Choke Points and Grand Strategy

23 December 2010


I am going to return to an implied definition of grand strategy found in Dr. Patrick Porter’s The Offshore Balancer in his post Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy. Here is a quote from that post, which I also quoted previously:

In a meeting with General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, presidential candidate Obama said

‘My job, if I have the honour of being commander in chief, is going to be to look at the whole picture. I expect you, as the commander of our forces in Iraq, to ask for everything you need and more to ensure your success. That’s what you owe the troops who are under your command. My job is… I’ve got to choose. Because I don’t have infinite resources.’

That’s it right there, and with that we can probably knock it on the head for an early lunch. But I probably should run out the clock with some details.

I previously wrote about this in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, where I focused on the role a strategic vision has not only in terms of eliminating or passing over certain alternatives, but also in formulating or settling upon certain alternatives. Like a system of ethics, that not only enjoins us to desist from certain activities but also requires us to perform certain activities, grand strategy is not purely negative; it too, like ethics, does render some alternatives unthinkable, but at the same time it renders other alternatives “thinkable” that might be unthinkable for others. For example, the Final Solution was part of Nazi grand strategy, and while for us The Holocaust is a paradigm of the unthinkable, in the context of Nazi ideology it was not only thinkable but practicable, and so the Nazis bequeathed to history genocide’s proof of concept.

Today I want to address a different aspect of the above implied (though not explicit) definition of grand strategy. Specifically, I want to discuss the strategic role of finite resources, which is central to the above quote. Previously I focused on choices, because I wanted to show that our strategic choices (both positive and negative) are conditioned by our strategic vision, and, even more broadly, by the conception of history that furnishes our Weltanschauung (what Foucault called an epistêmê and Kuhn called a paradigm). Although strategic choices are central, no less central is resource allocation. In the implicit definition above, we are forced to make choices because our resources are finite. This implies that, if only our resources were not finite, we might not have to make these choices. Thus resource allocation is more fundamental than the choices it seems to force upon us, because the finitude of resources is the reason for the choice, and not vice versa.

During the First World War, this conception of resource allocation — the limitations forced upon us by finitude — was central to the thinking of battlefield commanders. It was also ruinous. This was not only the First World War but was also the First Industrialized War. There were intimations of industrialized carnage earlier in the Russo-Japanese War, in which machine guns were extensively employed, but contemporary commanders learned little from the war, and so it had little strategic influence. I have also pointed out that the First World War was a war of Mass Man, and this was expressed strategically by the central role that mobilization played in all the great powers’ war plans prior to the war. (See Unintended Consequences of Enlightenment Universalism)

Trench warfare during the First World War.

During the First World War (and certainly not only during the First World War), commanders pervasively framed their plans to civilian leaders as being contingent upon more men and more shells. The central idea was if only a commander could get a sufficient number of men and HE shells, they would have sufficient mass (in the sense that “mass” is used in the principles of war, in contradistinction to economy of forces) for a breakthrough. (Falkenhayn even referred to this as a “mass breakthrough,” thus emphasizing the mass character of mass warfare — see the Falkenhayn quote below. NB: here we are not using “mass” in the sense of the principles of war.)

Fortifications at Verdun

Another expression of this line of thought was Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was conceived by Falkenhayn with the objective of “bleeding France white.” As Falkenhayn put it to Kaiser Wilhelm II:

“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

That is to say, Falkenhayn knew that France’s manpower was limited, and that if it could be exhausted by being bled white, Germany could win. Falkenhayn was, in a sense, successful, perhaps too successful, because the same calculus of finitude that applied to France also applied to Germany, and The Battle of Verdun proved to be an equal opportunity slaughterhouse, consuming French and Germans alike, and almost at the same rate.

Some of the first intimations of maneuver warfare in its contemporary form emerged from straitened circumstances that forced commanders to work with limited resources. The well-known Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front was effective because Brusilov knew that his shells were limited, so instead of a barrage that lasted for days, there was a short, sharp barrage (kept short to minimize the use of shells) followed by an infantry advance. The advance was more successful than most infantry advances during the First World War because the element of surprise had been retained. Brusilov’s Order of Battle was also governed by similar considerations of finite resources. Once Brusilov’s successes got the attention of Moscow, Brusilov was given more men and more shells, and he returned to the same errors of other commanders during the war. No longer forced to be creative, and expecting a never-ending supply of men and shells, he planned as though resources were unlimited, and then he began to fail.

Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov (Russian: Алексе́й Алексе́евич Бруси́лов) 19 August (Old Style 31 August) 1853 – 17 March 1926

To act as though one had unlimited resources at one’s command suggests certain approaches to warfighting, but a careful examination of the historical record shows that the assumptions upon which the unlimited approach is predicated are not always borne out in fact. There are many situations, both tactical and strategic, when unlimited resources would not change the outcome of an engagement. These are typically referred to as “choke points” or “bottlenecks.”

The most famous example of a choke point in military history is the Battle of Thermopylae, when a Greek force of about 7,000 held off a Persian army that may have had as many as a million men. The Greeks eventually lost the battle, which culminated in the last stand of King Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans (the subject of a recent film), but the ability of the Greeks to hold back a far larger force for a week was due to the pass of Thermopylae being a geographical choke point, where only a few men could fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Even if the Persians had had two or three million soldiers available, or an unlimited number of soldiers available, they would not have taken the pass any quicker than they did.

An armored spearhead from East Germany through the Fulda Gap into West Germany.

Another geographical choke point is the Fulda Gap in Germany, which was central to NATO planning during the Cold War. The Fulda Gap is one of the few places that the Warsaw Pact could have employed its superior number of tanks in an invasion of Western Europe. More recently, the Pankisi Gorge has been a focus of strategic thinking in the Caucasus, being a potential transshipment opportunity between Russia and the Middle East. As a pass within a mountainous region, it is the choke point of the Caucasus.

Perhaps more familiar than geographical choke points are naval choke points. Wikipedia gives a list of these as follows: Hormuz Strait between Oman and Iran at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia, Bab-el-Mandeb passage from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea, Panama Canal and the Panama Pipeline connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline connecting the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea, The Turkish Straits/Bosporus linking the Black Sea (and oil coming from the Caspian Sea region) to the Mediterranean, The Strait of Gibraltar, Cape Horn, and The Cape of Good Hope. This list could easily be expanded. For example, the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War took place in the Tsushima Strait, which is a regional naval choke point.

No less significant than geographical or naval choke points are temporal or historical choke points. While the term “choke point” implies obstruction rather than facilitation, the temporal equivalent of a choke point we know as a “window of opportunity,” and this implies facilitation rather than obstruction. But facilitation and obstruction are two sides of the same coin, like the above mentioned distinction between choices facilitated (rendered thinkable) by a given strategic vision and choices obstructed (rendered unthinkable) by a given strategic vision. In both cases we have alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

The Strait of Hormuz: both a military and economic choke point for 40 percent of the world's oil transported by tanker ships.

Spatial and temporal choke points usually work together. A battle has a certain duration; even a war has a certain duration, thought it may last a hundred years. The point here is that resources brought to bear after the crucial moment — that is to say, outside the window of opportunity — cannot be used. Thus a tactical delay, as at the Battle of Thermopylae, can be strategically decisive even if the delaying action is a lost battle. Against all odds, the Greeks ultimately kept the numerically superior Persian forces out of Greece, and they did so through a brilliant series of engagements that strategically deployed the far smaller Greek forces at choke points in what was, in some senses, a war of attrition that the Persians chose not to pursue because it was too costly.

I hope that it is not lost on the reader that this is precisely what the Viet Cong did in Viet Nam, and what the Mujaheddin did in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Guerrilla wars have always (even if not explicitly) sought out the strategic choke points of numerically larger, technologically superior forces, and concentrated their action where that action could inflict proportionately heavy casualties, making the conflict a protracted and costly war of attrition. If a guerrilla force can maintain this attrition on a larger force long enough to break the political will of the civilian leaders directing the war, they can win even if guerrilla losses are disproportionately large. Sometimes this calculation is a close-run thing, and sometimes the guerrillas are extirpated before the fight becomes unsustainable and impossible for conventional forces, but there is always the possibility of oblique victory by way of the withdrawal of the conventional opponent.

As long as tactical and strategic thought is allowed to run in the lazy channels of if only we had more resources — be those resources soldiers, guns, money, time, etc. — the commanders thinking in such terms will be humiliated by more innovative strategic and tactical thinking that looks for the choke points where resources are far less significant than the will to fight. At a choke point, even a small, poorly equipped force can precipitate a decisive moment and turn the tide for their comrades in arms, though they may have to die at the choke point in order to achieve this end.

There are, of course, cases in which infinite resources would make a difference. However, this is not the only possibility, because there are cases — battles being a paradigm instances of such cases — when infinite resources would not make a difference (or do not necessarily make a difference). The true strategic thinker seeks these resource-neutralizing nodes and seizes upon them as the opportunity to project power at the least cost to himself and the greatest cost to his adversary. The failed strategic thinker chooses a point at which to concentrate his resources, believing that if he can pour enough resources into a strong point, he can ultimately win despite the losses he will take — like the French at Dien Bien Phu. As I noted above, this calculation can be a close run thing. The Western powers might have failed spectacularly with the Berlin Airlift (arguably an early battle of the Cold War), but they ultimately proved that they could pour sufficient resources into this engagement that it was the Russians who capitulated in this case.

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8 Responses to “Choke Points and Grand Strategy”

  1. YT said

    Re: “At a choke point, even a small, poorly equipped force can precipitate a decisive moment and turn the tide for their comrades in arms”


  2. Bob said

    Really? One million Persians? My teacher says you’re full of crap.

    • geopolicraticus said

      All, or at least almost all, historical claims are open to question. The great thing is that you don’t have to take my word for it, and you don’t have to take your teacher’s word for it. You can investigate yourself and determine what you think the most likely answer to the question is.

      You will find that, in classical antiquity, it was commonplace, as a matter of pride, and in order to emphasize the historic nature of the occasion, that troop numbers were greatly overestimated, and that ancient historians usually dealt with round numbers like a hundred thousand or a million, etc.

      Recent historical scholarship has tried to find documentary evidence (like payroll records for soldiers) or archaeological evidence that can support more accurate numbers, but these numbers are always inherently open to question and open to revision, which, or course, is the nature of all good science.

      But none of this changes the basic situation that there were a lot of Persians present — a lot more Persians than Greeks — or that the Greeks fought to a standstill a numerically superior Persian force and were able to do this because of the narrowness of the bottleneck at Thermopylae.

      Best wishes,


  3. asdf said

    From Wikipedia:

    Alternatively, the argument is sometimes advanced that the last stand at Thermopylae was a successful delaying action that gave the Greek navy time to prepare for the Battle of Salamis.c[›] However, compared to the probable time (about one month) between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time bought was negligible.[127] Furthermore, this idea also neglects the fact that a Greek navy was fighting at Artemisium during the Battle of Thermopylae, incurring losses in the process.[128] George Cawkwell suggests that the gap between Thermopylae and Salamis was caused by Xerxes’ systematically reducing Greek opposition in Phocis and Boeotia, and not as a result of the Battle of Thermopylae; thus, as a delaying action, Thermopylae was insignificant compared to Xerxes’ own procrastination.[125]

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