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This is inspired by a comment (one of the sometimes, drowned out sensible posts) on the Flash Sentry comments thread, wondering why Equestria's guards seem to be so ineffective, indeed rarely even seem to even have weapons of any type.

Royal guard Alicorn id S2E25

Royal Guard Parade

How could it be that what is evidently a dominant civilisation of the world be apparently without any formal defence structure? There are many different answers given by many different fans. It's my view that, on the whole, most of them quickly devolve into a fanon or head-canon of one sort or another.

I thought that we should look at what we know before expressing my own thoughts about what could be.

Equestrian Military in Canon

Royal Guards receiving commands S4E01

Royal Guard Unicorns

The part of the Equestrian military (if there is a structure beyond them) that most fans can immediately name is the Royal Guards. These have been with us from the very start of the show, with ceremonial guards-ponies seen to accompany both Twilight Sparkle on her journey to Ponyville and later escorting Princess Celestia to the Summer Sun Festival. These are distinctive white pegasi and grey unicorns wearing gold-and-blue armour marked with a blue star device on their breast-plates.
Pegasus guard ID S1E22

Royal Guard Pegasi

We later see a distinctly different variant of the guard, sometimes called the 'Night Guard' by fans. These are bat-winged flying ponies with sharp, canine teeth and feline-like eyes; their armour is midnight blue with a cat's eye device in the centre of their breast-plates. These have only been seen once, escorting Princess Luna to Ponyville's Nightmare Night festival; it is not clear if these are a different race of pony or magically-disguised pegasi. If they are ever armed, these ponies seem to use only fairly simple ceremonial spears and even that is very rare.
Luna's guards S2E04

Night Guard VIP escort

As well as these obvious duties as royal bodyguards, the Guard also seem to have a national defence role. The captain of the Royal Guard, Shining Armour, was shown to be responsible for maintaining the defensive shield bubble around Canterlot during the run-up to the abortive Changeling invasion. Additionally, another section of the Guard, the Wonderbolts, are an aerial display team as well as acting as a quick-response strike force (as seen in Secret of my Excess and even more ineffectively in Twilight's Kingdom - Part 2).

However... that very much seems to be it. There has been no sign of a garrison outside of Canterlot, even in disputed frontier colonies like Appleoosia or the cities of the historically-militaristic Pegasi like Cloudsdale. Beyond their role in protecting the royal family, the Guard seem to have no enforcement or broader defensive role. There seems to be no example of the Guard having even the most non-military police role outside of Canterlot or the presence of one of the Princesses.

This odd-seeming anomaly (at least from the eyes of our near-chronically militarised society) was at least partly explained to us in Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3. In this episode, Twilight Sparkle reminds Rainbow Dash of the history of the Guard's aerial display team, the Wonderbolts. She explains that, after Princess Luna was banished to the Moon as a result of her transformation into Nightmare Moon, the ordinary ponies formed the Earth, Unicorn and Pegasi Guard (EUP Guard) to protect Princess Celestia. As far as we can tell from this, this was the first proper military force in the history of the Diarchy of Celestia and Luna. This is astonishing but not as astonishing as the logical inference that come from it: That, prior to Luna's exile, the two alicorns were completely able to defend Equestria unaided.

This seems astonishing right up until when you watch Twilight's duel with Tirek. Suddenly, the thought of two ponies who can protect a kingdom unaided suddenly doesn't seem so ridiculous anymore.

As well as the meta fact that no-one wants an armed military shown in a show aimed at younger children, there is thus an incredible but at-least-consistent explanation for a country whose only military is specifically a bodyguard for its royal family. With this, the reason for their ineffectiveness suddenly becomes plain: they are not particularly well-armed or effective outside fairly low-level threats because, in all likelihood, they are neither trained nor prepared to confront larger threats.

My Fanon Equestrian Military

At least in the history of Earth, a country's military capability is inextricably linked to its technological advancement. All countries will use their most advanced tools to both defend themselves and, on occasion, aggressively impose their policies and interests on others. Therefore, any exploration of what is Equestria's maximum military capability must, automatically, begin with an exploration of their technological (and, in the Ponies' case) magical development.

After looking at Equestria's current technology base, I will then move on to look at what Equestria could bring to the table if this were not a cartoon about the Magic of Friendship and there was a major conventional threat that was not cowed by Celestia and Luna's presumed ability to impose Night Eternal or worse on an aggressor.

Equestrian Technology Base

It is difficult sometimes to make a reasonable judgement as to where Equestrian science and technology stands. Aside from the distorting effect of practical magic being used by most if not all of the population, there is also the fact that the writers aren't even trying to be consistent. The logic of the joke and the necessity of the story are the primary motivators in depiction of Equestrian life.

However, there are some consistent features:

The train pulls into the station S4E24

Equestrian National Railroad locomotive

  • Steam propulsion is common enough and well established enough that anypony seems to be able to afford even a long-distance train fare. Indeed, it is so common that nopony blinks an eye at three fillies travelling transcontinental distances to a different country whilst unaccompanied;
  • Extending from steam propulsion, there seems to be some type of pressurised gas projectile technology in existence, although the only example we've seen is Pinkie's Party Cannon, which could be the isolated one-off product of a maverick genius (yes, I think Pinkie is one of those - if she had more discipline and was less happy being a party planner, she'd be a Spark);
  • Hot air balloons and other lighter-than air aviation is common enough that a small, provincial town has an aviatrix with her own hot-air balloon available for rent; Some very large airships are operational but are rare enough for their launching to be an event in its own right (Sweet and Elite);
    Rarity sends off a flying ship S2E09

    Non-rigid envelope air yacht

  • Construction is sophisticated enough to build skyscraper-class high-rises in some population centres (Rarity Takes Manehattan); This means large-scale civil engineering is common;
  • Basic data recording technology exists in the form of phonograph records (Baby Cakes).

Some of these things are, as I've already noted, somewhat contradictory. However, it is possible to reason around these contradictions.

For example, given the immense strength and endurance of Earth Ponies, I can imagine that there is less persuasive an argument for mechanisation of agriculture than there was in our world. Ponies can out-perform contemporary machinery right up until you are willing to sacrifice quality for speed. Similarly, the creation of heavier-than-air flight is impeded by the existence of Pegasi and the fact that early-generation aerofoil-using aircraft would have generally inferior performance to a trained Pegasi.

From what we've thus seen, I would thus say that Equestria is in the middle-industrial age, similar to the early 1900s in Western Europe and North America. As I said, there are some contradictions but, from what we know, we can make some reasonable conclusions.

Personnel Capabilities

Further enhancing the abilities of Equestria are the immense and largely-untapped power and potential of the ponies' biology and magic.

Despite the traditional view that only unicorns use magic, this is not the case, as is confirmed in Lord Tirek. The pegasi's flight and the earth ponies' strength are both magical in nature. There are also other explicitly-shown magical special abilities.

Hooves - There are several significant anatomical differences between Equestrian ponies and their Earth equivalent. As well as their much larger brains (perhaps three times larger, proportionately), they also have extremely flexible spines and pelvic saddles, enabling them to stand bipedally for some time and even carry out some tasks whilst standing upright. Their hooves also are shown acting as gripping limbs, suggesting that their rear toes are larger than on Earth equines and act as an opposable thumb. In concert with a different geometry to their hooves,this turns the forehoof into a crude but usable gripping pincer.

The dexterity of these pincers is demonstrated in that Applejack and Octavia are both shown using stringed instruments, using hooves to operate a fret-board not unlike that on the human equivalent instruments.

All this means that ponies can use tools in their forehooves as well as in their mouths, although their ability to do so whilst walking is not shown to date.

Earth Ponies

Geokinesis - Maud Pie is shown kicking a rock with enough force to launch it over mid-range ballistic trajectories and with sufficient force for it to create a shock-wave similar to the detonation of at least a kiloton of TNT. Although there is reason to believe that Maud has abnormal abilities that puts her firmly in the metaequine category, there is no reason to believe that other earth ponies cannot do similar but less extreme feats;

Strength - A fairly small team of earth pony stallions is seen towing what must be several hundred tonnes of disabled steam locomotive and train in Over a Barrel and doing so fast and without any indications of serious fatigue;

Plant Magic (Botanoempathy & Botanokinesis) - Although there is some indication that Applejack may be an abnormal case, it's interesting that nopony considered the giant apple she raised in Bats! was particularly remarkable; this implies that, with concentrated use of earth pony magic, abnormally large or fast growth is possible;

Prehensile Tail - This is frequently overlooked but both Applejack and Pinkie Pie have demonstrated using their tail as gripping and manipulating limbs, at least as capable as that of a New World Monkey.

Pegasi

Weather Magic - Pegasi can, in groups, affect large-scale climactic changes. Even individual pegasi are shown as generating rain, hail and lightning from impossibly small cloud masses;

Lifting Force - Several Pegasi have been shown using air magic to lift dead masses over an order of magnitude greater than their own body mass, such as the delivery van in Feeling Pinkie Keen.

Durabiility - Pegasi routinely are shown pulling turns that impose sustained forces of tens of gravities accelerations on their bodies. They are also shown surviving and quickly recovering from fast impacts often with little more than being stunned for a minute or so. It takes a very specific impact to injure one and, even then, only their wings seem to be a serious vulnerable spot.

Unicorns

Telekinesis - All mature unicorns are shown as being able to manipulate objects and move them with remarkable precision using 'magical' energy fields;

Shielding - Although only Shining Armour has been shown as being able to use this spell to date, it is possible that any sufficiently strong unicorn could cast a tactical-level shield bubble capable of protecting a city-sized object from any known attack;

Weather magic - Although not generally being able to manipulate weather on the same scale as pegasi, unicorns are able to do so and generate many similar effects (so long as they have been properly trained);

Additionally, unicorns seem to be able to create almost any effect with their magic with appropriate training. This must necessarily include a wide range of elemental effects including water, earth, fire and air manipulation.

The Equestrian Self-Defence Forces

The Army

Crystal royal guard "a thousand pardons" S4E24

Crystal Imperial army troopers

Although there is no indication that Equestria has hydrocarbon internal combustion engines, the strength of earth ponies probably renders the technology redundant until serious turbine-based applications appear (likely initially in railway locomotion and aerospace). The pony is able to travel long distances at speed and with heavy burdens, including towed carts.

In terms of weaponry, most of the same technological evolution trees likely exist in Equestria. Spears evolve from farming impliments like pitchforks. Swords are descended from harvesting tools like scythes. The longbow and crossbow are hunting tools and, given the nature of some of the predators in Equestria, I find it difficult to believe that all of these applications and more exist. It is extreme speculation to wonder if repeater weapons, even if only kinetic ones (such as those deployed by the Imperial Chinese about 5 centuries ago), exist, although the basic tactical imperatives towards fast-loading and automatic-loading rapid-fire weapons would probably exist.

The apparent existence of a landed nobility (at least in Unicorn-majority areas) and the strongly decentralised feel of the nation (perhaps to the level of city states, given what we saw in the Equestria Games) suggests that any army would be made up of levies from various regions' populations, commanded by locally-sourced officers with only higher-level officers coming from a central command authority, likely Canterlot itself.

The existence of the Party Cannon suggests that some degree of ballistics technology exists. It's difficult to judge whether chemical propellants are used although the fact that Applebloom is studying alchemy suggests that some type of organised chemical research and body of knowledge exists. Because of this, it is not impossible that artillery of some type is possible for Equestria. Even if this is not the case, then scaled-up individual weapons, catapults and other kinetic weapons are more than possible. Additionally, with the ability of earth ponies to launch large rocks long distances and unicorns to generate barrages of magically-generated projectiles and weather effects, Equestria's artillery forces could easily be very alien to our human eyes.

An extremely unlikely but not-impossible technology is steam-propelled armoured vehicles, reminiscent of the Fire Nation's tanks in Avatar - The Last Airbender.

In this event, then a 'combined arms' concept for Equestria's land forces is possible. This would include armoured assault forces, lightly equipped 'ranger' scout/skirmishing forces and more traditional heavy infantry, supported by specially-trained 'battlemage' unicorns and artillery earth ponies. This would also include scouting and battlefield support pegasi, either organically attached to the army divisions or operated by the air force.

Given that ponies have not been shown able to hold items in their hooves and move quickly, it is likely that fast-moving units like the skirmishers will be equipped with harness-mounted weapons like lances and spears. The sword would be difficult to use even when stationary but a pony's strength is enough that their hooves might as well be war-hammers. There is also the possibility of kick-blades and/or spikes in hoof-shoes (Nightmare Moon's armour seems to include those).

The Air Force

Wonderbolts and Pegasi flying toward Tirek S4E25

Pegasi air-to-ground attack

Of all Equstria's likely enemies, only the presumed Griffin Empire has the ability to deploy a large-scale disciplined air corps to confront Equestria's pegasi legions. Because of this, it is unlikely that there is much of a 'fighter' (air defence) element to this force. Most of the arm would be directed towards battlefield support.

This would fall into two basic forms:

  1. Scouting - Lightly-equipped and -armoured units that would be mainly used for finding and characterising enemy units; these would likely use crossbows and swords (including 'wing-blades') for combat
  2. Heavy Attack - Even if Equestria has explosive technology, I can't see it being used often by the pegasi. After all, they can direct tornadoes, hailstorms and precision-targeted lightning against specific targets, meaning that a heavy pegasi attack wing could possibly win a battle all on its own against foes with no meaningful air defence/magical defence capability

Against foes who can also field fliers, I suspect that the main counter-weapon would be the scout forces who would be agile enough in the air to engage other fliers both defensively and offensively. The agility and formation-flying tactics of the Wonderbolts suggests strongly that, at some point in Equestria's history, organised air-to-air combat worked its way into the nation's military doctrine.

I also wonder if pegasi would be capable of carrying unicorn 'gunners' on their backs to use force beams and other magic against both ground and aerial foes.

There is a limit to any pegasi, of course. They cannot fly indefinitely and need to rest and eat. This makes the heavy blimp a possible tool. I can see large airships being used as flying carriers, primarily used as a flying barracks for a pegasi force, with a small defensive compliment of unicorns to act as gunners in the event the ship itself is ever attacked. The blimp, which could easily have intercontinental range, sufficient to to fly a strike package of pegasi or a group of unicorn battlemages to within attack range of any point on the globe to deliver a large-scale surgical attack as needed on any target.

The Navy

Manehattan revealed S4E08

Manehattan Harbour - a significant coastal defence priority

Equestria's coasts have only ever been shown briefly and there is no indication as to whether the nation has any oceanic trade routes to protect. Even if it does not, a coastal defence force at the minimum would be required.

The existence of steam propulsion means that screw- or paddle-powered steam ships are possible. With this load-carrying capability and the use of either magical or physical artillery, there is no reason why Equestria couldn't deploy deep water, coastal and riverine combat vessels as required. Pegasi would be able to act as both carrier-based combat units and long-range scouts.

As discussed above, the main role for such a force would be to protect trade routes, carry large numbers of ponies to other continents for deployment and the protection of friendly coastlines and waterways.

I will not invoke the seaponies here; at this time, there is no evidence that they exist in the Fourth Generation universe.

Royal Guard

Royal Guards at station 2 S2E25

Cross-racial Royal Guard fire team

As well as its ceremonial and VIP guard role, the Royal Guard also would probably serve as the absolute elite unit in the military. Ponies from all three races would train together to engage in limited (and possibly covert) actions against high-value targets. Royal Guard training would emphasise initiative, efficiency and lateral thinking in the face of unusual threats. Like our own SPECOPS units, the 'sharp end' of the Royal Guards (ponies who fight rather than those who just stand around looking intimidating) would be amongst the best-trained and best-equipped ponies on the planet.

'Foreign Legions'

The Equestria Games showed that there is a significant Griffon population in Equestria. There is no reason to believe that other races who live in Equestria are not represented in the military. This would include Griffons, Donkeys, Minotaurs, Diamond Dogs and possibly even Buffalo. All of these would lend their own unique abilities to the Equestrian SDF. For example, Griffons would make excellent heavy air skirmishers. Diamond Dogs ability to tunnel the way humans swim would enable the ability to circumvent or literally undermine any fortification and strong points.

Conclusion

Equestria is mostly a civil and peaceful society. The mass-militarisation of Earth and its runaway pace of military technology development would seem frightening, even barbaric to most Equestrians. Nonetheless, as I have attempted to demonstrate here, there is the potential of a mighty military machine in the magical and physical arts available to the ponies of Equestria. The only thing that these peaceful creatures lack to create such a machine is an aggressive leadership and a need to do so.