Go Ahead, Forget Center of Gravity…

July 9, 2014

Go Ahead, Forget Center of Gravity…but if you do, you had better understand joint maneuver.

Is the Clausewitzian center of gravity (COG) still a useful concept? Lawrence Freedman thinks not.

The future force development community has been struggling with this question for some time. In principle, striking at the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act is simple. Reinforced by tactical successes during the first Gulf War, joint concepts have frequently focused on efficiently delivering a comprehensive, killing blow against a competitor state directly at what we assume to be the COG through the integrated application of movement and fires (“the use of weapon systems to create specific lethal or nonlethal effects on a target”). In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have applied COG analysis to protect populations with the goal of sapping insurgent power through the denial of a favorable environment from which to fight.

One could argue that both approaches have led to inconclusive and perhaps unsatisfactory strategic outcomes, reinforcing Dr. Freedman’s position that perhaps too much focus on the COG misleads about proper target and use of military capability in the service of national goals.

Freedman rightly points out several nagging concerns that make the idea of center of gravity problematic. Central to this is the challenge of identifying a COG that is at once precise enough at the tactical level to be engaged, yet also comprehensive enough to influence the system as a whole and induce a consequential strategic effect. Additionally, the resilience of groups and states in an increasingly connected, wealthy and adaptable global economic system and new domains, such as cyber and space conspire to further complicate our ability to calculate and strike actual, relevant adversary COGs.

A center of gravity analysis only has value if it can identify an object upon which force can be applied and which will affect the larger system as a whole. It should have a determining effect on the will of an actor, its ability to continue to pursue its goals through force, and its ability to defend itself. Implied in this idea is the fact that some means of influencing or controlling that object are physically, economically, politically, or morally feasible.

Rather than looking for a COG, Freedman proposes that we should ask, “What is the position we wish to achieve?” If we are to accept this question as our guiding principle for planning purposes, we had better understand how one could achieve a position of advantage under modern warfighting conditions. To do this, we must reexamine our understanding of joint maneuver.

A modern vision of joint maneuver should account for the connected nature of societies and the demonstrated resilience of adversaries in spite of our efforts to strike at and influence his COG. Understanding which position we wish to achieve means providing the joint force the intellectual tools to properly understand the integration of movement, fires, and other capabilities, not traditionally described or understood as fires, to develop sustained and cumulative advantages relative to adversaries over time.

Although “position of advantage” is already central to the joint movement and maneuver function, it is not fully defined in joint doctrine and can be confusing depending on one’s service perspective. Joint doctrine describes movement and maneuver together as a single joint function. The movement and maneuver joint function describes the tasks required to move an armed force from where it is based, trained, and maintained to a position – in combination with fires – with the goal of developing cumulative, favorable positions of advantage relative to an adversary, ultimately placing the adversary’s decisive points at risk while protecting our own.

However, under modern conditions, “position” itself may mean many things, from holding a piece of key terrain, to occupying a higher-energy Earth orbit, to control of the firmware within a key router in a computer network, to holding or advocating a convincing viewpoint. At base, a position of advantage is a point, area, place, situation or standing that, when possessed, confers benefit to the possessor. Developing a position of advantage is nearly always contested and is highly specific to time, space, and initial conditions. Because of this, as Milan Vego points out, developing a position of advantage, like warfare itself, reflects both a measure of science and of art.

Since maneuver is frequently associated with “artistry” of warfare, it requires a high degree of insight and wisdom to see and act in a way that achieves results that might otherwise be more costly. Maneuver reflects the concentration and application of combat power to place an enemy at a disadvantage and keep him there continuously. Eschewing a direct, attritional approach, an artful maneuver forces the enemy off balance by making him confront new problems and new dangers faster than he can adapt. The pursuit of advantage through skilled positioning and use of force is difficult and must account for the search for advantage through the integration of different capabilities – whether expressed in physical, psychological or temporal terms, or in some combination thereof. Maneuver envisioned in such a way, addresses the mental state of the adversary, and avoids focusing only on the accessible material, tangible “targets” that so often define our search for the adversary COG.

This is not a new idea, but one that is perhaps overlooked given America’s post-Cold War military dominance. Maneuver through the skilled integration of different capabilities has been described in many different ways based on the lexicon and predominant tools of warfare of a given time period. As Robert Leonard highlights in Art of Maneuver, Sun Tzu noted the need to integrate the “ordinary and extraordinary forces” with the ordinary force serving to fix the adversary while the extraordinary force performs effective maneuver to envelop or otherwise outflank the adversary. Clausewitz himself used the term “combined arms” to describe the advantages gained by integrating infantry, artillery, and cavalry, noting the relative strengths and weaknesses for each in the offense and defense and asserting that “a combination of the three arms gives the greatest strength.” More recently,Liang Qiao and Xiangsui Wang commented in their work Unrestricted Warfare that “combinations are the great cocktails in the glasses of the great masters of warfare…Alexander the Great and the martial kings of the Zhou dynasty never heard of cocktails, but they knew the value of the combined use of things.

As the tools of war available to combatants have multiplied and expanded beyond the land, to the sea, air, space, and information environment, the value of the “combined use of things” to successfully establish advantageous positions is more difficult to discern. New military capabilities in space and cyberspace are geographically dispersed, far-reaching, and sometimes difficult to mentally picture. Understanding and successfully using nongeographic positions and topological features inherent in networks in conjunction with traditional movement and fires, adds additional complexity to our understanding about where a military advantage may be available. This complicates the commander’s ability to understand how to leverage relationships and combinations into militarily significant positions of advantage on the battlefield.

Where maneuver once narrowly focused on the integration of movement with fires, today it includes additional tasks and capabilities and requires additional analysis beyond what even the most experienced mind can fully appreciate.

Maneuver at its most advanced state is the integration of different domain capabilities leading to a sustained military advantage by forcing adversaries (even those with superiority in one domain) to react, either by dispersing, concentrating or displacing to counter the attack, thereby exposing vulnerabilities to another attacks. Essentially, combined arms maneuver across domains is the coordination of capabilities that produces a military effect that is greater than the sum of individual contributions.

The increased friction inherent in maneuver versus movement serves to slow or otherwise degrade the ability of the Joint Force to assemble required military capabilities in time and space. With the U.S. Joint Force individual domain advantages static or decreasing, it is increasingly necessary to combine our traditional understanding of maneuver with the advantage offered by nontraditional fires.

Adversaries have developed capabilities and strategies focused on disrupting the closure and effective aggregation of the force in a given theater of operations. They do this by working to shrink or complicate the areas of the world in which the Joint Force can efficiently move – a capacity that is crucial for a geographically remote global power such as the United States.The cumulative result of these challenges is a global operating environment in which the areas available for the Joint Force to conduct more efficient movement techniques are shrinking, compelling it to engage in more costly and difficult maneuver earlier and more often than before.

If we are to take Freedman’s advice and “forget the COG,” we must ensure that we reinforce and augment our collective understanding of the types and forms of maneuver required to generate winning positions of advantage. Modern maneuver means ensuring the force has the requisite operational reach, nontraditional means and intellectual flexibility to combine capabilities in ways that are irresistible and surprising to adversaries. Understanding the impact of these combinations, and how and at what level of operations each of these considerations applies, requires experience and thought. Combining this understanding into successful combinations, not readily apparent to the experienced practitioner, to generate an effect greater than the sum of its parts requires the highest understanding and appreciation of both the art and science of war.

The idea of a position of advantage provides a guide to incorporate the nontraditional, non-physical, aspects of joint maneuver used in modern war. Leaving center of gravity behind means we must reenergize and reinforce our understanding of joint maneuver going forward.


Jeff Becker is the chief futurist in the Joint Staff J7 Joint Concepts Division.LTC Todd Zwolensky is a strategist in the Joint Staff J7 Joint Concepts Division.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army