In case you haven’t heard, “Game of Thrones” returns to HBO on Sunday for its final six episodes. Political science has had a lot to say about the series, from alliance politics in the War of the Five Kings to questions of gender and regime type. It can also help us understand the role of the show’s three dragons: Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion.
George R.R. Martin, the author of the books that inspired the TV series, once referred to dragons as the “nuclear deterrent” of Westeros. In this view, dragons, like nuclear weapons, deter others from attacking, because they can cause mass destruction by raining fire from above. As we saw in the last season, Jamie Lannister hesitated to take his army to war against Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon-outfitted forces, since doing so would have resulted in large-scale carnage.
However, if we look closely at actual uses of dragons, we find that they more closely resemble conventional air power, as we explain below.
Dragons are used on the battlefield — not just for deterrence
The idea behind nuclear deterrence is that nuclear weapons are so destructive that simply threatening to use them, implicitly or explicitly, prevents others from attacking you — so they never actually have to be used.
But that’s not how things go with dragons.
Our team analyzed data on the political-military use of dragons in the “Game of Thrones” universe, collecting information on nearly 100 battles across the TV show and books. Dragons were used in 26 percent of these battles.
Those who had dragons used them in three main ways.
First, dragons were deployed to support troops on the battlefield — “close air support,” in military parlance — half the time. For example, in the Battle of the Goldroad (Season 7, Episode 4), better known as the “Loot Train” battle, Daenerys rides Drogon to destroy the Lannister forces that sacked Highgarden. But they’re not used alone; they’re air support for Dothraki riders, Daenerys’s mounted cavalry.
Second, dragons were used in strategic bombing campaigns against castles or cities to achieve some political goal nearly 38 percent of the time. For instance, as described in “The World of Fire & Ice,” Aegon the Conqueror used the dragon Balerion to burn Harrenhal and kill his adversary King Harren during the Conquest.
Third, in about 13 percent of cases, dragons were used in air-to-air combat against opposing dragons — primarily in the Dance of the Dragons, a Westerosian civil war about 175 years before the events depicted in the TV show.
Nuclear weapons, by contrast, primarily serve as a deterrent. They have not been used in combat since the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Dragons are less destructive and more vulnerable than nuclear weapons
Just one nuclear weapon causes massive devastation. The bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, known as “Little Boy,” killed or injured an estimated 136,000 people. Conventional bombings can inflict lots of carnage, too — but not as swiftly. The U.S. bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, one of the most destructive conventional bombing raids ever, involved 325 bombers.
Dragons are more like conventional air power, requiring many passes to deliver destruction — much as an air force sends out many bombers on bombing runs. For example, in the Field of Fire battle that consolidated Aegon’s Conquest, Aegon used the three Targaryen dragons to compensate for the numerical inferiority of his ground forces.
Dragons are also more vulnerable than nuclear weapons. There exists no defense against a nuclear weapon — only against the methods that deliver them, such as missiles, bombers or submarines. Dragons, however, like bombers, are vulnerable to anti-air attacks, such as Scorpion artillery pieces, which resemble enormous crossbows. A Dornish scorpion brought down the dragon Meraxes during the First Dornish War. And in Season 7 Episode 6, The Night King uses the most accurate javelin toss ever to kill the dragon Viserion.
Dragons don’t create mutually assured destruction
Until very late in last season, Daenerys’s forces had a decided edge against all other armies because she possessed the only three known living dragons. But the Night King has a dragon as well, which he acquired by killing and then raising Viserion from the dead. And as season 7 ended, Viserion’s blue flames destroyed a portion of the Wall, changing the balance of power.
What does this mean for peace and stability in Westeros?
Many believe that nuclear weapons bring stability through mutually assured destruction (MAD) — the idea that since war between two nuclear-armed adversaries would destroy both, each side avoids picking a fight. According to this view, MAD explains why the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union did not turn hot.
However, MAD will not work in Westeros. Armies can limit the damage caused by a dragon with Scorpion bolts or another dragon, so mass destruction is hardly inevitable. And the Night King seems bent on war regardless of how many casualties his undead army may suffer. Even if he were not, Cersei Lannister has made clear that she’s prepared to fight with her mercenary army for continued power. At least one major war is coming.
What will it look like? In season 2 (A Clash of Kings in the books), Daenerys has a vision in the House of the Undying that shows a destroyed, snow-topped Iron Throne room in King’s Landing. Many other visions have come to pass; this one may as well. But if it does, what burns the roof off the throne room? A dragon is most likely, though either Daenerys or the Night King could pilot the attack.
Whatever Season 8 has in store, remember that dragons, like any form of air power, cannot win a war alone. Simply having the most destructive weapon in the land doesn’t guarantee political victory. That requires an army that can take and hold territory. Like everyone else watching, our question is: Whose will it be?
Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz) is professor of political science and the associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.
Matthew Fuhrmann (@mcfuhrmann) is professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
The authors would like to thank Lauren Kahn, Ali Khambati and Alexander Rabin for their research assistance.