With friends like these, who needs the Lannisters?

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the already aired episodes in season 7 of Game of Thrones.
With the seventh season of HBO's Game of Thrones at its halfway point, Westeros is at war yet again. In the last two episodes (episodes 3 and 4), the forces aligned with Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister have met upon the fields (and seas) of battle at last. Things have not gone entirely according to plan for either side.

In fact things have gone so wrong, so fast that I thought it might be time to convene the Ars Technica Board of Fictional Military Historic Analysis—with its charter members, Jon Nichols and Steve Skaggs, two special operations professionals now in the private sector—in order to dive in on the biggest blunders and curious command decisions from both sides.

The short of it? If we were advising Daenerys' side, we'd be making some recommendations on changes to her command staff... and maybe feeding some of her current leadership to those dragons.

If it's not evident already: for those who have not watched the episodes, there are spoilers ahead.

Count all the fails

Up until now, the various factions of Westeros have largely faced each other with masses of infantry and cavalry. With the exception of the tactical nuclear strike (er, use of wildfire) against Stannis Baratheon's invasion fleet at the Blackwater (season 2, episode 9) and the liberal use of special forces (assassins) and backstabbing to generally alter the game, the wars of Westeros have been fought largely in two dimensions. That's over now. In the last two episodes, we've seen sea power and—finally—air power introduced.

Daenerys, however, has started the fight with one dragon tied behind her metaphorical back. Following the military advice of her hand Tyrion Lannister, she resisted the temptation of unleashing "fire and fury" (as Donald Trump might put it) and just vaporizing King's Landing with her dragons. Instead, as persuaded by Tyrion, she relied on allies to set the table for her with a siege of King's Landing while her Unsullied troops went after the allegedly strategic home of the Lannisters at Casterly Rock.

All of this, as bold a stroke as Tyrion probably thought it was, failed. And the failure started with the intelligence the attack was based on.

"If I were the commander here," said Nichols, "I would definitely be firing the intel team." The alleged master spy of master spies, Varys (aka "the Spider"), somehow did not have enough of an intelligence network in place to inform the command staff that:

Casterly Rock had been mined of all its gold, with all its food stores being moved to the capital. The value of the Lannisters' home base was of minimal strategic value.
The bulk of the Lannister forces, reinforced by the turncoat Tarlys, had left Casterly Rock to strike at the Tyrells at Highgarden. This huge movement of troops over a long distance would have required significant logistic support and should have drawn local attention.
It almost makes you think that Varys is working for the other side.

For someone with an insider view of the enemy, Tyrion turns out to be just a shade better than worthless in his own right. He could only really provide terrain intelligence (a secret passage into the keep), and his past pursuits left him wholly ignorant of the ground truth.

But even if the available intelligence was correct, Tyrion's proposed approach was what professionals would refer to as a Terrible Plan. His guidance split Daenerys' forces into three parts and staged two seaborne operations at the same time on opposite sides of the continent without an apparent passing thought to whether they would be opposed. (To get an idea of just how convoluted the plan is, look at a map of Westeros.)

That's despite the fact that both journeys put ships in close proximity to hostile waters. Daenerys' forces passed the coast near King's Landing and (on the west coast) got dangerously close to the Iron Islands, the home of Yara's very angry uncle. Despite past lessons about how effective dragon air power is against enemy shipping (see the epic "Battle of the Bastards" episode), Daenerys is left home to mind the store and have that all-important meeting with Jon Snow.

Ultimately, as "clever" as Tyrion's plan is, it lacks imagination—imagination of what Dany's enemies are willing and capable of doing. Much like General George "Little Mac" McClellan, Tyrion is a master of administration but only a passable strategist. Let's face it: a win against Stannis at Blackwater was not exactly a tribute to his mastery of the domains of combat.

Still more fails, some with sails

Speaking of mastery, Yara and Theon make for a pretty awful naval command staff. Their task force with the Sands aboard gets caught offguard and vulnerable because the Greyjoys are lousy at situational awareness. Yara was too busy hitting on Ellaria Sand in her quarters to make sure the watch was properly set. They're fully under attack from Euron's fleet before they're even aware of what's going on.

There's actual historic precedence for this nighttime route: 75 years ago, on the night of August 8-9, 1942, the Imperial Japanese fleet dealt a crushing blow to American and Australian naval forces in the Battle of Savo Island. The Japanese fleet caught the allies by surprise and took four heavy cruisers and two destroyers out of action, creating what's now known as "Ironbottom Sound."

Speaking of iron bottoms, Daenerys' other fleet successfully lands the Unsullied at the Lannisters' doorstep during this time. But as soon as the reverse-Trojan-horse trick is sprung on Greyworm and company ("Where's the rest of them?"), the ships that brought them are being set afire by Euron's Sunset Sea task force. With no supply line, no food, and no enemy, the Unsullied are left stranded on their beachhead waiting for relief.

Honestly, though, where did Euron get all those ships from so quickly?

To cap it all off, Lady Olenna Tyrell—the one not-an-idiot ally that Dany apparently has—happens to also be the weakest militarily. Even though Highgarden is in close proximity to the Lannisters, there's no discussion of contingency planning if the Lannisters decide to attack them. Thus, the Tyrells can't stand up against an assault on their home that they should have seen coming, and Jaime Lannister's forces (aided by the former Tyrell bannermen, the Tarlys) score a major strategic victory, seizing gold and supplies that will be essential for sustaining a fight.

By the end of episode 3, Cersei has blunted Dany's momentum, essentially removing all of her allies from the field. All the Targaryen-side is left with are the Dothraki horde and her dragons.

Which, as it turns out, appears to be plenty.

Air power, with scales

Apparently, Dany is the actual tactical genius, fully comprehending how to fuse ground and air power. While some questioned why the Dothraki were even needed to take on the sitting-duck Lannister troops and loot wagon train, as Steve Skaggs pointed out, "their cavalry charge was a psyop."

The sound of rumbling hooves just over the rise throws the Lannister/Tarly forces into a panic as they scramble to prepare. This is not the sort of enemy the Lannisters (nor anyone in Westeros) are used to facing.

Things already look bad for Jaime Lannister's forces before Dany engages from the air. The Dothraki are highly mobile and capable of quickly outflanking static lines of infantry. It turns out they can even provide their own sort of ranged attack, with archers firing volleys of arrows while standing on horseback (totally uncalled for—the Mongols did it better by circling enemy formations and firing while seated).

But then the Dothraki actually charge horses against the Lannister lines, because charging unarmored horses into a phalanx of pikes makes perfect sense—at least if the intent was to have the Dothraki act as a "fixing force" that prevents the enemy from moving away from the engagement. The assault lines up the Lannisters in perfect formation for mass destruction from the air.

The producers of Game of Thrones have said that they saw the dragon's role as being equivalent to an F-16 showing up on a medieval battlefield. Really, Dany's dragon mount is more like an Apache helicopter gunship, flying relatively low and slow and "potentially [being] vulnerable to the equivalent of an RPG [rocket propelled grenade]," Jon Nichols pointed out. Even so, the results of the dragon attacks on the Lannisters are comparable to the Highway of Death, the stretch of road from Kuwait City to Iraq that became a killing ground for Iraqi troops and their vehicles as they retreated during the Gulf War.

A lucky(?) shot

Soon enough, the Lannister-version of an RPG comes into play. As Jaime's troops are being set ablaze, he dispatches the former sell-sword Bronn to unleash what the Lannisters hope is their trump card: the "scorpion," a sort of medieval anti-aircraft weapon. Bronn manages to score a hit, but it's a Pyrrhic victory—the dragon torches the scorpion as it lands. There's some relief for the remaining Lannister forces, but they're still in total disorder and being mopped up by the Dothraki.

As Jaime charges trying to spear Dany as she tends to her dragon's wound, Bronn saves his bacon again by knocking him from his horseback just as the dragon cuts loose, roasting their horses as the two fall into the Blackwater Rush. The episode ends with Jaime sinking under the weight of his armor, troops who drowned trying to avoid the dragon's flames around him.

So within a single battle, Dany has taken back the momentum lost from all her side's previous miscalculations. However, she's also managed to destroy war material, food, and supplies her forces could've claimed and will sorely need.

We predict Dany will lose one dragon before it's all over now that the scorpion has shown its sting. Perhaps Bran Stark will "worg" into another dragon's head and become a magical drone pilot. And we predict the Dornish will continue to wage a guerrilla war against Cersei that will carry undertones of Afghanistan. And on top of these main conflicts, of course, those White Walkers remain waiting in the wings ready to ruin everyone's plans.