Bottlenecks as Vulnerability and as Opportunity

20 May 2011


Map of Thermopylae area with modern shoreline and reconstructed shoreline of 480 BC.

In a couple of posts, On a Definition of Grand Strategy and Choke Points and Grand Strategy, I examined a proposed characterization of grand strategy found in Dr. Patrick Porter’s The Offshore Balancer in his post Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy. I refer the reader to these posts for the quote that inspired these reflections.

In the second of these reflection’s on Dr. Porter’s implied definition of grand startegy, Choke Points and Grand Strategy, I began to suggest instances in which choke points or bottlenecks are not merely obstructions but can also play a role of facilitation. In that post I wrote:

“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.”

Here I have expressed myself adequately, but I have not drawn the obvious conclusion in any kind of systematic way. It now seems blindingly obvious to me that any bottleneck is at the same time a vulnerability or an opportunity, depending on the perspective you bring to the situation. The pass of Thermopylae was a vulnerability for the Persians at the same time as it was an opportunity for the Greeks. Generally speaking, my enemy’s vulnerability is my opportunity, and my vulnerability is my enemy’s opportunity. Bottlenecks are the intersections where vulnerabilities and opportunities collide.

Bottlenecks can be profitably further broken down into strategic or tactical bottlenecks, or, if you like, into the more elaborate scheme that I drew up for the strategico-tactical nexus in Metaphysical Ecology:

Tactical Environment (the micro-battlespace): The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Intra-Operational Environment (the meso-battlespace): Relations between micro-battlespace or connections between battlespace contexts.

Inter-Operational Environment (the exo-battlespace): Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Strategic Environment (the macro-battlespace): The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Grand Strategy (the metaphysical battlespace): Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

I would tamper a little with this now if I were to think it through again, but it can still serve as a good basis for a fairly fine-grained account of bottlenecks at all levels of battle ecology.

To further delineate this conceptual schema we must ask ourselves, “What is the opposite of a choke point?” And the answer to this question is an open flank. For purposes of exposition I would like to have a better term for this (i.e., a term of greater generality and therefore greater theoretical flexibility), but I can’t think of anything better now, so I will simply use the term “open flank” as the antithesis of a choke point, and in the following table I will simplify my schematization a little by only dealing with the tactical, operational, and strategic dimensions of battle ecology.

If we put together the tripartite distinction between tactics, operations, and strategy with the opposition between choke points and open flanks, we get the following table, which I call the strategico-tactical nexus:

To understand this better it would be good to have examples of each case of the strategico-tactical nexus, and I will give some examples below, though I haven’t spent enough time thinking about this yet to have the perfect handful of examples that would be immediately illuminating in the way that exemplary examples can be. In any case:

The Tactical Choke Point: The classic example of a tactical choke point is the pass of Thermopylae where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Here the actual physical terrain crucially shaped the actions of combat and prevented the Persians from bringing the full weight of their numbers to bear on the Greeks.

The Tactical Open Flank: The Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, which I described in Armed Prophets of Revolution as a “perpetually open flank and tanks moving in the desert like ships at sea.” Ideally and theoretically, an open flank ought to be a perpetually and infinitely open flank. These conditions did not obtain in the western desert, and in fact they don’t obtain anywhere, but the desert comes close at times to a practical equivalent to a perpetually open flank. If the imperfectly open flank never does in fact impede tactical dispositions of forces, then it is infinite for all practical purposes.

The Operational Choke Point: A recent and obvious example of an operational choke point is the supply line for US operations in Afghanistan, which involves convoys of vehicles carrying supplies through Pakistan. These convoys have been targeted on several occasions, offering a tempting target for compromising US operations without engaging tactically on the battlefields of Afghanistan (although this is being done also, but by different agents).

The Operational Open Flank: In Choke Points and Grand Strategy I mentioned the case of the Berlin Airlift, which, in an indirect way, could be thought of as the exploitation of technology (supply by air) to keep a perpetually open logistical flank; in this way, all the Western world’s resources could pour into Berlin, and the Soviets knew they could not win because Berlin’s operational “flank” was being kept open by allied air power. Hitler tried to do this once Soviet forces surrounded the Germans and Stalingrad, but failed. Thus the German decision prior to the outbreak of hostilities not to produce a heavy four-engine bomber (like the Lancaster or the B-17) haunted them to the end.

The Strategic Choke Point: Perhaps the most controversial document released by Wikileaks was a long list of critical infrastructure, which was later characterized as a terrorist’s target list. These critical infrastructure targets — obviously presenting vulnerabilities to the socio-economic system of the entire developed world — were not primarily military, but civilian. Each of these items of critical infrastructure constitutes a strategic choke point, therefore a vulnerability for the world economy and an opportunity for those who would target the world economy.

The Strategic Open Flank: In principle a strategically open flank would mean a completely free hand to undertake strategic initiatives, or to decline to pursue strategic initiatives. As noted above, this open flank ought ideally to be infinite, although this condition cannot obtain in fact. Can it obtain for all practical purposes? It could be argued that the Cold War “forced” both NATO and the Warsaw Pact to constrain their strategic options, with each primarily focused on the other. Thus it could be argued that in the “unipolar moment” following the end of the Cold War — say, the first decade or so until the 11 September terrorist attacks — briefly presented the US with a strategically open flank. When the US undertook its War on Terror in response to 11 September 2001, its strategic options were again constrained by the actions of its adversaries.

A fully developed battle ecology would, in the best ecological fashion, demonstrate the inter-action of these cases, showing a kind of combat panarchy in which the greatest movements of strategy are revealed on the ground to the frontline soldier (either as an asset or a liability), and equally the actions of an individual frontline soldier are seen to travel upward through the strategico-tactical nexus until they echo at the highest levels of strategic opportunity and vulnerability.

I will undertake this work in good time, fate willing, though I will have to spend some time thinking this through.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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