Knowing what we do of Pokémon and Trainer culture in setting do you really think modern armies like what Lt. Surge seemed to be apart of would actually make sense in the Pokémon world? I figure any kind of military they’d develop would be more warrior-like than soldier-like given the strength a single skilled trainer can wield with their team.
This has sort of come up a little bit before, and the short answer is that my take on it is… very different. Mostly, I don’t think we should underestimate the degree to which one powerful Pokémon could be fµ¢£ed up by many weaker Pokémon with intelligent leadership and strategy. It seems to me like warfare is basically a thing of the past in the utopian setting of the Pokémon world (except in Ransei, the setting of Pokémon Conquest, which is, like… somehow canonically contemporary with all the other Pokémon games, even though Ransei is clearly based on sengoku-era Japan and uses mediaeval technology; look, I don’t fµ¢£in’ know), and I honestly doubt they’ve ever had a large-scale war with truly “modern” technology (i.e. post-World War II, because Lt. Surge is definitely a WWII veteran and definitely came to Kanto during the post-war American occupation of Japan, which is another whole… thing). I also truly don’t know how Pokémon would stack up against, like, modern firearms and explosives. I think you probably could persuasively argue, depending on which sources and portrayals you look at, either that humans with modern weapons are more reliably lethal than Pokémon and would just shoot them, or that Pokémon would render all human weaponry obsolete. Like, can Psychic Pokémon use telekinesis to block sustained machine gun fire? Will a Steel Pokémon’s skin stand up to a bazooka? (If they could, would those weapons even be used?) I have genuinely no idea, but honestly… my instinct is “probably not.” What’s more, I think if you really pressed Game Freak on it, they’d probably say that it hasn’t come up in a long time because their world is now peaceful (like modern Japan is), and that modern trainers wouldn’t put their Pokémon in harm’s way like that anyway. The point is, I don’t think we’ve ever had a good look at what mass combat involving Pokémon trainers is actually like (again, except Ransei, which honestly seems more like Pokémon trainers LARPing warfare than an actual war – I think deliberately), so anything we say is going to be extrapolation. But let’s assume we’re thinking about war being fought mainly between Pokémon trainers, using Pokémon attacks rather than human weapons. I think the actual rules of the games probably give us reason to be fairly pessimistic about the odds of super-elite Pokémon trainers taking on large numbers of mid-level chumps.
I think the best analogy here is to generation VI’s horde battles, which absolutely can go badly if the horde has some way to exploit their action economy advantage. Five low-level wild Pokémon may not be able to efficiently take down a single high-level enemy by brute strength, but there are lots of effects in Pokémon that don’t care about level disparity. Hordes of wild Pokémon with Sand Attack can be a colossal pain, as can hordes with Growl or even Leer. Of course, you can easily thrash large numbers of weaker opponents by using area-effect attacks like Discharge or Surf… but if those weaker opponents are part of an army with a coherent strategy, then I’ll bet you anything some of those Pokémon will have Wide Guard, Lightningrod or Storm Drain. And there are plenty of other nasty things hordes could theoretically do that would absolutely wreck high-level Pokémon who theoretically have the advantage in brute strength: sources of damage that don’t care about attack or defence stats, like Super Fang, Endeavour and Night Shade; field-wide buffs like Rototiller, Howl and Aurora Veil; Trick Room combined with a barrage of flinch effects like Bite or Air Slash; smart use of weather, terrain and status effects. If your enemies are relying on a small number of very powerful trainers with extremely high-level Pokémon, I think military intelligence is going to be important too – because if you know their teams, you can spam counters. What’s more, because you’re relying on chumps whose training consists of maybe two months of drills, you can adapt and put together new army compositions much faster than they can, in spite of the larger numbers you’re fielding. All that is doubly true if a majority of elite trainers are type specialists (which seems at least plausible).
The obvious counterpoint is that elite Pokémon trainers who know they’re likely to be fighting in a war are also going to be preparing their teams for mass combat. They’re not going to use the same strategies they would for one-on-one duels. There are lots of Pokémon attacks that, for game balance reasons, don’t hit multiple opponents in double battles, but which you’d intuitively imagine would have some degree of effectiveness in crowd-control if used correctly (maybe you need specialised training to do this, but you’re an elite trainer preparing for a war; you can do specialised training): flashy special attacks like Flamethrower, Draco Meteor or Hyper Beam; disabling techniques like Sleep Powder, Supersonic or Spider Web; multi-hit moves like Spike Cannon or Rock Blast, and so on. And of course there are all the attacks that definitely are canonically effective against multiple foes, and all the ways a smart trainer can build a team of Pokémon that cover each other’s weaknesses, and the combos that you can pull off with two Pokémon that know each other well. I’ll leave the details to your imagination.
I think there’d be some back-and-forth on this – there would be periods and regions and cultures in which warfare was dominated by small numbers of elite warriors (like, again, what Pokémon Conquest seems to portray in Ransei), and there would be ones in which warfare was dominated by large numbers of troops using simple, easy-to-learn techniques that scale well for mass combat. Y’know, like real history. Probably most of the time you’d have both. That balance is going to be dictated by lots of variables outside of strict combat effectiveness: what is your culture’s economy based on, and how much of your workforce can you afford to spare during a war? Which Pokémon are common in your territory, and what moves do they learn at low levels without special training? How expensive is it to feed and house the Pokémon you’re using, and what fraction of your people can afford to keep Pokémon on their own dime? Do you have Pokémon that naturally live in groups and work together? Do you have access to special resources like evolutionary stones that can give Pokémon a major boost in power without extended training? Those are the kinds of questions I’d be asking, if I were called upon to build a Pokémon army.