Strategy: Renewing the Center of Gravity
The Center of Gravity is a troublesome and ultimately unsatisfying concept, as argued here by Professor Lawrence Freedman. But he is right for reasons beyond those that he elaboratedin his piece . Revealing why requires exploring one of the biggest and under-analysed weaknesses of the work that Carl von Clausewitz left us.
Before proceeding however, it is necessary to issue the following declaration lest this article be misunderstood. I am a Clausewitzian. I carry an unreserved subscription to the thesis of war as the continuation of political activity with an admixture of means. I am a staunch believer and defender of Clausewitz’s ideas. Despite this, for those of us whose profession is providing intellectual rigour, it is our duty to avoid becoming what Liddell Hart rightly labelled as an “unthinking disciple.” Admiration, even reverence for the triumph of On War should never be allowed to descend into a form of worship, one that blindly superimposes the Prussian’s concepts onto our present challenges hoping that a form of alchemy will result. As Freedman has established, this is what many planners and strategists have done in an effort to find a “knock-out blow” through the center of gravity.
Clausewitz held that war has two natures, the subjective and the objective; he used the respective metaphors of grammar and logic to illustrate this. Freedman uses the subjective nature of war to critique the way that the center of gravity concept has never delivered in reality. That is, the use of force and the seeking of decisive engagement through the destruction of the enemy force. The center of gravity concept as Clausewitz constructed it was restricted by its focus as a subjective conceptual formula, informed by the bloody practice of Napoleonic warfare. Clausewitz was restricted by the subjective focus of the center of gravity concept, which are exacerbated by two further weaknesses to his work.
First, and pertinent (though not exclusively so) to the subjective nature, is the fact that On War was never finished beyond Book One, Chapter One. Clausewitz himself warned in a cover note for his revision plans that, should early death terminate his work, it would resemble little more than a shapeless mass of ideas, subject to endless misinterpretation and half-baked criticism. Beyond the opening book and chapter, the concepts that Clausewitz provides must be considered as unfinished conceptual designs. This includes the center of gravity concept. One can also include on this list his definition of strategy, his thinking on irregular warfare, the use of intelligence and others. And this is before considering what was omitted from his work entirely, such as naval warfare and the role of the law.
Even when directly applied to the subjective nature of war – the art of fighting – the center of gravity concept carries precious little value beyond the maxim of destroying the enemy force as the guiding principle of war. This is because Clausewitz established no reliable formula for identifying what the center of gravity is nor, most importantly, being able to reliably predict and trace the political effects of targeting that center of gravity once identified. In the contemporary history of military planning it was simply left to deduction based on Napoleonic warfare: find the bulk of the enemy force, and destroy it comprehensively.
The second weakness to Clausewitz is the most profound to his entire work, which Freedman omitted. Despite establishing the political nature of war, Clausewitz was never able to establish how the use of force translates into political effects. Politik itself remained a totally unexplored issue or, as Colin Gray puts it: ‘‘War is about policy, but On War is not.’ This brings us to the objective nature of war; for the center of gravity to have any useful purpose, it not only needs to establish what to target among the enemy, but its explanatory power should also include insight on how that target translates into political effect. This criticism carries into all of the unrevised concepts in his work,: the link between the use of means in war and political effect remains unfinished work.
There are numerous occasions when a decisive battlefield victory has failed to translate into strategic success. Three easy examples are Hannibal at Cannae, Napoleon at Moscow, and the United States in 1991 (in this last case, a decisive military victory did secure limited political objectives, but the expected decisive fall of the Saddam regime did not result). The inherent causal assumption in the center of gravity concept – its true fatal weakness – is that if one can identify the center of gravity, then successfully destroy it, then strategic success will follow almost by default. This greatly appeals to Western military forces, which are loathe to engage with political matters and see their task as ending with battlefield victory. It also appeals to political elites with increasingly less experience of the profession of arms, who believe in leaving the military to the task and waiting for them to deliver victory. While understandable, this segregation of professional military expertise and the affairs of the political leadership only reinforce the limits of Clausewitzian thinking
The true weakness of the center of gravity concept therefore lies not in the decades-old story of military forces trying to operationalize this concept. Instead the weakness lies with On War itself. Clausewitz did not complete his revisions and, even if he had, the poverty of his treatment with politik suggests that conceptual linkage of the center of gravity to the objective nature of war would not have been attempted. Ultimately the concept carries little practical value, unless we go beyond Clausewitz and truly begin to build on the theoretical foundation that he laid. Normally, if a concept is falsified too often one abandons it, knowing it is unreliable and carries too little explanatory power to justify its continued use. The concept of the center of gravity certainly fits this category. The problem for the applied strategist, however, is what should take its place? In lieu of a functional replacement concept, one must instead seek to refine the existing concept in order to make it better.
Making the center of gravity fit for purpose would require going back to one’s fundamental Clausewitz, and engaging both the subjective and objective nature of war. On the subjective side, greater methods of sophistication in identifying the center of gravity are required. The U.S. Marine Corps, arguably the greatest innovators in this field, in their doctrine publications interpret the center of gravity as a critical enemy weakness, rather than the traditional physics concept of coalesced mass. This carries an intriguing implication: that bolstering a Clausewitzian concept may actually require the application of Sun Tzu’s Taoist approach of targeting weakness instead of strength. A robust methodology for identifying and validating an enemy center of gravity beyond merely the enemy military force is greatly needed, as well as a causal chain for the effects of targeting that center of gravity.
But it is the objective nature of war that carries the greatest promise for the progression of this concept. First, by linking to the subjective nature, greater effort must be placed on linking the effects of center of gravity targeting to political effect. This includes greater dialogue about predicting the expected political effect of attacking that target. One can argue that such discussions already take place, but they are ad hoc and devoid of any real guiding formula beyond validating the legality of target selection. Establishing some criteria for political-military dialogue in the creation of campaign planning to suit political objectives is a must for better linking the center of gravity to the desired political effect. Let us briefly consider an example of poor application. In 1956, Britain and France colluded to invade Egypt over the Suez Crisis. During the planning process a member of the Chiefs of Staff, Lord Mountbatten, sought political clarification and was chastised by Prime Minister Eden. Eden insisted that he would suffer no interference from the Chiefs of Staff on political matters. This resulted in a planning process that produced three separate operational plans. The first plan targeted Cairo through an amphibious landing at Alexandria to overthrow Nasser. The second was to land at Port Said and march on and secure the Canal Zone. And the third plan was a winter contingency to launch either of the first plans during the winter months.
The second plan was carried out to secure the Suez Canal Zone, when the dominating political objective remained bringing about the fall of the Nasser regime. Clearly something was lost in translation in the causal link between military operations and desired political effect in this case. Britain was targeting a geographical center of gravity when it should have targeted a political one. Better linking the subjective to the objective is the fundamental improvement that the center of gravity concept is waiting for.
More radical, however, would be to explore the objective nature entirely, and to begin to interpret the center of gravity as a political rather than a military concept. Although conceived as a military framework, based around the centrality of battle in Clausewitz’s thinking, in the present context of reduced battlefield decisiveness one can argue that the true center of gravity lies in the political space of perceptions away from the battlefield itself. Having an appreciation of what a political center of gravity might be could revitalise the center of gravity concept beyond merely battlefield use. One can argue that during the failed debates of summer 2013 over intervention in Syria, the center of gravity was not an anticipated battlefield in the Levant, but was instead in the political wills on Capitol Hill and in Whitehall. Vladimir Putin’s public pleas not to intervene can be seen as the targeting of a correctly identified Western political center of gravity – the electorate’s lack of interest in another Middle Eastern intervention. Greater effort should be invested in identifying the critical vulnerabilities in the political elites of one’s opponents; one may find that engaging such a point generates greater strategic effect.
Ultimately, Freedman is right: we must stop searching for the center of gravity, but with a caveat. We must stop searching for it based on the current concept, which is dominated by battlefield thinking. That concept carries little use because of weaknesses that afflict On War as a whole. The center of gravity concept need not be abandoned entirely, however. It needs to be recognised that building on Clausewitz in the manner outlined above, rather than blindly worshipping his concepts, represents an approach that can revitalise the center of gravity and make it fit for purpose once more.
Dr Daniel Steed is Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. His tasks at Exeter include helping in the design and delivery of the MA in Applied Security Strategy, under the direction of General (Rtd.) Sir Paul Newton and Professor Paul Cornish. He is also a contributor at War on the Rocks.
Image Credit: Master Sergeant Martin J. Cervantez, U.S. Army Center of Military History