The Smithsonian Channel recently published a video purporting to describe what would happen in a confrontation between a dragon and an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter. They are dead wrong. Here’s what would actually happen.
A couple of caveats first:
- I am assuming the conditions of the dragon as specified by the video. Change the conditions of the dragon and the outcome changes, naturally. But…
- I am leaving magic aside and assuming an organic beast. Look, if you add magic into the system then the winner of the fight is whomever the author in question wants to win and the rules of the magical system can be jiggered to be whatever they need to be to assure that outcome.
Despite caveat #1, the case I outline below effectively applies to any conceivable organic creature that is recognizable as what we would call a dragon.
Despite caveat #2, the dragon as posited in this video is not actually possible without magic. It’s capabilities as an animal defy known limits of both biology and physics. For the sake of argument, and for a fun blog post, we will ignore this. The video itself, although it doesn’t explicitly state it, implicitly clearly assumes no magic and is trying to posit a, “what if this creature existed in the real world” scenario. We will take it on its own terms.
More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine
The primary problem with claims such as those made in this video is that they are made by people who do not understand the raw destructive power of the weapons they describe. More fundamentally, they lack an understanding of the relevant biology and physics.
This is pretty easy to sympathize with. Most of us are not biologists, physicists or weapons designers. Our military represents a very small portion of our population, and most of us have never served in it and directly experienced these weapons. On the other hand, most of us have at least a little bit of experience reading or watching fantasy stories that involve magic and dragons. Hollywood – the prime source of most people’s knowledge of the military – doesn’t understand the military weapons any better than the average civilian. So we have an opinion that is a bit skewed toward these things.
There’s another issue. Past a certain point, unless we can put direct metrics on it and quantify it, the human brain starts lumping all massively destructive things together into one category: really destructive things. So fighter jets and tanks and attack helicopters and dragons all kind of get stuck together in our heads. Unless we quantify it.
And once we quantify it, a different story altogether emerges. The reality is that modern weaponry has far surpassed just about anything you’ll ever see in any fantasy story ever written. The frightening magical weapons of yore just aren’t all that impressive compared to modern military capabilities. But most of us don’t realize it.
On to the details.
As the video states, the Apache carries two primary weapon systems: an M230 chain gun and the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Either one of these systems is sufficient not just to defeat the dragon but to turn it into a pool of goo. Here’s why.
The M230 Chain Gun
The M230 chain gun fires 30x113mm rounds at a rate of 625 rounds per minute. The Apache carries 1200 rounds for this weapon. Just so that you can get a visual, here’s what a 30mm round looks like.
(Note – I am unclear on the exact round here. It is a 30mm round, but it might not be a 30×113 as fired by the M230. It is very similarly sized, though, and serves as a good visual reference.)
In case you weren’t clear on it, that thing is huge. When fired by the M230 that massive round leaves the barrel at 2,641 feet per second. That’s right – half a mile every second, or more than twice the speed of sound. Now, the kinetic energy on that round is crazy. One or two rounds would liquify a human being on impact on that basis alone.
But the kinetic energy is only part of the fun here, because the Apache is likely to be firing the M789 HEDP (High Explosive Dual Purpose) round. Yup – high explosive. That round is specifically designed to explode inside its target (via a delayed impact fuse).
Oh, and the effective firing range on this weapon is 1,640 yards – or 0.93 miles. The Apache is shooting one thousand, two hundred of these things at our dragon from nearly a mile away.
This chain gun is designed to be an anti-armor weapon. In other words, it’s designed to take out heavily armored tanks. That dragon isn’t merely Swiss cheese. It’s a puddle of glop.
The AGM-114 Hellfire Missile
The video is joking, right?
The Hellfire missile has been known to successfully disable an M1 Abrams main battle tank (friendly fire incident in the first Gulf War in 1991). Now, for those who are uninitiated…
The M1 Abrams features reactive armor made from depleted uranium – one of the densest elements known to man. Sixty tons of it. Remember that number because we’re going to come back to it when we talk dragon flight characteristics later on. The M1 Abarms is pretty much the most heavily armored beast ever to hit a battlefield. And Hellfire took it down.
The final scene in our video shows the Apache firing all sixteen of its Hellfires at the dragon. Good luck finding any parts of the dragon after that.
Oh, and you think the 1,640 yard standoff range of the chain gun gave the Apache an advantage? The Hellfire’s effective range is five miles, which it will be covering at a speed of 995 miles per hour. In other words, it will close that entire distance in less than 20 seconds. That poor dragon doesn’t even know what vaporized it.
Here is a video that shows, as the title says, an absolutely typical Apache attack with Hellfire and 30mm gun. Pay particularly close attention to what happens to the pickup truck.
Dragon Flight Characteristics
The final consideration: if the dragon is capable of flight, that puts some serious constraints on it. Specifically, it must maintain a given lift-to-weight ratio or it will never, ever get of the ground. Given the basic configuration of a dragon, it’s primary lift source is its wings. And from the size of the wings, we can put an upper end limit on the amount of lift generated. And it’s not pretty.
We have a lot of physical examples of this in the real world. In order to fly, birds have various weight-saving features: hollow bones, hollow feathers. Most of their size is actually feather mass, which is seriously light.
Now, hollow bones are pound for pound stronger than non-hollow bones. But nevertheless, by making them hollow, strength is sacrificed in order to make them far lighter. That’s why the story of nursing a bird with a broken wing back to health is a common one that many of us have heard. Those hollow bones break easily.
Remember that depleted uranium armor we mentioned up above? Seriously tough stuff, right? The drawback is that it’s heavy. The C-17 Globemaster is one of the largest cargo planes ever built. It was specifically designed to airlift the M1 Abrams. It generates a lot of lift, largely due to it’s colossal size and gargantuan wingspan. It’s 174 feet long and 170 feet in wingspan. If you’ve ever seen one in person (I have) it’s truly awe inspiring for its size.
It can carry one M1 Abrams. Because the tank is so stupidly heavy.
If our dragon is going to fly, it has to have weight limits. Now, as I mentioned way back at the beginning of this post… people with far superior aeronautical knowledge to my own have already analyzed the traditional European dragon design and concluded that it could never fly anyway. The wings don’t generate enough lift to get the body off the ground. But as I noted above, we’re hand-waving that away for the sake of taking this scenario on its own merits.
If you up-armor the thing to a point where it’s even close to withstanding the weapons noted above then you lose even the benefit of the doubt that we gave it. Our dragon never gets off the ground.
Nevermind the fact that there is nothing known in the organic world that can withstand the weaponry that I described above. Even in the engineered world, there’s not really a lot that can stand up to it. Those things are brutal.
The dragon loses. Period. Full stop. End of story. Any other outcome is, well, fantasy.
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