well dispersed or hidden the people are. The $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ the other big benefit is once civilians start interacting with the elves they become less willing to let the military commit genocide. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 14:17
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A friend of mine once wrote a book on guerilla warfare. He found that in "asymmetrical warfare" situations -- where one side had what seemed overwhelming superiority in technology, equipment, etc -- the disadvantage side still won the war about 1/3 of the time. As someone else noted, we saw that in Afghanistan and Vietnam, and we're seeing it now in Ukraine. As an American, I might point out that the American Revolution was another example.

The trick is to avoid open field combat. Yeah, an army with swords facing an army with machine guns on a wide open field on a clear day in two neat battle lines is going to get massacred. But a man with a knife jumping out of the shadows on a dark night and attacking a man with a machine gun has a pretty good chance of winning the encounter. You attack in ways that minimize the enemy's advantages.

Sure, a medieval society isn't going to have any way to attack an airplane dropping bombs from 30,000 feet. But they could raid an airbase and attack planes on the ground. And they can make it hard for the aircraft to find them. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong hid id the jungles, where US aircraft couldn't see them. They couldn't bomb every square inch of the country. The US tried to destroy vegetation to reduce the cover -- that's what "Agent Orange" was all about -- but this wasn't particularly successful. In Afghanistan the mujaheddin hid from Soviet aircraft in caves.

The disadvantaged force can try to capture weapons and turn them against their attackers. Or they can seek aid from nations hostile to the attackers who would be happy to see their mutual enemy stuck in a quagmire, with someone else doing the dying.

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    $\begingroup$ The Ukraine is fighting Russia with conventional warfare. North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam with the army of north Vietnam in a conventional invasion. And there was little use of Guerrila warfare in the American Revolutionary War which was mostly conventional war. Maybe you should try to choose better histoircal examples in future answers. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding I disagree. Yes, the final invasion of South Vietnam used conventional warfare. Ditto the American Revolution. But in both cases that was preceded by many years of guerilla warfare. The classic description of such a war is that you fight using guerilla tactics until you reach a point where you can put a conventional army in the field. Try this too soon and you get massacred by the enemy's superior forces. Wait too long and you never bring the war to a conclusion. I'd concede that Ukraine may not be the best example, that's more conventional. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Guerrilla war is a something, but modern armies have ways to counter guerrilla tactics. Guerrillas also must have some local support, or else they would have been eradicated soon enough. With the expected army tactics of genocide, the conquerors won't leave any supporting locals behind their front line, thus making decently sure no one is behind their lines to sneak up on soldiers. I say the only way for those elves to win is to overwhelm the invaders with their sheer numbers, bury with their corpses if necessary, probably right at the portals once they open. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ You should imagine Aztecs against Spanish, not Vietnam against USA. $\endgroup$
    – Sulthan
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ Guerillas won exactly in those 1/3 of the time where the attacking nation cared about a civilian population. But OP stated exactly the opposite. If the US goal in Vietnam or Afghanistan would have been "no enemies at any cost", they would have won. Nuclear weapons are a thing. But they didn't, because having a population (of natives) there after the mission was a neccessary condition for "victory". $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 12:25
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If your animal army extends to insects, they could be very effective damaging / sabotaging electronics. Swarms could confuse radar / infrared detection. If they have no compunction against suicidal birds, we all know how well aircraft fare against bird strikes. Or just even swarms of starlings dropping pebbles into the path of a strike aircraft would be a positive deterrent.

Diving further into the animal kingdoms. If the invaders can weaponize CBRN forces, then is it within the elves power to fortify fungal or bacterial animalia to work against the invading force? Delivery of puffball mushrooms via small birds into the air conditioning systems of troop barracks could have some interesting effects, from outright death to mass hallucinations. Note, mass hallucinations within a heavily armed force is not ideal.

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    $\begingroup$ "If they have no compunction against suicidal birds" I like to call this the Disney Princess anti-air approach. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ They do have some degree of insect training, to a level slightly beyond us today, and bird training beyond what we have today, so that's a pretty good idea. They have lots of poisonous plants and stuff, so delivery of poisons and hallucinogens to the enemy is certainly a reasonable counter to airbases. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @NepeneNep If that is so there are endless possibilities. Although Russian aircraft are quite a bit more hardened against debris than western powers. It takes surprisingly very little foreign material into a jet/turbine intake to put it totally out of commision. a good strong chain will do wonders vs helicopter rotors as well. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Good one. If the elves have solid command of flying animals then essentially they turn into a drone army. Modern militaries are only starting to cope with very limited drone attacks. They have very little, at the moment, to defend against an attack by 5000 eagles dropping 5000 poisonous snakes on top of an infantry column. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen "Eagles" is really meant to represent any bird big enough to carry anything useful. The elves could potentially have many thousands of them (especially with a 10 year forewarming). They could definitely stop planes though: no poison gas in front of the plane. Fly into its engines, propellers, windshields, etc. Bird strikes are a problem. How you train a bird to fly into a plane is an elven problem but it sounds like they have minor animal training magic so "because wizards". $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 15:30
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One way to oppose air force is to exploit landscape - planes aren't effective in mountains, as far as I know; jungles conceal all the people and buildings within it; extremely cold places may pose a problem for moderate climate oriented technics.

Also there're some contraptions used in modern wars, requiring no modern technologies - e.g. camouflage and fake targets. I'm not sure if you'd allow elves to create ballons - they weren't available in the 1500s, but aren't really hard to construct; they may be used as obstacles for planes - though their utility is somewhat doubtful to me.

Also dependence on fuel is a problem for invaders - it may be hard to transport lots of fuel through limited number of portals, to keep it safe at land bases, and to arrange its production in the new world; if the fuel in question is easy-to-burn oil, so much the worse.

These tips make some preparatory actions quite obvious - cities in plains should be abandoned for ones in more defensible regions; camouflage, fake buildings and, may be, ballons should be developed and produced; the land near would-be portals should be prepared for defense and/or sneak attacks. It's really important if the elves can predict the portals location - they may be blocked by large rocks or flooded in advance.

P.S. Naturally, these are ways to mitigate the problem, not to solve it completely.

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    $\begingroup$ 1500s-tech balloons wouldn't be much good against aircraft. You don't have hydrogen or helium, so the only available lift gas is hot air. Most lightweight envelope materials are unavailable, leaving only paper (expensive) or silk (mind-blowingly expensive). You don't have large amounts of steel or kevlar, so tether cables need to be much heavier hemp rope. You might be able to put up a few low-altitude barrage balloons, but a modern attacker can just fly around (or over) them. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ I guess you're right, I've forgotten the long story of balloon development $\endgroup$
    – ponyii
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 9:40
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In humans, prophecy is terribly inaccurate (especially as to when) and often actions can be taken to prevent the prophesied disaster.

That offers a different hope for these elves. For example, the invading power can only invade if their political power holds together. So, the elves can spend the next ten years destabilizing the political base. Find the many disenchanted subgroups and encourage them to rise up against their political bosses. (That is what the Medes did to conquer the Asyrian empire.)

Couple that with a propaganda campaign showing just how peaceful, kind, and nurturing the elves are. Show that living like the elves would make for a more fair and just society. Give the young generation of the invaders a different hope than just being cogs in their industrial machine and help them rebel against the system. This will help destabilize the political will to invade.

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    $\begingroup$ Seems like the Elves and their invaders might be in different worlds. Might be a bit difficult to work on a political structure you can't actually reach. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, different worlds and portals between them. Getting outsiders to intervene would be nice, and with careful prophesy magic they could increase their chances of a team sneaking in a portal to talk to some foreign nation. Part of the issue though is that they need to be able to maintain some sort of portal link where they can get in and out and bring foreign people in and offer them bribes and propaganda video recordings to persuade them to intervene. That means they need to survive as a political entity and survive airpower. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 16:44
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I'm going to assume that the invading power does not want to use nukes for some reason, because that would be game over pretty quickly. Even one tactical nuke in one place, with the threat of bigger ones unless the enemy gives up would be a devastating ultimatum. I'm also going to assume that the enemy isn't stupid (e.g. falls in the same trap twice).

I would have them build as extensive underground networks as possible, making sure the entrances are hidden. If the cities are easy to defend, the enemy might make provisory bases in them, with a lot of defenses on the walls - but if you could have a small tactical band enter the bases through these secret tunnels, you cold have them sabotage equipment in a way that isn't directly obvious (therefore not alerting the enemy immediately), but that would prevent any tanks and/or planes to function properly in battle. Maybe they could even steal some automatic weapons?

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  • $\begingroup$ As I noted, they expect the use of nukes, strategic and tactical, and would like to mitigate that issue. Underground networks as you suggest may help mitigate nuclear bomb issues. Having tunnels everywhere to sneak around sounds pretty good. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Thermobaric weapons. If the tunnels are a not too large localized system, detonate a thermobaric weapon inside and at worst you have to scrape the elves off the walls. 2. If the coming in power treats the Geneva convention as a Geneva checklist, just flood the tunnels with gas. $\endgroup$
    – jaskij
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @jaskij Doesn't even need to be toxic gas. CO2 is enough. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ tunnels can be constructed to mitigate the effects of thermobaric attacks. Gas traps, like plumbers P traps. Sort of a U in a tunnel where water can be pumped in, so as to fill the bottom of the U with water. Effectively sealing off the two sides of the tunnel, as well as deadening a blast it would seal off any intrusion of gas weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ I second undergound tunnels. If "They can also craft wood dwellings that are slightly tougher than native trees quickly" means some sort of tree-sculpting magic, then using tree roots to push vast underground networks might be a super-efficient way of creating structurally-sound root-reinforced tunnels. Perhaps that might even exceed our modern tunnelling ability. The trees might also be able to provide oxygen and appropriately sealed-off sections to mitigate gas warfare. There might be a symbiosis with fungi that can absorb or neutralise poisons. $\endgroup$
    – Timotheos
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 2:09
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Bomb them right at the portals

The only bottleneck for the depicted invaders is the portals through which they arrive, and they cannot instantly bring in high-tech weapons that would be impervious to defenders, like aircraft, so this will be the major (or the only) opportunity to inflict enough damage to at least stall the invasion. Perhaps the offenders would be hurt seriously enough by such a greeting to reconsider risk vs reward in invading the elves.

The scenario looks like this: You say elves have 10 years before the portals open, so they spend 8-9 of them to create as many catapults as possible, create enough ammo and locate them at the future sites of portals. One extra year is for planning, inventing, adjusting to the possibilities (say if they can grow catapults, why not? Same for ammo, up to making trees grow iron hard ready made orbs) etc. As soon as portals open, catapults start throwing stones, bricks, wood, tar, Greek fire, you name it, at the portal exit to do damage to the invading troops. Stones vs infantry, tar and fire vs armor which would be largely unaffected by the hail, but heating does cause armor to malfunction. At the very least the portal window would become obstructed to not let the invaders through.

The downside is that the second attempt might start with the invaders stuffing an armed nuke into the portal prior to actual invasion, but you can handwave that either nukes would break the portals, up to all of them with a single nuke if it goes off close enough, or that fissile material in a nuke would not pass through the portal intact (say would undergo fission at once, setting off the bomb on their side, or just not reach critical mass on that side), rendering nukes unusable for this purpose, if you want elves to eventually win or draw.

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  • $\begingroup$ From the wording of the question, it sounds like they can't predict the location of the portals. If they can then you can make the portal locations a pure deathtrap by digging big pits and filling them with nasty. Bury a portal in a lake of poison and let it drain through the portal as soon as it opens, that'll stop 'em 😁 $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ It is a good idea to bomb them at the portals. As Corey said, the location of the portals is random, but they can certainly try to quickly strike any portals that pop up. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 16:20
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Logistical and cultural disaster.

  • Your civilization lacks wide and load-bearing roads.
  • Nowhere to land aircraft or take-off later.
  • No petroleum fuel infrastructure for the invaders to capture and use.
  • Subtle incompatibilities of food and drinks. Most of them not deadly, but a lot of them at least temporarily incapacitating.
  • Developed culture of drug use that quickly catches on in the invading army.
  • Defenders quickly learning to use the invaders' technology
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  • $\begingroup$ Some good considerations there. If the portals only open for, say, an hour, and can't reliably be reopened to the same location, then you would really only be able to land something like an expeditionary force. The first year of the invasion, at least, would just be establishing beachheads, maps (no GPS!) and air supply routes so that the next portal can resupply all the previous bases. Mass wave animal attacks could simply run the invaders out of ammo. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:21
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You can look at the Vietnam war or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan for some real life examples, where a vastly more advanced air force didn't manage to crush the less advanced enemy.

Avoid open field engagement and rely on guerrilla tactics, slowly bleeding out the enemy and affecting their morale. It helps if the territory allows "bite and run" attacks.

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    $\begingroup$ The common element in the four (English 1, English 2, Russian 3 and American 4) Afghan and two (French 1, American 2) Vietnam wars was that the attacking power did not actually want to conquer the land. Had the English, the Russians, the French or the Americans actually wanted to take over the land and live there, the wars would have been over very quickly. As it really was, the foreigners used small fractions of their armed forces, in proportion to their not-particularly-strong wishes to make the enemy negotiate and become civilized. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 15:14
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Plenty of good ideas in other answers, but they seem to be ignoring something I think is quite important: magic is a thing! Even a little magic can be a dangerous thing when you're not able to defend against it.

Your elves have access to some magic, which you have said amounts to being able to increase crop yields. If this is the peak of their magical power, if they've never had more than that, then perhaps this answer isn't for you. If that's as far as they go simply because they don't need more, or because it was deemed too dangerous and was regulated into oblivion, then we've got 10 years to develop better options.

Take the best of the agricultural mages, your top few thousand prodigies, and train them as hard as they can take. Focus them on uses of their magic that will help the most like rapid plant growth, plant manipulation and so on. Get them working in teams, pooling their power to work ever greater magics. Train them on using plants to disrupt infrastructure, mostly by doing what they do naturally just at a much higher speed. There aren't a lot of air forces in the world that can function effectively when their runways keep getting torn up by tree roots, or when grass and fungi decide that jet turbines are a perfect place to grow into. And you'd be amazed at how much mess the right strain of mold can make in an electronics bay. If you're lucky some of those planes might survive long enough for you to find a fungus that just can't get enough of the plastics used for wiring insulation.

While that's happening, set your best animal trainers the task of learning the forgotten arts of beast mastery. Trust me, nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a charging dire bear or warg pack. But even that would be preferable to facing down a stampeding herd of aurochs. And don't forget that big birds beat back human armies in the Emu Wars. Twice. You don't even need to tame or control the beasts in most cases, just spook them and funnel the resultant carnage.

Given that you have time to prepare, even magic isn't necessarily necessary to win this. If you have enough information to know to expect things like planes, rifles, IR/night vision gear and so on, you can plan for them. Elvish rangers are already known for their sneaky, so they're perfect for the guerilla role. They're trained to an accuracy that most modern snipers would envy, elvish arrows hit significantly harder than anything less than a .50-cal, and you probably don't want to know what a frangible metal arrowhead can do when fired into the intake of an active jet engine. It's really hard to get your plane in the air when your engines keep exploding during take-off.


If you're interested in less magical solutions...

The problem with bringing planes to a dimensional invasion is that they need a bunch of infrastructure in place before they can be useful. The invaders will have to send through a bunch of troops to secure a beach-head, followed by a group of engineers and equipment to lay out runways as quick as possible, and finally you can send through some planes. And hope that the locals give you enough time to get your infrastructure up.

Which of course, you're not going to let them do.

With 10 years to prepare you'll have time to set up detection and signalling to let you know when and where the invaders arrive. As soon as start to emerge you can rush in squads to harry them, making it much more difficult for them to establish the necessary infrastructure. Unless they manage to drive an aircraft carrier through one of those portals, the lack of infrastructure on the ground ends the threat of fighter jets before it gets started.

The bigger problem is tanks. If you can fit a fighter jet through a portal then a T-90 should fit easily. You'd better train your siege engineers to hit moving targets.

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    $\begingroup$ Weather mages would be great, really. One of the greatest enemies of every army throughout history, including modern day, is good old mud. The weather mages just keep it raining and muddy everywhere the invaders are. Mud makes everything miserable and it's very effective at stopping tanks. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:24
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Near impossible to win

You describe the difficulty of attacking planes. It'll be nearly impossible to attack them, as they can simply stay out of range. Even if they come into range they are so fast it'll be next to impossible to hit them.

Even with animal pets they can be out if range. The first thing a helicopter or plane will do, if there's fldanger, is to fly too high for even birds to get them. With advancements in drones, access to mass destruction weapons including biological, chemical, gas and nuclear nothing is out if reach for the enemy. Even in bunkers underground the natives aren't safe.

Reconnaissance drones can fly so high for so long that any native activities is detected except in a select few areas. The same staying power means you can rain down death and destruction for hours on end, out of range of the natives, until you're satisfied that everything is dead.

flawed from the beginning

Though it certainly isn't impossible to win for the natives, especially if they can leverage disease or some for of electronic counter, they are at an extreme disadvantage. All out open war will be quickly decided by weapons of mass destruction, making any superior numbers moot. Guerilla only works if you can hide. This would be within a population for example, but as the enemy will kill any population this is right out. There are precious few places where you can effectively hide naturally for guerilla tactics to work effectively. So only in a few areas this will work. That is if they don't just nuke the place, burn it down or gas it with heavier than air gas so even underground isn't safe.

What will you do when a AC-130 flies overhead to destroy any specific targets while some rockets deploy a gas that'll burn the trees and kill anyone near? Pretty much nothing.

What will you do when regiments of soldiers move through your woods with special optics, reconnaissance drones and an arsenal that can take out anything from a rat to a fortified bunker? Pretty much nothing.

You might win some engagements, but to win consistently you need some real luck or incompetence from the attacking forces.

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If you set up a scenario where one side has overwhelming advantages, you need to give the other side a win condition that partially negates the advantages, the means to attempt that win condition, and a motive to try going for that win condition against the odds. Star Wars makes a good model for this kind of story. The bad guys have all the apparent advantages. Darth Vader has a Death Star and a Star Destroyer and he's a powerful space wizard. The Rebels, however, have the secret plans, which gives them a fighting chance. In the third act, the Death Star is about to blow up the Rebel base, so it's do or die. Star Wars also does something else well in that there's a twist at the end that changes the game against the good guys: the secret plans aren't actually good enough to let the Rebels win. The twist is resolved by a thread that's been built up through the whole story: if Luke is willing to let go and use the Force, and if Han is willing to step up and embrace his calling as a hero, they can achieve their true potential.

You've set up a scenario where in order to try to win, you have to bet a billion innocent lives and your entire species on preposterously long odds. In real life, the plucky underdogs almost always lose - badly. The obvious best solution here is to surrender and make it advantageous for the enemy to incorporate you into their empire as their loyal subjects, rather than slaughtering most of you and enslaving whatever's left - but let's get that off the table, since you want a story about plucky underdogs resisting technologically superior enemies. Maybe your elves are deeply religious and the Evil Empire prohibits all religion and is happy to genocide anyone who won't comply, and it's worth it to your society to roll the dice on genocide if the alternative is everyone going to Elf Hell for turning against the elf religion. Maybe there's a prophesy that the Evil Empire will bring about the end of both worlds if they get control of Elf magic. Whatever plot device you like: we just need to get the obvious best solution - surrender - off the table.

Feigned surrender is probably the next best option, since it gives you a chance to get close enough to subvert some Evil Empire personnel and run your war effort like an organized crime ring. You'll want to think about whether you want your plot device to make that unworkable also.

Once the solutions you don't like have been pushed off the table, you need to find a place to change the game so that the good guys have a fighting chance. Maybe they can make contact with another Earth power and set up a situation where Country A will nuke Country B if Country B genocides Elfland. (In exchange, Elfland promises lucrative resource extraction deals with Country A). Maybe the portals are being opened by an ancient enemy of Elfland who is living in the capital city of Evil Empire under heavy guard, but if only we can get to him and assassinate him, the portals will close forever. You have to figure something out, or the mechanical question of how Elfland might inflict occasional military losses on Evil Empire is pointless, because there's no connection between inflicting occasional losses and actually winning.

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  • $\begingroup$ This question is mostly about ways a military strategy to blunt a modern air force might develop. While it would be nice for them if the invaders proved fine with diplomacy, military strategy doesn't normally exclusively revolve around assuming that diplomacy will go well. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 16:38
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Non-violent resistance. When you can't win a fight, it's better to not fight at all.

They would just let the invaders invade. But then frustrate any of their efforts to control and exploit the lands they just conquered through rigorous non-cooperation. They would also use political and personal activism to get the public of the invaders to oppose the invasion and convince individual members of the invading forces to defect.

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    $\begingroup$ This will only work if the invader has any reason not to just kill you. What if elves happen to be tasty? $\endgroup$
    – Haukinger
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, part of the premise is that the invaders are politically fine with murdering them. Diplomacy would be nice, but they can't really rely on it being successful, especially quickly enough to prevent hundreds of millions of elves dying. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 16:33
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Medieval era civilization cannot beat modern day army. We can produce bullets faster then they can reproduce. There are plenty of examples in out own history of such events - study colonization period. And that was before we improved our armies quite substantially.

Don't forget - humans invented better firearms to beat other nations that also had firearms. Humans know how to beat melee army, elves do not know how to destroy tank (or how it works).

I can see one big weakness in human invasion - the portals. Something opened them, something can close them. Without supplies, any army will fall sooner or latter.

The Elves could train capable mages who will be able to infiltrate the portal sites and close them. Could create nice base for story :)

Another alternative I can think of is stronger magic. Elves could spend the prep time training significant % of their population to use at least some level of magic. Everybody who can produce basic fire bolt can be infantry, who can create fireball will be anti-armour etc. Water mages can create fog cover to hide units. Any elven mass assault would still be suicide, but small independent units could be effective.

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There's actually a well-known novel with a similar plotline: The War of the Worlds. In that book, the hyper-advanced Martians invade 19th century Earth, and devastate the foremost power of the time (the British Empire). But the Martians still lose the war anyway, because they have no resistance to Earth microbes.

Something similar might work in your scenario. Hide, and use some kind of biological weapon which the invaders have not encountered but which the locals might already be largely-immune to (like smallpox).

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    $\begingroup$ Although I've heard an interesting counter-point to this concept, which is that if aliens landed here tomorrow, they'd actually be fine: their immune systems aren't familiar with earth microbes but more important than that is that earth microbes are not adapted to alien biology. Cross-species infections are relatively rare for that reason. What infects a horse typically has no pathway of infection on a human or a dog. Aliens, being of even more foreign biology, would mostly likely be immune to all earth viruses, and bacteria would not be adapted to their chemistry or temperature. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JamieB Fair point, and even if the microbe works it won't actually win the war, only stall the invaders. $\endgroup$
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 14:21
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Mud

and fog. and weather.

I put this as a comment on someone else's answer but the more I think about it the more I think it makes a good story element as well as a very realistic counter. If the elves have some magic capable of improving crop growth, then I'll assume they have something like weather mages that can keep crops from getting too much or too little rain.

So when the invasion hits, the weather mages just keep directing rain at it. If they can do even more powerful storms, so much the better, but a nonstop drizzle of rain would be sufficient to drastically slow down even a modern army, because every army has a common enemy: mud.

Mud stops tanks. Mud means your airfield needs to be paved. There are no "good days" to bring in supplies by truck or plane because the weather mages are keeping it raining all the time, everywhere the invaders go. Massed infantry churns up the ground and makes it increasingly more difficult for the rear to keep up with or supply the front.

If the mages can manage fog, then even better, as this would do quite a lot to equalize any infantry battles as well as greatly diminish the effectiveness of air power.

I actually think that between sufficient numbers of trained animals (which would drain ammo, at the very least) and mild but persistent and reliable weather effects, the invaders would have a really hard time getting anywhere.

It would also surely impact the morale of the invaders. "I hate this planet. Why do we even want it? It never stops raining and everything is mud!"

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the invaders would adapt to the muddy conditions. If there is enough mud, the invaders might begin using screw vehicles like the ones pictured in here: neozone.org/auto-moto/… $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 19:11
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The sheer scale of things works against the attackers.

How many fighting soldiers, tanks and aircraft can a big, modern Earth country field at the same time? Maybe fifty thousand soldiers, 2000 tanks and 200 aircraft. Now compare that to your population size of 1 billion. That’s one soldier for every 20 000 natives. And this assumes that the attacker is actually willing and able to send their whole armed forces through portals and operate in a foreign world.

Another scale thing: Size of the planet. We are talking about a huge area of land here. The attacker’s aircraft and vehicles probably can’t even reach many parts without significant effort (do aircraft carriers fit through your portals?).

The scale of things is like a single well armed soldier with 300 bullets entering a town of 20000 people and trying to control it and hundreds of km² around it.

Since your natives can create food and other necessities via magic they won’t have problems with supply and can easily flee and hide.

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  • $\begingroup$ 50000 soliders? I guess, you're missing at least two digits. $\endgroup$
    – Haukinger
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Haukinger: I’m talking about actual fighting soldiers in the field at the same time who’s job it is to kill people. Not cooks, not medical personnel, not truck drivers, not administration/command, not soldiers on leave or reserve. Modern armies have a huge overhead. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ But they can be mobilized. The reason they haven't is because we haven't been in a total war situation for a while. WW2 was fought with tens of millions of soldiers when totaled across all fronts. $\endgroup$
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ I really don’t know how to interpret the numbers on army size of various nations and conflicts. I’ve read that only 10–15% of personnell in a modern army is real, fighting soldiers. So if e.g. the Russian army is supposed to have 1 million active personnel, how many of those will actually stand on the front line with a weapon in their hand? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael even if they have 1 million active personnel (I don't know if that's the case), the point is that modern nations can mobilize more by, e.g., conscription. $\endgroup$
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 13:38

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