Dracarys: How Would A Dragon Fare On A Modern Battlefield?

Every week, we get to see dragons dominate the battlefields of Westeros. But how would they fare against modern armies?
Drogon making short, flammable work of the Lannister army during the Battle of Tumbleton. (Game of Thrones)

Drogon making short, flammable work of the Lannister army during the Battle of Tumbleton. (Game of Thrones)

There are few ideas more enduring in human mythology than dragons, with every civilization having some sort of giant, scaly, fire-breathing dinosaur-lizard tale. Obviously, they’re not real, more than likely based on dinosaur fossils dug up by our curious ancestors. Breathing fire would be pretty much impossible, and they would have to be a lot leaner than the monsters of our fantasies, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to fly should anything even remotely close to them ever have evolved.

But, for a little while, let’s pretend that dragons exist and we managed to domesticate them. How powerful of a weapon would they be in modern times? They’re unlikely to be more than annoyed by bullets, and they are smart, able to maneuver to hit tactical targets with the precision of living missiles. Certainly, we could put them to work in an air force and employ them for special operations and complicated aerial tasks.

So could they be game-changers on a future battle field in, say, the Pacific Rim the same way they are in the fictional realm of Westeros?

Well, let’s consider how they match up against our current arsenal. We have fighter jets, artillery, missiles, nukes, and some pretty damn durable armor. We’d fare quite well against even a swarm of fully grown dragons because while they might look spectacular in a medieval setting of fantasy lands, we’re a lot better armed than any fantasy army nowadays.

Now, that said, dragons would be extremely effective against infantry, even if they’re all wearing fireproof suits. According to fantasy lore, large, older dragons could melt steel — no Alex Jones fans, dragons disguised as a group of commercial airplanes didn’t do 9/11 — and that means that any armored troop carrier or tank would quickly become a deathtrap where soldiers are cooked alive before their vehicle starts resembling a used candle. The scales on their massive bodies would be like a plane’s armor so they could do their damage almost unscathed while troops below run for cover.

On a technical note, there’s a lot of armor plating containing ceramics, which are extremely good at deflecting heat. However, sustained dragon fire would still superheat the interior of the carriers, possibly enough to set off the ammunition inside. If you’re doing anything short of lining your armor in space shuttle tiles and aerogel, dragons would still pose a serious threat to troops on the move. And even then, the soldiers will eventually have to leave their carriers.

Also, let’s note the “almost” part of “almost unscathed” because it’s important. We have powerful armor-penetrating rounds and large caliber ammo. Shot at a dragon by either a sniper or just by chance, they’d make it right through to a vital organ or explode inside their bodies. That said, if they manage to lay down enough suppressive flame to prevent those good or lucky shots, they can inflict plenty of damage and get out before they’re in any serious danger.

Basically, they would fill the same niche as the A-10 Thunderbolt, providing close air support, albeit with much more maneuverability. However, while the A-10 can do an attack run at 436 miles per hour, a dragon’s top speed is just 70 miles per hour.

You could probably outrun one in a decent sedan, so when faced with even the slowest interceptor or bomber, a dragon is toast. They would simply scream by faster than a dragon could actually shoot its stream of fire, much less hit its target for long enough to cause real damage to the airframe. And this is not to mention a jet’s weapons.

In Westeros, the best defense against a dragon is The Scorpion, a massive crossbow that shoots giant arrows and more annoys and stings big dragons than seriously wounds them. Anything short of a massive fighting force full of Scorpions is unlikely to make much of a difference against them. Here in the modern world, we have powerful artillery and missiles that could shred dragons to ribbons. And some of those missiles don’t even have to be fired precisely at the dragons. Heat-seeking missiles would have absolutely zero problems finding and destroying them from a dozen miles away.

Dragons have to be warm blooded, otherwise, they would take all day to get warmed up enough to move their muscles and fly, not to mention that every bit of dragon lore refers to them as “fire made flesh” and so, missiles would have an easy time finding them. The only defense they might have is armor made of stealth coating to break up their radar signatures, but if a missile is even close to them when it detonates, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t end up mortally wounding a targeted dragon. It wouldn’t even be able to fight back against the incoming warheads, as basic physics dictates.

No matter how hot a dragon’s fire, it still has to hit a missile for enough time to actually impart the thermal energy required to melt it enough to destroy it or make it go off course. So even if there’s a relatively slow missile coming directly at one, by the time it could react and send a plume of flame to hit it dead center, by the time the fire starts having even the slightest effect on the missile’s jacket, it would have long hit the dragon in question, killing it with its kinetic energy alone. This would actually make dragons totally useless for any form of missile defense despite their intelligence and flying ability.

Modern missile defense technology can intercept an ICBM or its short range variants in space, knocking it out mid-flight. Dragons could only intercept one at extremely low altitudes after the missile has completed close to 99% of its flight. They might be the size of 747s when fully grown, but they can’t fly nearly as high as one because they’re living things and need to breathe a lot of oxygen to function and the higher you go, the less oxygen there is for living things to breathe. And you don’t even have to go too high up to find the air very rapidly thinning with serious consequences.

Humans function at maybe a fifth of their capacity when ascending Everest, the summit of which is just over 29,000 feet. Dragons would likely need far more oxygen than humans, but let’s assume they have evolved some way of coping with that by either increasing the amount of red blood cells in their circulatory system, or use oxygen more efficiently in those blood cells, a set of adaptations found in humans living in high altitudes in the Andes and in Tibet, respectively. Even then, there’s the issue of how slowly they fly and how much air pressure they need to keep themselves aloft.

As the air gets thinner, they’d need bigger, more fixed wings to keep flying and that’s going to be a massive challenge above 20,000 feet without being a lot faster than 70 miles per hour. In other words, if we want to intercept a missile with anything remotely dragonesque, we’d be far better off sending an interceptor jet armed with a laser. Since that’s not going to help against a missile traveling between 5,000 miles per hour and 15,000 miles per hour, with the apex of its ballistic trajectory very deep in low Earth orbit, a dragon would be far less effective than that.

In other words, even if we had dragons at our disposal, we couldn’t stop a nuclear-tipped missile in flight no matter how hard we tried. They would be impressive as close aerial support for troops on the ground, but that’s about it. The use of dragons in the modern world would most likely be confined to Renaissance fairs where they could offer spectacular shows to attendees and create a whole niche industry of “dragon grilled/roasted” steakhouses and pizzerias. The danger your garden variety dragon poses to John and Jane Q. Public if they ever got loose without proper training means we’re probably better off with them remaining in the realm of fantasy as fiery, spectacular props in your weekly dose of GOT.

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