If history is any guide, Clausewitz’s theory of the center of gravity will remain a contested concept. Decades of research and debate have clarified some of its finer points, but consensus on the basic nature of the theory is still missing. Nonetheless, military practitioners continue to embrace the concept with enthusiasm; some have even attempted to apply it recently in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military currently defines a center of gravity as a “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”[i] This definition has some shortcomings, such as its insistence on using the word “source”, which unnecessarily complicates matters. However, it has succeeded in clarifying the distinction between centers of gravity and other operational concepts, such as “decisive points” or “critical vulnerabilities”. That is clearly a step forward from the situation that existed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the term was being used to describe “anything worthy of being attacked.”[ii]
Yet the current official definition is, in fact, presented as a “modern” version of the one found in the 1976 Howard and Paret translation of On War, in which a center of gravity is described as the “hub of all power and movement, upon which everything depends.”[iii] Whether the updated version actually does justice to the one Clausewitz offered is open to question. In any case, the contemporary definition deliberately links itself to Clausewitz’s theory, and thus to his conceptual legacy, which also includes his contributions concerning the relationship between war and policy, and the concept of friction; among other propositions.
The problem, however, is that modern military doctrine has put more weight on the theory than it can bear. For instance, U.S. doctrine insists, as it did over two decades ago, that identifying an opponent’s center of gravity is the “essence of operational art” and, indeed, is the key to “all operational design.”[iv] It is not clear how any theory, least of all one so hard to pin down, can be the essence of anything, least of all operational art. Moreover, if doctrine is correct, then centers of gravity must be found in order to have operational art. As there is, as yet, little consensus on the linkages between the center of gravity and operational art, this is too great a burden for the concept to shoulder.
On Art and Gravity
Operational art, as currently defined, is the “application of creative imagination by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge, and experience.”[v] However, the requirement to find an opponent’s center of gravity curtails creative imagination by limiting the thinking of military commanders and their staffs to one particular task. To be sure, the purpose of identifying centers of gravity is simply to assist practitioners in focusing their efforts and resources. As one former U.S. Army general explained, approaching a military problem “from the perspective of a center of gravity leads you to see very quickly that some vulnerabilities are interesting but a waste of resources because they do not lead anywhere useful in the end.”[vi] However, the risk of focusing only on trying to find the center of gravity is that other, perhaps more effective, solutions will be overlooked.
Moreover, despite decades of lively debate, the validity of Clausewitz’s theory of the center of gravity has never been systematically challenged. Numerous historical case studies have examined whether or how the concept was applied in battles or campaigns. While these studies are indeed informative in many respects, they have not analyzed and tested the theory to determine its limits. In a word, the basic assumption has been that, if a concept appears in On War, it is likely valid. The only acknowledged rub has been the difficulty of applying it properly. As several officers recently noted: “Planning teams can take hours—if not days—arguing over what is and is not the enemy’s center of gravity,” and it is usually not evidence or analysis but rather the “strongest personality” that wins the argument.[vii] It is a bit rash, therefore, for contemporary doctrine to turn an imprecise theory into the cornerstone for operational art.
One might excuse the doctrinal assertions above as rhetorical excess but for the fact that scholars and practitioners have long taken the theory of center of gravity very seriously. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the center of gravity was typically thought of as the main enemy force. Broader interpretations were needed during the Cold War, and some strategists expanded the concept to include “critical aspects” of the principal types of conflict—such as continental, maritime, air, and guerilla—the control of which gave one the upper-hand.[viii]
The frequency with which the theory was mentioned rose sharply during the “American military renaissance” of the 1980s and 1990s. During those decades, the operational level of war was incorporated into U.S. military doctrine, and the concept of center of gravity became laden with institutional and service equities. Maneuver theorists, for instance, advanced an interpretation that supported their view of warfare: namely, that a center of gravity was an enemy force, a terrain feature, unit boundary, or a line of communication, which, if destroyed or neutralized, would result in dislocating the enemy either physically or psychologically. This interpretation later appeared in modified form in the operational doctrine of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, both of which saw centers of gravity as “sources of strength,” or the “characteristics, capabilities, or localities” that enabled (or stood in the way of) mission accomplishment.
In contrast, the U.S. Marine Corps viewed centers of gravity as “critical vulnerabilities,” but this interpretation also reflected a “maneuverist” mindset.[ix] For airpower theorists, centers of gravity were thought to be key nodes or critical points, which, if attacked, would cause strategic paralysis; this belief was duly reflected in U.S. Air Force doctrine, and supported its targeting approach to warfare.[x] The maneuverist and air-centric interpretations clashed, infamously, in Desert Storm with senior officers of both schools of thought identifying completely different centers of gravity.[xi] Military and civilian experts in unconventional warfare kept pace, reiterating that centers of gravity in counterinsurgency campaigns were typically the “target nation’s population,” – or one’s own, or a combination of the two – and U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine recently reaffirmed the former, stating that the “ability to generate and sustain popular support” is “usually the insurgency’s center of gravity.”[xii] Other defense scholars suggested that the key might well be successful “governance operations,” meaning those activities that follow major combat operations and help to link military actions to policy objectives.[xiii]
In the meantime, U.S. policymakers explicitly highlighted public opinion as the center of gravity in the war on terror. [xiv]In short, the theory has both reflected and shaped not only what was important in military thinking at various times, but also what was important to military thinking during those times. The probability that it was sometimes misused merely for rhetorical impact only reinforces this point.
Clausewitz’s Theory Examined
That notwithstanding, the concept is a vexing one, and for that Clausewitz deserves much of the blame. Although his examples of what centers of gravity might be — such as an army, key leaders, a capital, or an alliance — align with those discussed earlier, he did not offer an objective methodology for identifying them. The process he described — deriving a center or hub from an assessment of the dominant characteristics of the belligerents — is largely intuitive in nature, which means the answer it yields would be subjective. Clausewitz’s approach clearly harkens back to his general theme regarding the importance of developing a commander’s military judgment. This method, however, presumes that commanders will have developed their judgment sufficiently before they attempt to apply the theory in the field.
Moreover, the fact that the theory was derived from what today amounts to nothing more than elementary physics does not always simplify matters. A center of gravity is merely a mathematical approximation that describes the point at which gravitational forces converge on an object. However, this simplicity is at times deceptive. Calculating the center of gravity for complex objects, or objects in motion, is not mathematically complicated; but it is not entirely elementary. Among other things, the process requires accepting a certain amount of artificiality, such as fixing objects in time and space, which then produces a sum that is valid only for that specific situation. Such calculations are not necessarily practical in fluid situations.
In other words, for all Clausewitz’s foundational work regarding the nature of war and the influence of policy, hostility, and chance, he attempted to develop a concept that reduces complex forces to a single point. Put differently, he tried to transfer a linear, mathematical concept to a nonlinear activity, such as war — in which elements and the relationships between them are built, destroyed, and rebuilt again but often in different ways. This is clearly problematic, though hardly impossible. Successive generations have taken the theory as an article of faith. It may indeed be worth their while to do so; nonetheless, it is prudent to manage one’s expectations.
It is tempting to think of a center of gravity as a source of strength or a concentration of force, as these are easier to identify. This is, in fact, the approach approved by contemporary military doctrine, which is at root a capability-based formula.[xv] A recent example is how the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) has applied a center of gravity framework in its efforts to help the government of Afghanistan combat corruption.[xvi] This approach focuses on identifying the presumed linkages between centers of gravity, critical capabilities, critical requirements, and critical vulnerabilities (CG-CC-CR-CV). In brief, centers of gravity possess critical capabilities — such as armored striking power — which make them centers of gravity, and which, in turn, have critical requirements — such as lines of communication — which enable them to function. The task for military planners is to find where critical requirements might have critical vulnerabilities—such as inadequately defended transportation networks — which, if attacked, could degrade the critical capabilities of a center of gravity, and thus degrade the center of gravity itself.[xvii]
However, the process does not necessarily begin with identifying centers of gravity; in fact, it is not always fruitful to begin there. Instead, the process typically starts with identifying the set of critical capabilities that would affect mission accomplishment. These may or may not have anything to do with the critical capabilities that belong to a center of gravity. Yet, they should have everything to do with accomplishing the mission, and are thus a worthwhile place for military planners to start. Nonetheless, the distinction between a center of gravity and a “center of critical capability,” which is what military planners are actually identifying, is an important one in order to avoid conceptual confusion.
All of this is to say that operational art does not actually need centers of gravity, per se, though they obviously might prove useful. The method military planners are using today, in fact, bypasses the so-called “essence” of operational art almost entirely. The real “art” lies in translating political or strategic aims — such as compelling the withdrawal of hostile forces, restoring a legitimate government, assuring security and stability within a region, and protecting American lives — into operational and tactical objectives. Accomplishing this aim might reveal a center of gravity, if one exists. The error lies not in believing that a center of gravity might exist in a given situation, but in thinking that it is always necessary to find one.
A rigorous examination of Clausewitz’s theory of the center of gravity is overdue. The fact that it has not happened is due in part to Clausewitz’s legacy. Until the limits of the theory are acknowledged, it may be useful for military planners to keep a few caveats in mind.
First, unless the political and military aims are in line with the goal of rendering the enemy defenseless, searching for a center of gravity is unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. In many cases, bringing about the complete collapse of an opponent might not serve one’s political purposes, and could actually run counter to them.
Second, conceiving of centers of gravity as clusters of critical capabilities is to conflate two operational concepts — while doing justice to neither. Doctrinal precision is important in order to avoid conceptual confusion. Accordingly, centers of gravity ought to be thought of as focal points which, if attacked or neutralized, would bring about the complete collapse of an opponent. They can also be thought of as the single event or activity that must happen for success to occur, and in that sense perhaps a center of gravity would indeed amount to the key to victory.
For instance, some Coalition officers believed that mosques were centers of gravity for AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) because its modus operandi seemed to be to try to control villages by first controlling mosques — due mainly to the religious, political, and cultural power they represent.[xviii] Denying AQI access to mosques was, thus, the logical way forward. However, one should not rule out the possibility that multiple causes frequently contribute to an outcome; and that it might not be obvious which one, if any, was the most important. It is sometimes better, therefore, to think of an entire “set of keys” as contributing to military success (or failure), rather than just one. In any event, the discriminating criterion is determining the effect that destroying, or using, a center of gravity will have on one’s adversary.
Third, it is generally not fruitful to search for a center of gravity unless a telling blow on one element or part of an adversary will actually have the same effect on the rest. The system should be connected enough — whether politically, ideologically, geographically, electronically, or otherwise — to be treated as a unified body. The military planner’s objective, as Clausewitz wrote, is to trace all centers of power to a single one, and to focus one’s resources on attacking that.[xix] If the situation is too chaotic or the foe is too fragmented or decentralized for that to occur, then searching for a center of gravity is unlikely to prove worthwhile.
Fourth, there may be situations in which striking a center of gravity might deliver a fatal blow; but the enemy might still be able to retaliate with a lethal or unacceptably damaging response, much like a spider whose legs continue to strike after it is dead. This phenomenon is what nuclear strategist Herman Kahn once referred to as “insensate war” and it is still a possibility in today’s globalized world, perhaps even more so.[xx] In other words, the search for a center of gravity cannot be allowed to undermine intellectual creativity or to preclude the development of approaches that could enable numerous hostile elements to be struck simultaneously.
Finally, war’s fundamental nature, specifically its characteristic of uncertainty, runs counter to the level of certainty that military planners would like to have. No concept, including the center of gravity, is likely to be able to eliminate that, even if it is forced into the role of being the essence of operational art or the core of operational design. It simply may not be possible to know beforehand with any degree of certainty whether the center of gravity has been correctly determined. Making do with uncertain concepts and principles is part and parcel of what militaries do. It is when that uncertainty is disregarded – as seems to be the case with making the concept of center of gravity the essence of operational art – that problems arise.
Today’s militaries would do well, therefore, to ensure that those trained in identifying centers of gravity are equally educated in when not to bother.
[i] Dept. of Defense, Doctrine for Joint Operations: Joint Pub 3-0 [w/ Changes] (Washington, DC, 2011), Glossary.
[ii] James Schneider and LTC Lawrence Izzo, “Clausewitz’s Elusive Center of Gravity,” Parameters 17, no. 3, (September 1987): 46-57.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University 1984), page 595. U.S. military doctrine still interprets the word “hub” as a “source of power,” but it also acknowledges that this meaning is not restricted to physical centers. Dept. of Army, Operations: FM 3-0 (Washington, D.C., 2008), 6-35 and 6-36.
[iv] Dept. of Army, Operations: FM 100-5 (Washington, D.C., 1986), 179-80; Dept. of Army, Operations: FM 3-0 (Washington, D.C., 2010), D-1; Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-0. Joint Operations (Washington, D.C., 2006), iv-12; Joint Staff, Joint Publication 5-0. Joint Operational Planning (Washington, D.C., 2006), iv-9.
[v] Joint Staff, Joint Publication 5-0. Joint Operational Planning (Washington, D.C., 2011), III-1.
[vi] BG (Ret.) Huba Wass de Czege, “Clausewitz: Historical Theories Remain Sound Compass References: The Catch Is Staying on Course,” Army 38, no. 9, (September 1988): 42.
[vii] LTC Jan L. Rueschhoff and LTC Jonathan P. Dunne, “Centers of Gravity from the ‘Inside Out,’” Joint Force Quarterly 60, (1st Quarter 2011): 120-25.
[viii] Adm. J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1989<1967>), 77-78.
[ix] Dept. of Army, Operations: FM 100-5 (Washington, D.C., 1993), 6-13; Dept. of Navy, Naval Warfare: NDP 1 (Washington, D.C., 1994), 35; Dept. of Navy, Warfighting: Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (Washington, D.C., 1997), 45-47.
[x] John A. Warden III, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat (Washington, D.C.: NDU, 1988); Dept. of Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Document 1 (Washington, D.C., 1997), 79.
[xi] General Norman Schwarzkopf saw three distinct centers of gravity: Saddam Hussein; the Republican Guard; and Iraqi chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities. The air component commander, General Charles Horner, in contrast, identified twelve centers of gravity, which equated to target sets ranging from national leadership and command and control to railroads, airfields, and ports. Eliot Cohen, et. al., Gulf War Air Power Survey, 5 vols., (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1993), vol. I, 83-84.
[xii] A. Krepinevich, The Army in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1986), 9ff; FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 2007), 3-76, p. 101.
[xiii] Nadia Schadlow, “War and the Art of Governance,” Parameters 33, no. 3 (Autumn 2003): 85-94.
[xiv] Sara Wood, “Secretary Rumsfeld: U.S. Must Outdo Terrorists in Public Opinion Battle,” USA American Forces Press Service, February 18, 2006.
[xv] Joint Staff, Joint Publication 5-00.1, Joint Campaign Planning (Washington, D.C., 2002), II-6 through II-10.
[xvi] Rueschhoff and Dunne, “Centers of Gravity from ‘Inside Out,’”124.
[xvii] For more detail see Joseph L. Strange and Richard Iron ‘Center of Gravity: What Clausewitz Really Meant,” Joint Force Quarterly (Summer 2003): 20; and Joe Strange, Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities, Perspectives on Warfighting, no. 4 (Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps Assoc., 1996).
[xviii] Minerva Conference, sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington, D.C., September 13-15, 2011.
[xix] Vom Kriege, Book V, Chap. 9, p. 453; Book VI, Chap. 27, pp. 485; and On War, 810-11.
[xx] Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Praeger, 1965).