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Flying Cavalry: A Tactical Guide

So you want to ride a dragon into battle, eh? Take a number, pal. There’s a line that wraps around the earth full of people who want to dig their spurs into a dragon or a griffin or a pegasus or a hippogriff and so on: it might be a long wait. My job here is to have a real conversation with you would-be fly-jockeys about what the heck you’d hope to achieve in the ‘saddle’ of a flying beastie, so pay attention.

What exactly does that guy think he's going to whack with that thing?

What exactly does that guy think he’s going to whack with that thing?

Rule #1: Swords are Mostly Pointless

If you have the idea that you’re going to be lopping off heads with your trust cavalry saber whilst flying about, please report to the medical tent to have your own head examined.

A sword – even a big one – isn’t going to have a blade much over 60″ (and that’s being pretty damned generous). Most single-handed blades will be much less than that. If you’re on the back of a giant dragon or griffon or wyvern, the odds of something ever getting within sword-reach are extremely remote. Why? Well, because the thing you’re on is going to have a wingspan of much, much more than you and your sword can reach. The only way that sword will be useful is if an object somehow gets closer than the flapping wings of your mount. If that happens, you likely have already had a mid-air collision, so the sword is sort of useless by then.

Instead, practice your aim with a crossbow, get good at throwing javelins, see about using a bow (good luck with that – see below), or learn to throw fireballs or something. Better yet, if your mount is one of those fearsome aerial predators, try teaching it to be the weapon. Waaay more efficient that way, and it leaves both your hands free for holding on to something.

Rule #2: Don’t Fall Off

This would seem to go without saying, but it seems to happen all the time anyway. The saddle you use should do more than a simple horse saddle – we’re talking about something more like a cross between a gondola and a roller-coaster seat. You should be strapped into that shit. Tied down. Everything from the waist down should be secure. Lots of hand-holds, not just one lousy pommel. Given the speeds and angles at which aerial combat seems likely to occur, you want to make for damned certain that you are not falling off your mount. Unlike a horse, where being able to leap free of a falling horse is an important survival tactic, any fall from the back of a flying griffon is worse than falling with the griffon. So, safety first: strap in, boys.

Maiming the critter so it can only fly with your assistance is a pretty solid plan.

Maiming the critter so it can only fly with your assistance is a pretty solid plan.

Rule #3: Control the Beast

Let’s give some serious thought here as to how we are going to get this multi-ton flying monstrosity to listen to your commands because, let’s face it, if it bends around and bites you, you’re dead. If it decides to fly off into the sunset, you are less than useless. If it doesn’t like you, you’re doomed.

You’ve got a couple options here. Briefly, you’re going to perform some combination of the following: imprint yourself on your mount (raising your baby dragon from birth as its mother), create some kind of elaborate harness to give it orders (spurs and reigns might not do it, depending on size and anatomy of the beast), utilize magic/supertechnology to somehow meld your mind with its own (e.g. the Na’vi), or clip its wings in such a way that the only way it can fly is with your say-so/assistance. There might be other methods, too, but those seem the easiest and most practical. Of note, extremely intelligent mounts (like those capable of speech, etc.) are much more dangerous than those that are more like animals. Don’t ride dragons that talk unless you and the dragon have a good working relationship. Sometimes not even then.

Rule #4: Consider Upkeep

Keeping a hippogriff is no easy task. You think horses are hard to care for? Try taking care of something that expects to eat 600 pounds of raw meat a day. Sure, an angry horse can kick you to death, but it doesn’t see you as a snack, at least. You’re going to need a team of handlers, a secure ‘sable’ (or paddock or rookery or Pit of Despair or whatever) to keep it from eating local schoolchildren, and lots and lots of its preferable food. Not feeding a carnivorous mount is a great way to lose fingers, arms, and heads.

Rule #5: Is This Even Worth It?

Given the expense and risk of training these mounts, you’re going to have to ask yourself what they grant you. Aerial cavalry is fast, but unless your mount breathes fire, the kind of offensive output you can expect is limited. A griffon that tries to engage land targets is going to wind up grounded if for no other reason than it will quickly be injured by concentrated blocks of troops. A non-fire breathing dragon can be expected to eat a fair number of enemy combatants and instill fear into the enemy soldiers, but it’s only a few ballista bolts away from doomed (and, once injured, you can’t reasonably expect to control these things as well). Additionally, give some thought to range. Given the apparati needed to maintain such a beast, you can’t reasonably bring it along with a marching army – the supply train would quickly get ridiculous, and some of these beasts might need certain assistance getting airborne with a rider + armor + weapons, not to mention the potential psychological impact on your fellow soldiers.

To this end, barring the occasional super-huge fire-breathing dragon of doom, your run-of-the-mill pegasi, hippogriffs, griffons, and wyverns would probably best be employed defensively. If stationed at a watchtower or similar, they could quickly and easily patrol open ground much better than cavalry. Likewise, they would be adept at picking off small enemy parties, chasing down enemy scouts, and harassing the flanks of advancing armies. During siege situations, they could be used to transport some small quantity of supplies and personnel into and out of the citadel in question, not to mention making it possible to stage raids upon the besieging force. Will they wipe out entire enemy armies? Well, probably not. That said, they could be quite useful and effective provided you can afford the expense of keeping them.

So, buck up, would-be aero-knights! Someday you, too, could fly bloodthirsty aerial predators for the purpose of knocking over half-built siege engines while enduring a rain of enemy arrows. Ah, the glory!

How to Execute a Proper Portal Attack

Saw The Avengers finally last night. Great superhero movie – tons of fun, lots of good stuff for comic book fans, enough for non-fans to enjoy, and with snappy dialogue and good pacing. A popcorn movie, certainly – nothing terribly profound or emotionally compelling about the whole thing – but the exact kind of movie the big screen does so well.

There are a number of tactical liabilities to bringing space jet-skis to bear on NYC.

Anyway, it isn’t a spoiler for me to point out that, at some point in the movie, a whole bunch of bad guys attack New York city from a portal they open above it. If you’ve seen the previews, you can surmise as much. It also isn’t much of a spoiler for me to reveal that, through much trial and tribulation, the Avengers win the day and the portal assault fails. This failure, however, I feel has as much to do with poor planning on Loki’s part as it does with the interference of the Avengers. Indeed, Loki is committing the same errors that every portal assault plan executed by every alien/extradimensional being has made since they started doing this portal thing.

The Portal’s Advantages

The primary benefit of using a portal to teleport your army into battle is that of surprise. Since you can get your army to show up anywhere, this is a useful way to hit the enemy where and when they least expect it. I suppose, in the long term, it would also serve as a logistical benefit, as well, since supplying your troops could be as easy as trotting down to the Stargate room and lobbing through some sandwiches and spare clips of ammo. Given that I’ve rarely seen a portal assault go well enough for this to come into play, I’ll leave that part by the wayside for the nonce.

Anyway, surprise is great. Surprise can turn a battle in your favor. Surprise is a big deal. Surprise, however, is not the only factor you need to consider. You also need to consider when and how to use surprise to your best advantage. Attacking New York City, for instance, is a crappy place to utilize this surprise attack. Why? Well, New York City isn’t a direct threat to your invasion. It’s not a fortress. It isn’t an armed camp. Hell, the place can’t even feed itself. If you conquer New York City, you don’t ‘win’ the battle for Earth automatically. You definitely ruin the investment portfolios of many millions of people, but that’s much different than conquering the Earth. Plenty of military forces still out there, ready to mess you up.

Besides, attacking New York City from right out of a portal isn’t likely to work, anyway. This, however, speaks to the portal’s various disadvantages.

The Portal’s Disadvantages

Portals suffer from a number of very important disadvantages. First among these is the size of the portals themselves. Typically (such as in the Avengers) they are portrayed as being only large enough to admit a relatively small number of troops at a time. Now, any general will tell you that trickling your forces through a narrow space into a hostile landing zone is a great way to get yourself walloped, as the Persians learned at the Battle of Thermopylae. This is part of the reason why amphibious assaults are such dicey propositions and require so many resources to successfully execute – you’ve only got so many guys in so many boats. Each boat you lose means you lose a proportionally large part of your assault force.

Related to this, portals also suffer from the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem. If you’ve only got one portal and the enemy closes that portal, you instantly lose the battle. Bummer. Why, then, do the bad guys always seem to open these portals in places that are easily accessible to the enemy, in positions that allow the enemy to easily engage them, and at times when, far from surprising the defenders, gives them sufficient time to organize a counter-attack?

Well, bad planning, obviously.

How to Do it Right

If you want to bring in your otherworldly invasion force through rifts in space/time, then I have some advice for you:

  1. More than One Portal: You are going to need more than one portal to deliver your forces. These portals need to be operated in a decentralized fashion – i.e. if one is taken out, the others still work. This kind of redundancy is crucial in warfare, and why the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in lots of little boats instead of one big giant boat.
  2. Establish Beachhead/Regroup Forces/Invade World: Don’t have your alien locust swarm stumble in all disorganized and piecemeal right into the jaws of the enemy. Pick a better spot–one softened up beforehand somehow, or one that is relatively undefended. Move your whole damned army through after your shock troops punch a hole, get everybody organized, and then attack all together at the target of your choosing. For this to work, you need to put your portal somewhere less obvious than, I don’t know, floating in the sky above the most populous city in the US. Idiots.
  3. Set Realistic Early Invasion Goals: Conquering a city of millions takes a lot of time, no matter how many damned space jet-skis and aero-whales you have. You aren’t going to conquer the place in an afternoon. Probably not even for a week. Pick something else. I’d, personally, advise ambushing the forces most likely to toss you back through the portal. SPOILERS: I suppose Loki was going for that in the movie when he took on SHIELD HQ, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. That would have been a much better place to open the portal on or near–then you can use your space-whales to eat the main threat without the distraction of shooting random people going to the mall. Once you’d focused your power on eliminating them, then you can worry about conquering New York.

So, there you have it. The best way to use your portals is to use them carefully and, ultimately, with a mix of caution and long-term goals in mind. Shock-and-Awe only works if you are dropping hundreds of portals producing hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the mix, so if that’s not in the cards, don’t try it.