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This is a rather complicated question since I don't know how to redact the title. But I'll get into specifics.

In my world they're is two types of humans Conventional and Contemporary (Temporary names), conventional humans are just that, regular humans with access to conventional technology while contemporaries are humans that look regular but have access to magic of sorts. Conventional humans cannot replicate magic, they physically cannot (and since magic does not abide to all laws of physics conventionals have a hard time understanding it) while contemporaries don't use regular technology for cultural reasons.

One of the most common weapons amongst the magic bearing kind is a sort of beam weapon, it fires a plasma-like substance that follows a laser-like nature (Conventionals do not understand how this weapon it's even possible) and ranges from all sizes and forms, from a simple handheld weapon and that fires little bolts to massive artillery platforms firing More persistent beams.

The one kind of platform that regards to this question is the artillery platforms, they can fire beams of this substance at 5,000°~6,000° Celsius (5273.15K ~6273.15K) at ranges of 50 to 100 kilometers while the attack stays focused and is mostly unaffected by atmospheric conditions; naturally this is devastating to conventional armed forces as even the mightiest of battleships can be sunk on a single hit or entire fortresses leveled to the ground in a few barrages.

Naturally, this system also has weaknesses.

-Slow Beam: Despite following a laser-like behavior, the beam travels at a relative slow speed of Mach 4 (1,325.2 M/S) with hypersonic aircraft commonly outrunning the beam. (And since it's like a laser, the curvature of the planet can also act as a shield)

-Bad Targeting Systems: Magic can replicate many things that technology can with exceptions, computing power being one of them, as contemporary processing capability is laughably bad compared to its conventional counterpart, meaning that the weapon will have a hard time aiming at longer ranges or predicting the target's movements.(The most advanced magic processor can only achieve results similar an 1980's era computer)

-Overly big emitters: The more powerful the beam the larger the emitter, with the artillery platforms threatening battleships or fortresses being the size of big houses. (Contemporaries have even larger ones, yet they don't use them for the exact same reason)

Conventionals can't use magic and have to abide by conventional technology; the level of their science allows them to wide adopt fusion reactors, quantum computers for point defence systems alongside orbital assets like missile satelites.

¿Which weapon design could conventional humans use to counter this contemporary beam artillery?

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    $\begingroup$ A mirror? Not sure what kind of counter measures you’re looking for here. Why does an anti magic ray sink ships? $\endgroup$ Jan 6 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ Conventional science advanced 500 to 700 years from now? Nobody has slightest idea what we will be capable of in such far future if current exponential curve continues. But if you do have an idea about it please elaborate. $\endgroup$
    – Juraj
    Jan 6 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ We're not a brainstorming site. Asking us to brainstorm 500 years of technical development, and any possible technical response to a weapon system is not the sort of question that is permissible on this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 6 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ 5-6000C is not that hot as munitions go. its similar to normal incendiary rounds which means it not doing a lot to an armored target. heat transfer is not that fast and armor is thick, its the same problem lasers have. A steel ship sitting in water is going to be all but immune. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 7 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ How many artillery platforms are there? How are these distributed? Are they mobile? Is there a cooldown period between shots? Range? Accuracy? What is the collateral damage like? Is it WMD? Is it a decentralised group of people operating them? The list goes on but we can tailor a more professional answer to beat that toy of yours😁 $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 7 at 6:42

7 Answers 7

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The Survivability Onion

This answer is deliberately generic in the first half, but at the end we will apply this to your question.

So... rather than ask the question "How do we survive being shot at in battle?", we take four steps back and ask: "How do we survive the war?"

The answer is...

enter image description here

  1. Be elsewhere. The enemy cannot shoot at you, if you are somewhere their firepower is not.

  2. Be inconspicuous. The enemy will not shoot at you if they have not detected and identified you as a target.

  3. Be untrackable. The enemy will not shoot at you, if they cannot get a fix on you to aim their weapons.

  4. Be first. The enemy will not engage you, if you have already engaged them, and — preferably — defeated them.

  5. Be elusive. The enemy will not hit you, if you can evade the shots.

  6. Be tough. The enemy will not affect you, if the shots cannot get through your protection.

  7. Be resilient. The enemy will not defeat you, if you can take a beating and keep fighting.


So, in your case, we have a clunky and — in effect — immobile line-of-sight weapon; with short range; that does not have any acquisition or tracking technology worth speaking of.

Well, to be honest, this thing is pretty much like WWII Germany's Wunderwaffe (V-1, V-2, V-3): looks amazing on paper, but in reality no military would ever bother with it because this is so utterly impractical.

The Conventionals will do the following:

  • Point 1 on the Onion: stay out of range. 50 to 100 km is impressive as artillery goes, but unless you can get these emitters elevated, you have a practical reach much less than that, due to the curvature of the Earth and — simply — things being in the way. If you can get them up on a mountainside, then, yes, maybe. But anywhere else, no.

  • Point 2 and 3 on the Onion: should they blunder into range, they are not likely to be detected and identified as targets since — as you say — the Contemporaries have no systems for this task, but are instead — literally — eye-balling it. This means that a stealthy attack is very likely to be able to sneak into lethal range easy.

  • Point 4 on the Onion: pound the big, clunky, immobile emitters to bits with a swarm of physically small, and long range ordnance, such as missiles, smart artillery, and aircraft-dropped smart glide-bombs.

Summary

Since this weapon is pretty much immobile, the Conventionals will learn of their existence and location after the first shot, probably even sooner using reconnaissance, and then stay out of reach for them.

Then, they will launch long range attacks — since these are really easy targets — and knock them out. Problem solved.

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  • $\begingroup$ The V-2 and V-3 were utterly impractical, but the V-1 was more practical than strategic bombing: just as effective, but considerably cheaper. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 7 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the Survivability Onion. $\endgroup$ Jan 8 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Ah, a fellow admirerer of Lord HardThrasher I presume. :) $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jan 8 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark given that startegic bombing never accomplished any military objective, that's not saying much $\endgroup$
    – SPavel
    Jan 8 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Firstest with the mostest" $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Jan 8 at 20:01
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You said it yourself: Your weapons are strictly line of sight.

At sea level for a person of average height the Line of Sight (LOS) is no more than about 4.5 K! At a height of one K above sea level it balloons out to a max of about 112 K. Safely outside your upper range limit.

So for sea battles any modern precision guided strike weapon with a range greater than that will do the job - and there are many. Hell your normal humans high speed combat aircraft should be able to launch and evade well under the 100 K limit before the enemies circa 1980 targeting system get a good enough lock to score a hit provided they have good EW/jamming pods. You could also just go in low & slow, bounce up to launch (If you have to) then sea skim your way out again. (At 300 meters altitude your LOS is down to about 60 K)

Also these things called submarines are going to make the magicians lives hell.

Air to air battles? That would require your magicians to be able to 'compute' long range sensor information both collectively and individually at a rate similar to a modern AWAC or land based control centers equipped as they are with modern electronics. Good luck.

Secondly modern sensor and communications technology give you a huge range and accuracy advantage in locating and targeting enemy ships, planes and weapons, logistics hubs and command posts etc if the best the enemy can do is emulate circa 1980s equivalents. So they will use modern sensors, satellites and drones to assist with deciding targeting priorities & solutions.

On land? There's this thing called terrain. Enough said. Beyond that?

Any set of mark one eyeballs that sights a target and has access to modern radios, digital maps, GPS and range finders etc (Standard kit these days) is also going to cause your magicians serious problems. Your average non magical soldier would probably want longer range hitting power with modern digital targeting systems to give them the best chance of survival. Something like the new 6.8mm platform the US army is rolling out would suit. At the end of the day though a bullet is going kill you just as dead as a laser beam will, possibly better. And finally? The enemy can't hit what they cant see and modern soldiers have excellent night fighting gear. Plus your 'normal' soldiers will have access to all that boring non LOS stuff like mortars, conventional artillery and rockets etc. (Sucks to be magic I guess).

EDIT & FRAME CHALLENGE: Yes magicians can generate 'magical' energy weapons and that's a definite advantage. But what stops them from also using all the other modern systems I described above? Presumably they're as smart as any non-magical human. Why can't they just develop, manufacture and use modern weapons in addition to their magical ones?

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  • $\begingroup$ The Panzerhaubitze 2000 can land five rounds simultaneously at least 17 km away. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… - if they don't have their sharks with freaking laser beams on 747s then they're sol. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jan 8 at 14:51
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If "conventionals" use modern military knowledge, they've already won, and they don't even need special toys.

Your threat model is all wrong. There are no more battleships and barely any countries still use cruisers, because "bring two big armies to the same place and bang them together like action figures" isn't how wars are fought anymore.

Weapon 1: the radio

Fortresses haven't been relevant for over 100 years because they are a relic of static warfare. In even mid-20th century mobile warfare, emplacements like these would simply be avoided. Instead, fast-moving vehicle columns would go around (beyond Line-of-Sight or even behind some trees) to strike at the contemporaries' command centers and supply chains.

If this thing was a conventional super-gun, it would still be a little bit scary because forward observers could radio back with the vehicles' positions, and triangulate bombardments. But the contemporaries don't have technology. The effectiveness of the laser cannon is only ever equal to the operator's ability to identify and prioritize targets.

Weapon 2: one single missile

The 50-100km range is less than a ship-based missile. The missile has over-the-horizon targeting capability and is mounted on a mobile platform, while the laser cannon is fixed in place. If the position really needs to be taken, a guided missile destroyer can sail by and obliterate its position before the cannon's operator knows there's something out there to aim at. The same goes for air-to-ground missiles launched from a plane or a drone.

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As others have stated, large, stationary artillery platforms for the magic weapons would be relatively easy to avoid or outright destroy with modern technology. However, this absolutely does not make the contemporaries defenceless, or an easily defeated opponent. By prioritising smaller artillery weapons (e.g. analagous cannons or Large Machine Guns) which could be readily transported and enclosed in fortified emplacements, the contemporaries could greatly increase their strength and effectiveness in battle. These fortified positions would need to relocate often and would need to be relatively small.

I imagine that both sides would be forced into certain tactics: The Conventionals would be unable to utilise any sort of large battleship (or any tank at all) due to the ease with which they could be destroyed by a single lone operator, and so their main offensive force would consist of troops and aircraft. They would be likely to heavily harden their borders, focusing on monitoring and detection of enemy forces with followup by long range artillery, with heavy reliance on snipers or covert drones to pick off lone operators within their territory.

The contemporaries: Due to missiles and long range artillery, they would quickly learn to disperse and decentralise their population centres and manufacturing corps across all of their territory. Luckily for them, they would be resistant to enemy occupations (which would normally be a weakness for decentralised militaries), as their weaponry is massively effective against defensive positions, meaning lost territory would be swiftly and soundly reclaimed.

To further discuss the dynamic between the two powers, it will be necessary to discuss the main weapons of the Conventional armies:

Mobile Rocket Launchers: The M142 HIMARS is an advanced light multiple-missile-launcher. Its range can be anywhere from 9 to 500 km based on the rocket, although it can only carry a few rockets. It is highly effective at destroying hardened targets from great distances, having being used by Ukraine to destroy Russian munitions storage facilities, slowing the Russian shelling of certain territories. Its use is reliant on communication with target acquisition and tracking systems.

Drones: Drones would be one of the most formidable weapons available. The most advanced drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper from General Atomics, can stay airborne for 30+ hours, and can perform a variety of functions such as assisting ground troops and locating and destroying enemy ground forces. It can also operate at 15km altitude, making it incredibly difficult to see and hit, especially with subpar targeting and low projectile speed. These drones could also assist various long-range weapons systems such as the HIMARS, potentially allowing the Conventionals to continuously push into enemy territory by allowing them to use their rocket launchers and artillery to their full potentials.

Fighter Jets: I don't imagine fighter planes would be overly useful. In the absence of enemy aircraft and (presumably) naval forces, they would not be any different from manned drones, locating and destroying large vehicles. However, they would be less effective than drones, being unsuited for guerilla warfare, air support of troops or defense of fortified positions. Fighter jets would likely go out of favour, with preference for manned and unmanned drones in their place.

Large Planes: These will most likely see continued use, with high-altitude planes dropping explosives or firebombs and whatnot. Due to decentralisation, they likely wouldn't be a decisive factor - Just a tool to reduce ground cover and hurt enemy morale. They also probably wouldn't see use unless the conventionals were driven by desperation or lack of ethical compass, due to the certainty of civilian deaths.

Given the effectiveness of drones and artillery when used in conjunction, it would be necessary for the Contemporaries to employ the use of magic outside of the plasma lasers. This could be:

  1. weather manipulation, such as intense electrical or geomagnetic storms (to interfere with GPS operation)
  2. Weather manipulation to bring about fog or thick clouds to interfere with visuals
  3. A relatively simplistic technology to exploit the plasma weaponry to produce powerful noise on the GPS bands.

Without any of these, the Contemporaries would be at a significant, possibly insurmountable disadvantage, and would likely be progressively bombed out of defensive positions of the frontlines and pushed further back due to their range constraints, eventually resulting in total occupation (Although the Conventionals would likely face deadly guerilla retribution for years afterward). As such, the Conventionals may resort to genocide and forceful cultural assimilation.

In summary, the Conventionals would be able to obtain victory without desigining any new weapons through the strategic use of existing technologies. It is the Contemporaries who would need a new technology or technique to counter their enemies. Weather magic would be a suitable and relatively plausible capability to level the playing fields, allowing disruption of air currents, camouflage and other benefits. Another option could be some sort of mystical 'warding spell' which could disrupt or block GPS.

Hope that helps!

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  • $\begingroup$ Great Answer! It's very helpful, I appreciate it! $\endgroup$
    – Dakka
    Jan 9 at 19:34
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Economy

Each side have access to some fearsome weapons.

It is easy to believe that the side with the scariest weapon wins. However, that is usually not the case.

Instead it is the side with the most weapons that usually wins. (For some suitable definition of "the most")

In addition to the weapons themselves, there are also ammunition and of course just plain old people. Guns don't fire themselves.

There are several ways of having the most. At the start of war, having prepared stores of weapons/ammo/trained soldiers gives an advantage. A well planned surprise attack can give a further advantage.

If the war drags on, it becomes more a matter of production capacity, especially for ammo. At this point it gets important how much these big weapons cost. And the answer tend to be "too much". The resources are often better spent producing large numbers of smaller weapons.

And what is production capacity? In addition to mines and factories, it is also workers. How big are the populations fighting?

At last there is the matter of fighting will. Are people willing to send their young ones to die on the battlefield? Are they willing to work continuous grueling overtime to produce more bullets? Are civilians willing to starve so that the soldiers can eat?

So, what I am basically saying is that the actual weapons aren't all that important.

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Pax Armada

There is no armor or bunker that is going to stop a mix of Adava Kedavra and a kamehameha.

But by the same measure, unless magic also renders those wizards indestructible, they are as tough as regular humans.

When they use their beam thingie, respond in accordance with the scale of the destruction they caused, then up the ante. They kill a guy? You kill a handful mages with guns. They destroy a house, you deploy napalm on their school castle. They sink an aircraft carrier, you bring in the nukes.

If both sides don't destroy the heck out of each other in a few hours, you can count on decades of peaceful cold war. Might have to deal with proxy wars elsewhere though.

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Weapons technology can be described as what defences it makes obsolete.

You are describing people who are more advanced than our modern technology level -- they have fusion reactors.

Modern military technology makes chemistry based defences obsolete. If your target is held together by chemistry - chemical bonds - then our weaponry can destroy it.

Now, this is unconstrained war. Most war in the last 70 year hasn't been total war of industrialized high tech nations, because total war in the modern era is too scary.

So most battles are fought using tweaked early 20th century technology - infantry, armored cars, bullets, radio, and advancements on same, and not nuclear weapons.

Even there, defences based on chemistry don't work. Delivering enough kinetic energy to destroy any structure or armor is a logistics problem, not a science or serious engineering one.

The way early 20th century defences worked was to use gravity-based defences. You pile stuff up thick enough, and support it via gravity, and then when the enemy pounds on it it doesn't instantly fall apart.

This early 20th century weaponry, used in non-total wars today, has been perfected, as using it is socially acceptable compared to real weapons (nuclear and thermonuclear bombs).

As killing anything that you know its location is easy, this is an information battle. Stealth to prevent them from knowing where you are, satellites and sensors, to see where they are, weapons that can take hard targets out from the other side of the world.

Your soldiers carry enough firepower to deal with everything smaller than a main battle tank (and today, they can also take out those), and communication gear to call in help for anything more threatening (squads of tanks, aircraft, etc). Defences are still gravity-fortifications, together with hidden mines (information gap!) and active spotting.

Enemies who cannot match the information processing capabilities of the modern force are mincemeat; kill ratios of 20:1 or higher are common.

Practical defences against this involve hiding among civilians, which is why it is so popular among non-industrial state actors. Again, this is an information battle; the attacker won't find it difficult to kill you and every civilian you are hiding with, but the information difficulty is distinguishing you from the civilians to only (or mostly) kill the enemy combatants.

None of the magic weapons you described can defeat gravity-based fortifications. None of them have better information based capabilities than modern weaponry.

The best they could do using weapons like you describe is hide among civilians that the modern military force doesn't want to kill.

Now, invisibility? Stealth? Confusing? Spells that seek out targets based on their description? Curses that make it impossible to enter an area without permission? Those are all information warfare weapons. Those would be dangerous.

Your mach 4 heat beams might be worth replacing the guns on an escort cruiser with, but we'd couple them with modern radar and targeting gear to make them terrifying line of sight 360 by 180 degree dominance (to orbit!). Aimed manually, they don't really look that scary.

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    $\begingroup$ "Weapons technology can be described as what defences it makes obsolete." No, absolutely not. This is the mistake everyone keeps making. "Oh, the infantry is obsolete, because barbwire and machinegun". "Captital ships are obsolete because of torpedo boats". "Tanks are obsolete because of missiles"... and so on. No, a system becomes obsolete when another system has the same or better capabilities , when something else can take its role . Case in point. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jan 9 at 8:55

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