war on the rocks

Stop Looking for the Center of Gravity

June 24, 2014

I took the opportunity at last week’s Current Strategy Forum at the Navy War College to address an issue that had been bothering me for some time. I concluded my lecture with the suggestion that military planners should stop asking, “What is the enemy center of gravity?” but instead ask, “What is the position we wish to achieve?” Am I right? Is it time to move on from the Center of Gravity? Does my suggestion for an alternative add anything?

Clausewitz’s concept of a Center of Gravity (COG) was taken from the physics of his day and became one of his most unsatisfactory contributions to strategic thought. In physics, the COG represents the point at which the forces of gravity could be said to converge within an object, where its weight was balanced in all directions. If struck there it would lose balance and fall. One obvious problem was that whereas it might be easy to identify the COG of a solid and static object, it was much harder to do so with a complicated shape made up of moving parts.

For Clausewitz, the COG represented the source of the opponent’s power and strength and was therefore “the point against which all our energies should be directed.” Here the application of force should most likely result in the enemy’s defeat. Unfortunately, however, he was never wholly clear on the spot to look for. It could be a major concentration of physical strength, and therefore a challenging place for an attack, or the point where the enemy forces came together and were given direction, which might make more sense. Perhaps it was something more political—say a capital city or a particular member of an alliance that once defeated would cause the whole to crumble.

Over the past few decades, this has turned into a search for the knockout blow, the limited but well-directed, and brilliantly executed, thrust that might take down the enemy’s forces without the bother of a prolonged and bloody campaign of attrition. This reflected changing views about both receiving and inflicting casualties, and fitted in with a natural preference for strategy to be smart and sophisticated, avoiding the crude application of brute force.

There are three basic problems with the notion:

First, countries, or indeed any political entities, or their armed forces, do not have COGs. As a metaphor, it encourages a search for some vital core that holds the enemy system together. If this core can be identified and successfully attacked, it is supposed that the enemy system will unravel. This assumes an interconnected and interdependent system, incapable of adaption and regeneration. Yet once some key element is removed, social organizations do not necessarily collapse. There may be a transformation, but this could be into something more robust and durable. Taking out the enemy regime, for example, may not result in something pliable and cooperative, but instead a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable.

Second, it reflects the classical assumption that the most important task of armed forces must be to defeat those of the enemy. This follows from the conviction that the key to unlocking the enemy state is the elimination of the enemy army. Yet taking enemy forces out of the fight is not invariably necessary in order to achieve desired political effects, especially in a campaign for limited objectives short of all-out war. There are also roles for armed forces in protecting civilians from danger, intimidating and coercing, comforting friends and reassuring allies, prodding disputants to negotiations and strengthening bargaining. Force can have an instrumental value, even when it is not decisive in itself. There is always a need to understand enemy objectives and capabilities, but that does not always require working out how to impose a total collapse. Their forces might be deterred, denied, deflected, and displaced without being threatened with a terminal defeat.

Third, the concept of the COG has had little practical value. Many variations on the COG theme have been explored by Britain’s and America’s armed forces over the past few decades. I am prepared to be corrected, but I have seen no evidence that the effort has improved the conduct of military operations. There has been no consensus about what commanders should be looking for or the methodology required to find it. Is the aim to seek out or avoid enemy strengths or to find the enemy’s weakest points, although only if they represent a critical vulnerability and not just some marginal asset? Reviewing the literature for my book, Strategy: A History, I came up with a compound definition for a center of gravity that accounted for all the versions I had seen. It could refer to

a target, or a number of targets. which might constitute a source of enemy strength and/or a critical vulnerability, found in the physical, psychological or political spheres which might, if attacked, have by itself, or alternatively in combination with other events, a decisive effect or else possibly result in consequences with potentially decisive effects.

Could it be that there has been a tendency among some military planners to begin with what could be attacked most effectively and then work backwards and proclaim that these targets did indeed constitute the enemy’s COG? At times, it has been used to dignify an available target set with greater strategic significance than it could possibly deserve. A ruling party may depend on its Ministry of Interior and a repressive police force but precision strikes against their HQs and branch offices are not going to weaken their influence, especially if the buildings have been vacated in advance. In addition, targets have to be chosen by additional criteria to what hurts the enemy most. A COG analysis which showed that a regime is most vulnerable to random attacks on urban areas where the elite tend to live is going to be of little value because such targeting would be deemed unacceptable. Depriving a country of energy, transport and water might make a country ungovernable. This would, however, affect not just the current regime, but anyone subsequently trying to put the country together again.

So the wrong question to ask at the start of a campaign is “What is the enemy’s center of gravity?” The term should henceforth be banned. What should be put in its place? My suggestion may appear anticlimactic and banal. I would pose a simpler, more straightforward question: “What is the position you wish to reach?”

The term itself has a history. In pre-Napoleonic positional war, the aim was to establish defendable points. This led to a later association of positional war as premodern, reflecting an age of tentative confrontations, limited objectives, slow tempo and cautious method, and associated with weak and indecisive leaders. By contrast, the Napoleonic wars demonstrated the potential of much bolder wars of manoeuvre in the modern era,. At the same time the word “position” was also used in a basic, literal sense — the actual space occupied by an army in preparation for a battle, during its course and at its end. Brian Anderson has pointed out to me that Alfred Thayer Mahan spoke of war as the “business of positions”. Mahan claimed to be quoting Napoleon, although he was using the term more broadly. Napoleon’s maxims are full of references to positions as physical locations. Mahan was thinking about more than battle, but how to retain control over vital sea lanes and also how to influence negotiations on trading matters. He also believed, as a Jominian, that positions taken should be strategically decisive.

After the First World War, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci distinguished between a “War of Manoeuvre,” essentially a working-class insurrection to seize power directly, and a “War of Positions,” which was slower, more subterranean, involving a gradual attempt to gain influence in society, including by shaping the way that the masses thought about their condition. It accepted that an improved position might be achieved using culture rather than physical strength. Another use of the terms comes in business strategy. There is a whole school, associated with Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, often known as the positioning school, concerned with how firms relate to their competitive environment. A position sought by a business would depend on an analysis of the environment, including its bargaining power with both suppliers and customers.

By itself the term “position” means little, but that is an advantage. It requires the hard work to be done by those who must explain what they are doing and why. It encourages the objectives of any use of armed force to be evaluated in terms of the wider environment, which should encourage careful exploration of risks. By focusing on the political as much as the military effects to be obtained, options can be assessed against more than hypotheses about critical enemy vulnerabilities. Although it is always natural for the military to aim for a particular spot, the position need not be a physical location, but an extra advantage when negotiating (bargaining position) or sustaining a stake in a developing power struggle. The question of position can be asked at any level of command, and can be relevant to port visits and joint exercises as much as peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention and regular warfare. Thus, asking about position presumes nothing about tasks and allows for the integration of the political and military strands of strategy. It recognises that conflicts develop through stages, so that the first move rarely turns into a knockout blow that later moves will depend on how the first moves affected the situation, including unintended consequences and the unanticipated responses of others.

Similarly, I expect my thoughts here might have some unintended consequences and I can only begin to imagine the responses of others in response to my challenge to this confused orthodoxy. In any case, I welcome comments and debate.


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army