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In my setting, wizards from a pre-industrial fantasy world come to real life. One of these wizards is a destruction mage recruited by the US military and tries out her talents against modern forces. Her favorite spell is lightning bolt. She simply shoots out lightning at whatever target she wants. Once released, the lightning acts like regular lightning only directed at a target.

This destructive witch unleashes lightning bolts at various vehicles in the current US military. She throws lightning at tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, APCs, humvees, drones, warships, and even submarines. Would lightning be effective against any of these targets? By effective, I mean that either the vehicle is disabled, the vehicle is destroyed, or the crew inside the vehicle are severely wounded or even killed.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't want to judge, but your magic-user changes pronouns partway through the question. "...his talents..." "Her favorite spell..." $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Commented Mar 9, 2023 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ The good old 'heat metal' spell would be more useful. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ Heat Metal would mission-kill almost any modern vehicle. A lot of modern electronics do not handle overheating well, and any manned vehicle is going to become unlivable fast. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ How big and prolonged lighting bolt? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ What do you think this is, the War Thunder forums? $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 21:07

8 Answers 8

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Not effective at all.

Now - let's be charitable, some of the electronics inside modern military equipment don't like being struck by lightning and so you may get some reduced functionality if she gets a particularly lucky hit.

The problem is that the vehicle will just conduct the lightning into the ground, acting like a Faraday cage for its occupants.

For aircraft this is a common occurrence, with commercial airliners getting struck on average once or twice a year (doesn't sound like much, but point is, if it did any serious damage, we'd notice). There's even a good question on the Aviation SE: Here

Ah - but I see you say - they are magical! And can cast many lightning strikes!

Still ain't gonna do squat. Here's Richard Hammond from classic Top Gear, sitting in a car being subjected to multiple lightning strikes: Here

You'll note that despite being scared, he's otherwise unharmed and the vehicle is fine and completely operational.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 and the military DeLorean may even be able to go back in time to hunt down the wizard's parents using the energy from the lightning strike/s. Seriously, good answer - I may have to look up some statistics on how often ships get hit in lightning storms, with their comms masts typically being the highest points in the immediate vicinity... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2023 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ He would do more damage with snow or rain $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't repeated lightning strikes, especially to the same location, at least generate heat and potentially burn occupants or melt components? $\endgroup$
    – jamesdlin
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesdlin - see the top gear test with a Car. If it doesn't occur against a family car, why would it happen to an armored vehicle? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on how good her control is. If she could guide the lightning through a window to specific parts of the inside of the vehicle before letting it ground, she might bypass the Faraday cage and do damage. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 23:01
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Your mage is not much more dangerous than your average infantryman

Fighter jets, helicopters, warships, and submarines are all speced to take the occasional lightning strike and be fine. These are common enough hazards that being able to take it is part of the design.

Most drones will probably be fine too since that they are not grounded; so, not a whole lot of potential for destructive currents to be drawn through it.

Tanks, APCs, and humvees are the only vehicles that have anything to worry about. There have been reports of lightning hitting tanks and other ground vehicles. Normally it will fry a bunch of electronics, but wont harm the people inside or completely destroy or disable the vehicle. So while a bolt of lighting will do more damage than a standard infantry riffle, there are plenty of man portable tank killer weapons out there that that are arguably more effective than lighting.

Good thing about lightning is that is can spread out and hit several infantry at once... but so can Machineguns and RPG, so still not really proving any more dangerous than many infantry weapon systems.

All this said, there is one factor that REALLY limits mages in modern warfare and that is human perception. The modern battlefield is full of all sorts of kill-you-over-the-horizon weapon systems that a fantasy mage would have no counter against. Even if her magic were powerful enough to be a real threat, all of her fancy light shows would attract a lot of attention and she may just find herself exploding into a mist when she finds herself on the receiving end of a smart shell fired from 10km away.

Ways to make her much more dangerous

Strong control over directionality

Once released, the lightning acts like regular lightning only directed at a target.

All this said, HOW directed at your target could matter a lot. Several countries have experimented with electro lasers for shooting down planes and missiles using far less power than an actual lightning bolt. Lighting by its very nature spreads out a lot and wastes a lot of its energy, most lightning bolts never even reach the ground in any apparent way, but if all the power of a lightning bolt were actually directed into a single point, it would be incredibly destructive. A typical bolt of lightning is about 1,210,000 kilowatts, but electro-lasers in the 30-120 kilowatt range are sufficient for blasting a small hole in an light armored vehicle; so, if your mage were to actually direct the full power of a lighting bolt into a target, it could easily take out a main battle tank or cause significant damage to a warship.

Magical answers to modern information driven warfare systems

A mage that relies on thier own senses can't attack or defend against modern information driven warfare systems no matter how hard she hits. If the mage starts to cause to much trouble, she will quickly find herself on the receiving end of a super-sonic artillery shell or missile fired from 10s or even 100s of kilometers away. If modern tech can attack her from outside of her nexus of awareness, then no amount of magic will save her.

That said, a mage may have tactically useful powers other than lightning bolts that are comparable to or otherwise counteract modern information warfare systems. Some examples include:

  • Recon Powers: If she can command familiars, astral project, and/or scry, then she can gather situational awareness over a whole battlefield in ways that are comparable to modern methods. So while she may still be vulnerable, she at least has the ability to try to hit first.
  • Cloaking Powers: If she can bend light to make herself invisible or hide herself in darkness or hide her body heat in mist or something like that, then she may not be able to see over-the-horizon threats, but she might at least be able to minimize the threat that they can pose to her.
  • Defensive Powers: If she has some kind of protective charms that passively protect her, or perhaps has some kind of precognition or danger sense so that she knows exactly when, where, and how to defend against attacks from distant weapon systems, then she could use magic to stop attacks that she would otherwise not even be aware of.

Make her an assassin, not a solider

The ability to summon lightning is a great assassination talent since she does not need to carry any weapons to be able to kill a person of interest. She could get on a plane, walk right into some enemy dictator's political rally, and cut the head right off the snake after walking right through numerous checkpoints.

Allow her to attack from the sky

The power's usefulness could also be improved if she could summon lightning from the sky, instead of shooting it from some part of her own body, because that would make her attacks virtually untraceable. Modern warfare significantly favors the combatant that can stay unnoticed until the shooting starts, but being able to stay unnoticed AFTER the shooting starts is the holy grail of modern combat systems. In this case, she could kill political leaders or attack enemy positions from a near-by vantage point, and no one would know where to even aim to defend themselves. Coupled with strong control over directionality, she could wipe out entire military convoys or sink fleets and modern militaries would have a very hard time knowing what to do about it.

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    $\begingroup$ Uh, an infantryman can carry a Javelin missile which definitely can kill modern tanks from multi-kilometers away and a rifle that can kill out to half a kilometer away. When was the last time you saw someone cast lightning bolt at a target 500 meters away? I'd say the infantry is significantly more lethal than the mage. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ @David I've been at industrial facilities where crews are ordered out of towers, stacks etc. when there's lightning within 30 miles (48 km). So if a mage has the right line-of-sight vantage point they could be devastating against exposed infantry. BUT our mage will be ineffective against armored vehicles and air. So rather than lose our mage to a quick drone strike, Nosajimiki's "specialized ways" would be a better application. $\endgroup$
    – GB540
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ @David "When was the last time you saw someone cast lightning bolt at a target 500 meters away?" <- I've never seen anyone caste a lighting bolt... so there is no reason to suppose how far one may or may not be able to reach, but what we can do is suppose that a mage needs to be able to detect his target with his senses which gives us a maximum practical range of anything he can see which is about the same maximum practical kill range of most infantry weapons. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ Why I claim a bit more dangerous, is that the mage is going to be more versatile that a normal solider. He could potentially do the job of an MG crew, a rifleman, or an RPG crew as needed whereas military equipment is so heavy that these weapon systems are an either/or choice for normal soldiers. Even if he's a bit worse at some of these jobs, his ability to fill any role as needed is a significant advantage. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 3:46
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Most of the answers above are focused on the fantasy side of things. As a former military guy I can say this is something that we do test for. When the US military issues contracts for new equipment and wants to define specifications this is often done through the Military Specifications (MILSPEC). For any given piece of equipment, a contract will typically specify what aspects of the MILSPEC must be met. Ex: I worked on servers a lot so vibration was a common one. You want to know if the server drops off the Humvee that it doesn't just explode.

Here are the specs I found related to lightning:

Short answer - as other people have said, probably not. Lightning is pretty common and the military plans for that stuff (as evidenced by the existence of the above standards). Also consider that anything meant to be part of nuclear delivery has to have its electronics hardened against electromagnetic interference (nukes have big EMI) so it's not just lightning the above is meant for.

Edit: For anyone wondering, no, when they say in movies that something is generically "Military grade", that's complete nonsense. There's what feels like a billion of those MILSPECs so you would have to specify which one you mean for it to make any sort of sense.

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One point that other posters have missed is that lightning is blinding (and to a lesser degree, its thunder deafening). Military personnel and equipment will be protected against this to some degree, but a bolt of lightning is beefier than your average flashbang. There will likely be a period of time before defenses adapt to the new threat. The wizard might not disable vehicles, but they might blind them.

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    $\begingroup$ Can't get out. Can't see. Can't hear. Can't call for help on any of the equipment, +1. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ The mage is neither deafened nor blinded, presumably? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ @RalphJ - hey, don’t look at me, I didn’t ask the question. Presumably the same wonky physics that keeps the lightning from grounding straight through the mage can handle the flash. $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 19:18
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Depending on how much precise is the lighting bolt application, one can disable and/or destroy almost whatever of modern technology.

Natural lightnings are generally safe for modern buildings and vehicles because we are quite good at directing the electrical discharge to safe paths.

On the other hand, a directed hit somewhere inside a vehicle or below the lightning rod of a building can have a spectacular effect.

Hit the dashboard of any vehicle and the engine stops for good.

Hit a stockpile of munitions and they go off.

Hit a local power line - minus computers and machines in the building, a fire is optional. High-power, high-voltage power lines are better protected, but a temporary wide-area blackout should be doable.

Hit a gas station pump (the rubber fuel line is the best target) ...

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  • $\begingroup$ "Hit a stockpile of munitions and they go off." At the risk of being a bit of a contrarian - this is kind of a myth that exists mostly in Hollywood and in the public mind. I'm not saying it's impossible but it's unlikely. For example: bombs (JDAMS, GPUs, dumb bombs, nukes [especially nukes], etc) are specifically designed not to go off unless a precise sequence of events occurs. As I mention in my answer, military munitions are hardened against EMI including lightning. Even regular bullets wouldn't explode spectacularly $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ A few rounds might detonate harmlessly but it's nothing like the movies. You'd probably see them scatter at the point of impact but that's about it. I genuinely can't think of anything I saw in my military career that if hit would cause the fantastic explosions in movies (or even harmful explosions really) if hit by lightning because anything that would do that sort of thing has to meet the MILSPEC standards specifically to prevent that. Ammunition like small arms stuff does get brought inside if its outside during thunderstorms but not because we're really worried about spectacular explosions $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ "Hit the dashboard of any vehicle and the engine stops for good." - this is also only sort of true. Engines run off of the good old suck, squeeze, bang, blow. In old cars there isn't really an electrical component after engine start that lightning would affect. The starter only matters to get the car started and then after that it's self sustaining. In modern cars the engine does have an engine control module (ECM) but it's grounded specifically to avoid these sorts of problems. It would require more than hitting the dash - it would require you to hit the ECM either directly or $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ hit the system in such a way that the ground fails and the voltage is passed to the ECM. Again not impossible but it's pretty unlikely especially when you start considering the physics of lightning/lightning bolts as they are prone to hitting the objects most protruding which aren't these things. In general lightning would honestly just be a pretty poor weapon in real life. I'm honestly not entirely sure that it's even better than a gun. I've met plenty of dudes who I think are a lot scarier with a long rifle than I think a superhero armed just with lightning bolts would be 😂 $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ I guess if the lightning hit just right in an old car in such a way that it disrupted the ignition or fuel system it would work but man at some point just give the dude a 50 cal and call it a day hahaha. Sorry I overthought this - but I thought the physics of it was interesting. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:42
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I upvoted @TheDemonLord's answer, you should too

But let's build on it. Lots of people have survived direct lightning strikes. Often with substantial long-term effects, but they survived and they didn't have the benefit of being encased in an Abrams M1 Tank.

Then there's the issue of modern vehicles which are specifically designed to protect both the passengers and core electronics, so it's no wonder that the car in Demon's video started... and the most serious damage might be that the battery has about a week of life left in it. Vehicles use a "chassis ground," meaning the negative battery post is connected to the frame, which means some of the lightning is being shunted to the battery. But only some. (BTW, military vehicles are designed to protect the battery when they run over charged things... like downed power lines....)

Anyway, lightning looks and is impressive (1.21 gigawatts!). The U.S. National Weather Service claims the average lightning bolt is 300 million volts and 30,000 amps or 9,000 gigawatts (take that Doc Brown!). But we need to take that with a grain of salt because all those volts and amps (remember, V*I=Watts or Joules/second) happen in a series of strokes, each of which only lasts about 60 microseconds. So, 9,000 gigawatts * 60 microseconds = 540 megajoules. (Some online sources claim the average is 1,000 megajoules. They're probably considering lightning in the aggregate.)

Which is still a lot of energy, don't get me wrong. So why did the passenger in Demon's video survive? My college physics professor ran a cool experiment, (DO NOT DO THIS!! He knew what he was doing...) he had a high voltage gap-arc generator, stood a distance from it, and lifted up a fluorescent bulb in each hand. The energy passing through the air (air gap discharge) illuminated both bulbs. The electricity didn't just jump the air gap, at that high a voltage it runs along the surface of your skin rather than passing inside through your heart, which kills you.

Most of the energy, even with vehicles having vulcanized rubber tires, is jumping the air gap to ground rather than damaging passengers or vital electronics. The voltage is just too high, the energy is being ferociously pushed along the easiest path (rather than the shortest path), which is the surface of things and a quick jump to Earth.

Remember, lots of people have survived direct hits. And that because the electricity doesn't flow through the body, it flows over the body.

Conclusion: lightning might burn the paint

RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons aren't interested in physics. There's a weapon that happens to be called "lightning bolt" that causes a prescribed amount of damage against opponents.

You're in exactly the same boat. Physics shouldn't mean squat to you. If you want your magic system to fry an Abrams M1 Tank via a spell called "Lightning Bolt," you do that. And don't lose a second of sleep over the fact that science says it can't be done.

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    $\begingroup$ Minor quibble: "at that high a voltage it runs along the surface of your skin rather than passing inside through your heart". It's generally not the voltage that redirects the power to the skin, but a high frequency. High voltage DC can fry you very dead. kHz (or better, MHz) frequencies can still look impressive but are much more survivable: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin_effect $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ What's the damage of Lightening Bolt and how many hit points does a Humvee have? +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ Awwww thanks :) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2023 at 3:09
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The basic aspect of lightning is that there is an electrical potential developed between two points and that potential is suddenly shorted. Most thoughts of being able to cast lightning is using a lot of space to generate that electrical potential and resulting high voltage and amperage that is very flashy. The prior answers cover why that doesn't work very well.

If, on the other hand, the caster could generate that electrical potential within a small space such as within an electronic device, now we are talking about a skill that could take out all the electronics in any vehicle. Several hundred volts with some amperage within the electronic device will fry the electronics. (I fried a PDP computer with just 110 volts on a current loop interface. It took only a small spark.)

Such a skill would not be flashy. There wouldn't be any big show. Simply wave a hand, lots of little internal sparks and all the electronics in the neighborhood die. Electronics controlling the engine die. The targeting computer dies. The GPS receiver dies. The flight control electronics dies. Military communications equipment dies. Modern warfare is heavily dependent on electronics and the caster can mess that up.

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Other answers already described that Lightning Bolts are not effective along with the reasons. I also agree with all of the answers here.

However, if your magic users can conjure/control lightning bolts at will then I think they might consider changing the way they use their talent.

I suggest they try to learn a higher skill that is an advanced branch of how to use lightnings.


Railgun

The wizards can improvise their technique to control lightning in such a way that it replicates how a railgun works without creating or having such weapon.

It is destructive depending on many factors but the obvious ones are the attribute of the object that is shot and how much energy it uses.

This way the lightning users now have a chance to dominate the battlefield.

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  • $\begingroup$ With a sustained EMF they can't use their radio and then they're combat ineffective. But if you can do that then you get sent to an aluminum refinery, which is what they do with the extra power generated when they divert and turn off Niagara Falls at night. Or if it's a big enough bolt, you turn w/e it is into plasma. But that's pretty GD big. You can shoot lightning bolts out of your ass and they put you on the front lines to serve ketchup ? +1. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 10, 2023 at 23:17

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