Strategy: Does the Center of Gravity Have Value?

July 15, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to hear Sir Lawrence Freedman address the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum, during which he exhorted, “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.” I later read with interest his article on the subject here at War on the Rocks.

If we accept Nietzsche’s claim about the fundamentally metaphorical nature of concept-formation, where are students of strategy left in the aftermath of Freedman’s declaration?  The center of gravity(COG) merits further consideration, if for no other reason than its frequent repetition since Clausewitz formulated the metaphor nearly two centuries ago.

Metaphorical expressions like COG are based in some concrete concept.  They are not per se ”right” or “wrong” so much as the concept that undergirds the metaphor allows for an apt or inapt analogy.  To the extent that an analogy is unsatisfactory, it could reflect something as simple as a poorly translated phrase from Clausewitz’s original German.  That is, the  original analogy in German may have been quite apt; it is the translation that is at fault.  It also may be that a metaphor like COG has taken on meaning in the period since Clausewitz first used it that makes the analogy seemingly less apt.  Finally, it may be that the concrete concept on which the metaphor is based is outdated or for some reason has less salience today, causing the analogy to seem less apt or wholly inapt.  As Sir Lawrence himself writes in Strategy: A History, “Clausewitz never quite got to grips with the metaphor.”  The purpose of this essay is to try and come to grips with it, assessing Clausewitz’s use of COG and suggesting how we might recover it as a useful metaphor.  That task will require us to put aside concrete concepts based in the Newtonian mechanics of Clausewitz’s time and to consider some from quantum mechanics.

Conceptual metaphors typically use concrete or physical concepts as their source, and more abstract concepts as their target.  The source-domain is the conceptual one from which we draw a metaphorical expression; the target-domain is the conceptual domain we are trying to understand.  Metaphorical expressions from a source-domain are mapped onto a target-domain.  For Clausewitz, his source-domain for COG was Newtonian mechanics; his target-domain was military strategy. Mapping is the process of creating analogies between the source and the target domains.  Thus the danger of conceptual metaphors: they create new meaning in the target-domain, sometimes unintentionally.  When, like Clausewitz’s, the target is military strategy, inapt metaphors can have consequential effects.

The case against the COG metaphor is that it is defective because it is inaptly descriptive. COG is a perfectly valid concept when confined to Newtonian mechanics, but this delineates the metaphor’s limits.  Rescuing it requires that we challenge the conventional translation of some of Clausewitz’s terms.  With those corrections in place, we can decouple the metaphor from his understanding of Newtonian mechanics, and apply principles of quantum mechanics.

Clausewitz never used the English term “center of gravity.”  The one he used most frequently (50+ times) is Schwerpunkt, a compound word formed from schwer, meaning “hard” and punkt, meaning “point.”  Its translation as “center of gravity” is interpretive, not literal.  COG lacks the German word’s inherent dynamism, and was adopted most likely because Clausewitz sometimes used Schwerpunkt interchangeably with the Latin term centra gravitates and the German words Kern (“core”) and Zentrum (“center”).

Clausewitz’s elaboration of Schwerpunkt appears in a commonly-referenced English translation (Howard & Paret,1989) as:

[T]he hub of all power and movement on which everything else depends.  That is the point against which all our energies should be directed…a center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely.  It presents the most effective target for a blow; furthermore, the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity.

These lines often are misconstrued— possibly by Sir Lawrence as well— to imply that strength is an inherent quality of a Schwerpunkt-COG (I will use this term when applying Clausewitz’s metaphor, and Schwerpunkt when quoting Clausewitz):

The first principle is that the ultimate substance of enemy strength must be traced back to the fewest possible sources, and ideally to one alone.  The attack on these sources must be compressed into the fewest possible actions—again, ideally, into one.

Sir Lawrence writes, “For Clausewitz, the COG represented the source of the opponent’s power and strength.”  However, the German word for “source”—Quelle— never appears in Clausewitz’s explanation.  An improved translation of the paragraph might read:

The first principle is this: To trace the relative mass of the enemy’s power to as few Schwerpunkt as possible, ideally, to a single one; and, at the same time, to concentrate the strike against the enemy’s Schwerpunkt to as few actions as possible, ideally, to one. [Author’s translation]

There are two important concepts embedded in the German text of this passage.  One is Gewicht, which translates contextually as “relative mass,” in the sense of gravity exerting force upon physical weight.  The other is Macht, which translates contextually as “power,” again in the sense of force.  These words are important to understanding Clausewitz, for example, when he wrote, “the strongest [improved translation: most forceful] blow is the one delivered by the center of gravity.”  Here, Clausewitz borrows from Newtonian mechanics the concept of normal force, which is the force between two solid objects in contact that prevents them from occupying the same space.  He writes that the Zweikampf (literally, “two-struggle”) of war is inherently an “interaction” (Wechselwirkung), a “collision of two living forces.”  Normal force is exerted horizontally, such that a more forceful Schwerpunkt-COG will displace a less forceful one from the physical space it occupies.

A related concept, Zusammenhang, means “connectedness” or “interdependence,” in the sense of how a gravitational center exerts a centripetal force to cause disparate elements to coalesce.  This analogy is truer to Clausewitz than Howard & Paret’s vital core: Zusammenhang, the gravitational center, is important because it causes the force to concentrate; the vital core is where the force is most concentrated.  One is cause— Zusammenhang — and the other effect—vital core.

Zusammenhang coalescence is critical: while “it is against the enemy’s center of gravity [Schwerpunkt] …that the collective effect of force must be directed” because “every blow directed against the body’s center of gravity yields the greatest effect,” Clausewitz qualifies that Schwerpunkt-COG force can only be applied with effect on the condition that the adversary also exhibits Zusammenhang.  It is not that “the enemy core will unravel”; rather, the enemy will fail to coalesce.

I confess to not understanding Sir Lawrence’s point about “an interconnected and interdependent system, incapable of adaption and regeneration.” If something inherent to such systems makes them incapable of adaption and regeneration, that factor or set of factors is not clear.  Perhaps it can be said that coalescence and its counterpart, fragmentation, are interconnected and interdependent insofar as both are explained by the distribution of centripetal forces.  One might well ask why this is important.  The answer is because Clausewitz demands strict symmetry: no Zusammenhang, no Schwerpunkt-COG.

Clausewitz’s demand for symmetry raises an important consideration: that in non-decisive, “limited” conflict of the sort waged by modern insurgents, Schwerpunkt–COG may actually create disadvantages. This reveals a singular deficiency in Newtonian mechanics as a source-domain: it references linear, cause-and-effect relationships within a closed (or substantially closed) system and depends upon unitary causes.  It postulates that if one understands the starting conditions and applies the set of cause-and-effect relationships, one can calculate current and future behavior.  Further, Newtonian normal force is wholly inconsistent with an understanding of insurgency, where in practice the insurgent dwells within the counterinsurgent’s “space”.  These objections help explain why Newtonian mechanics is fundamentally unsuitable as a trope.

Thankfully for our purposes here, it also raises an interesting question: might an asymmetric actor exploit the demand for symmetry that binds a powerful adversary?  Restated, could an asymmetric actor turn its adversary’s presumed source of strength— commanding sufficient mass and force to possess a figurative center of gravity— into a weakness?   If so, the transformation would have practical value, just not the one normally assumed.  Here we put aside the constraints of Newtonian mechanics and look to an alternate source-domain: quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is a theory describing the physics of small objects such as atoms and subatomic particles.  In quantum mechanics, a COG’s position is built from the position eventualities of particles: given two opposing forces, the resultant COG is the mass-weighted average of their positions, the motion of which is a single mass moving around a fixed center.

Clausewitz’s Schwerpunkt-COG reflects what physicists call a principle of locality.  It states that an object is influenced directly only by its immediate surroundings, not by remotely located objects.  Quantum theory is at odds with the principle of locality.  To the inevitable objection that “individuals are not electrons,” a rejoinder is offered:

But in some situations, they behave very much alike.  Although human societies, like physical materials, are very complex, some of their properties can be determined by understanding the interactions that occur between individuals.

There is a deep connection between Bell non-locality and Bayesian games.  A Bayesian game, a/k/a an incomplete information game, is one in which information about the characteristics of the other players is incomplete.  This means players have private knowledge— for example, how insurgent groups strike in well-timed bursts to maximize media exposure— that is not common knowledge.  Thus, no player, not even a “dominant” one, can devise a complete plan of action covering every contingency.  Every player’s information is incomplete.  Thus, information is asymmetric.  Here, quantum mechanics provides “a clear and indisputable advantage”, according to Brunner and Linden:

The fact that players have private information that is unknown to the other players coincides precisely with the notion of locality in physics.  [T]he fact that the common advice does not allow a player to obtain information about the private information of other players is precisely the concept of no-signaling in physics.

However, where two or more players develop entanglements and share advice—as occurs when insurgent cells form, disband when they sense danger, and then reform in different sizes and composition— novel joint strategies may emerge.  While it may possible to detect these strategies, imperfect information makes them unpredictable.

Locality has interesting implications for counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. FM 3-24, the U.S. Army COIN manual postulates, “the center of gravity is the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act,” which reflects the notion of a “vital center,” not Zusammenhang.  Quantum mechanics helps illuminate a fundamental error, as Ben Connable argues:

COIN is best practiced as a decentralized type of warfare predicated on “mission command.” Indeed, doctrine envisions the COIN battlespace as a “mosaic” of localized situations, challenges, and possible solutions.

That is a formula for chasing expressions of insurgency, not interfering or silencing them.

While granting that a “mosaic of localized situations” is prosaically elegant, the phrase lacks meaning.  Recall that quantum mechanics is at odds with the principle of locality.  It is precisely this fact that gives insurgency its quantum character—it isnot influenced directly only by its immediate surroundings. It is true that the effect, or expression, of insurgent violence is localized—for example, as a roadside IED detonation— but expression is a function of many factors, some of which at least are not local: while some movements engage in local insurgencies, others engage in transnational operations. This seems intuitive: the causes of insurgent violence are often diverse and complex, and external conditions and support affect insurgencies.  It seems foolish to suggest, as Joint COIN doctrine does, that “COIN plans and order should…address the root causes of insurgency” when such causes may be poorly understood and/or distant.

Moreover, modern communications compress the operational level of war such that almost any tactical action can have immediate strategic impact.  To conflate localized expression and “localized situations” is a serious error.  Further to the point, the COIN battlespace is not a “mosaic” or assemblage of small pieces: if it were, asymmetry would exist only in a trivial compositional sense.  Rather, asymmetry means the insurgent’s asymmetric use of violence.

A quantum or Q-insurgency uses violence instrumentally to cause discontinuous change in the battlespace— under the earlier definition of the quantum center, largely synonymous with the counterinsurgent— through unitary failures (discrete incidents that are not “countered”) and contagion (failure cascades).  Its principles are opacity, agency, and asymmetryOpacity in the context of Q-insurgency means the counterinsurgent does not posses actionable information about the insurgent.  Opacity devalues information: for an opaque insurgent, it is reduced to subjective opinion and hearsay.  Put another way, opacity causes ignorance by diminishing the counterinsurgent’s chance of informed action and prediction.  Agencymeans insurgent actions are subjective and independent.  Agency devalues causality as a counterinsurgency instrument: against an insurgent-agent, trying to obtain control over an insurgency by understanding its “causes” is self-defeating.  Asymmetrymeans that the counterinsurgent and the insurgent scale violence incongruently: the insurgent uses violence instrumentally (to engineer outcomes) and strategically (e.g., fat-tailed events) whereas the counterinsurgent only uses it tactically.  Further, while a counterinsurgent will be blamed for a use of force that injures noncombatants, an insurgent often will not.  This distorts the counterinsurgent’s ability to ascertain and manage risk in the use of violence, which can make the asymmetry more acute.

The Iraq insurgency of a decade ago—“a constantly shifting network of disparate organizations”— was a paradigm of entanglement at work. Bruce Hoffman argues:

In this loose, ambiguous, and constantly shifting environment, constellations of cells or collections of individuals gravitate toward one another to carry out armed attacks, exchange intelligence, trade weapons, or engage in joint training and then disperse at times never to operate together again.

Insurgents share information about operations— techniques, tactics, enemy vulnerabilities, and target priorities— that allow groups acting independently to conduct attacks in a coherent pattern.  So while insurgents are susceptible to disruption at the margin, it is not the same as destroying them. As David Kilcullen observed, ”Field experience from Iraq suggests that it may be harder, not easier, to defeat such a complex, inchoate and disorganised swarm of opponents.”

Why does imperfect information make them unpredictable—not in the sense of knowing whether an insurgent will eventually strike, but in the granular sense of something actionable?   Returning to quantum mechanics, observable change occurs in discrete bits of action.  The action-quantum itself is not detectable, however: only pieces or derivatives are.  In contrast, classical counterinsurgency theory considered the aggregated effect of many small incidents— the “war of the flea” — as the key driver. The action-quanta never figures in to this.

Insurgent groups are entangled with manifold social and political forces—Kilcullen’s “self-synchronizing swarm.”  At any point, a number of ‘futures’ exist: entanglements make each possible though none is specifically predictable since how these forces affect each other is not itself predictable. Were it possible to do so, the very act of targeting a given vulnerability would change the set of entanglements.

One illustration is the application of counterforce: these actions often inadvertently punish civilians, either through collateral damage or wanton abuse, and indirectly enhance support for the insurgency.  What is clear is that as mass can be said to distort space, so force distorts the battlespace.  The more massive that force, the greater the distortion.  This effect can be as simple as flattening information so that it fails to convey the complexity of the surrounding social environment.

Configurations of this sort have been described as a soup of groups.  Their entanglements produce “seemingly random attacks and a shadowy, mysterious enemy,” all hallmarks of insurgent warfare. One scholar elegantly captures at least a suggestion of nonlinearity in Clausewitz’s view of war:

The course of a given war becomes thereby not the mere sequence of intentions and actions of each opponent, but the pattern or shape generated by mutually hostile intentions and simultaneously consequential actions.  The contest is not the presence or actions of each opponent added together.  It is the dynamic set of patterns made in the space between and around the contestants.

Put another way, a battlespace is “brought into being by the participation of those who participate.” We may sometimes discern “tendencies to exist” and “tendencies to occur,” but nothing linear.

How then to rescue Clausewitz’s metaphor?  In QM, the center of gravity system cannot be described geometrically, only dynamically.  Ergo, a soup of groups.  Clausewitz presciently captures at least the sense of dynamism with a visual metaphor: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.” However, as Robert M. Dickau explains:

A chaotic situation arises in the experiment of swinging a magnetic pendulum over a plane containing two or more attractive magnets: which magnet the pendulum ultimately rests over is highly dependent on the starting position and velocity of the pendulum, so that small variations in initial conditions lead to different results.

As with the pendulum’s movement, so, too, counterinsurgency: Galula wrote, “counterinsurgency is only an effect of insurgency.”  Indeed, the “chaotic magnet” seems an apt metaphor for largely reactive counterinsurgencies.

It also allows us to contest Sir Lawrence’s claim that “armed forces do not have COGs.”  This may be true, so insofar as classic Newtonian mechanics are concerned.  However, the quantum center is a dynamic, mass-weighted average, and as such effectively synonymous with the counterinsurgent.  Quantum-COG is a useful lens to understand the insurgent-counterinsurgent relationship and elaborates many worthwhile insights modern readers can glean from Clausewitz’s classic work.

Rescuing Clausewitz’s metaphor requires it to tell us something we did not know before.  Bound to classic Newtonian mechanics, it fails, at least as far as telling us anything meaningful or authentic.  The prospect improves with QM as a lens.  Here, though, Clausewitz may speak more to insurgents, since asymmetry works to their advantage, i.e., the “no Zusammenhang, no Schwerpunkt-COG” rule.  The question of what quantum-Clausewitz holds for our understanding of insurgency-counterinsurgency merits further study.

As our understanding of the physical world evolves, we should commit to retest metaphors based on that understanding.  So, too, COG.   Before going so far as to “ban” COG, it bears considering that failing to understand how COG does not favor the counterinsurgent—put another way, how a powerful force’s COG may be the insurgent’s friend— might prove ultimately as harmful as (here gladly concurring with Sir Lawrence) COG’s mantra-like repetition has proved tiresome.


John R. Haines is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he also is a trustee and directs its Princeton Committee.  Much of his current research is focused on Russia and its near abroad, with a special interest in nationalist and separatist movements.  He also is the chief executive officer of a private sector corporation that develops nuclear detection and nuclear counterterrorism technologies.

Image: Mechanics Magazine published in London in 1824 (public domain)