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A Concept at the Crossroads: Rethinking the Center of Gravity

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph M. Janiczek. | September 2007

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Since the 1980s, the U.S. military has placed great emphasis on the theories and concepts of Clausewitz. Concomitantly, a tremendous emphasis has been placed in doctrine on the center of gravity (COG) as a central element of campaign planning. The doctrinal definitions of the COG are still imperfect, but the concept arguably serves as an effective tool for focusing military effort to win decisively in major operations or campaigns. Although the American military performs brilliantly in decisive operations, the difficulties it has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that a doctrinal renaissance is in order. This paper examines the potential for employing the COG concept in areas beyond the realm of decisive operations. After examining the concept?s evolution, present doctrinal manifestations, and some previous proposals for future employment, the author opines that the COG?s role in American military thinking is flawed and must be reconsidered entirely. To that end, three options are offered for evolving the COG, with a specific recommendation that it would be most effective if removed from doctrine and considered as an abstract concept, rather than a practical one.


Since the 1980s, the military education system has placed great emphasis on the study of the operational art and the theories and concepts of Clausewitz. Concomitantly, a tremendous emphasis has been placed in doctrine on the center of gravity (COG) as a central element of campaign planning. After almost a quarter of a century, there is still lively debate over the precise meaning of the COG: the services and joint community continue to parse words over a precise doctrinal definition; staff colleges devote countless hours to its study; and scholars and pundits debate its origin and optimal application with numbing frequency. All of these activities speak to the concept?s pervasiveness. It is solidly ensconced in military thinking and parlance, and this is understandable. The COG serves as a giant lens for focusing military effort to achieve decisive results in major operations. The effective application of military power to such ends involves taking into account a complex array of issues, all of which are unique to any given circumstance. When taken with the requirement for thorough but rapid planning and the proclivity for military professionals to argue over priorities, it is easy to see why such a concept fits so well into military culture. Further, given the U.S. military?s prowess at winning tactical and operational engagements decisively over the past 15 years, few in the military would argue that the COG concept has not served it well.

As good as the military is at winning decisive battles, it now finds itself paying the penalty for incomplete thinking. The highly effective decisive operations that made fugitives of the Taliban and removed Saddam Hussein from power have each evolved into a prolonged struggle to provide stability to transforming societies and legitimacy to new broad-based governments. Decisive operations, the military is rediscovering, do not necessarily win wars. The current strategic landscape and the nature of what has come to be known as The Long War suggests that the time is ripe for a renaissance in military thinking. A more holistic approach to war, extending well beyond the realm of major decisive operations, is currently mandated, which in turn calls for a corresponding recalibration of the military mindset. Such change, among other things, necessitates adjustments to doctrine, thus bringing a discussion of the COG?s relevance to the forefront. Can the COG concept be useful in ways lying beyond the context of decisive operations, should it be applied in that broader context, and, if so, how? These are the central questions of this paper.

After briefly examining the COG concept?s evolution, its present doctrinal form, and some suggestions for its future, this paper proposes that the COG?s role in American military thinking must be radically reconsidered. In this regard, the paper briefly discusses three options for evolving the COG concept from its present form. It then narrows discussion to the most promising one of these options, specifically concluding that the COG can realize its fullest potential in facilitating the successful prosecution of war if it is regarded as a broad, abstract principle for focusing the total national effort in theater rather than simply a practical formula for selecting battlefield targets and objectives.


Accepting the third path, then, as the broad alternative offering the best chance of putting the vexations of Clausewitz?s center of gravity behind us, we arrive at a specific recommendation. The U.S. military should adopt a version of the COG along the lines described in Christopher Bassford?s essay as alluded to earlier. The U.S. military would gain much by abandoning the present narrow definition in favor of teaching the concept as a simple admonishment: remain focused on the key points at issue and apply resources accordingly. This approach would constitute a cultural shift of tectonic magnitude, but it would do much to disabuse military thinkers of the grievously misguided belief that every enemy has an Achilles heel against which force must be applied, and that the planner?s task is to find it. Believers that Clausewitz?s analogy to the physical sciences was to be applied literally may not agree with this approach.

Those who would dismiss such a course of action would do well to consider the relevance of other Clausewitzian concepts in military culture, such as friction, fog, culminating points, and uncertainty. None of these expressions has been operationalized, nor do military staffs devote hours of analysis attempting to reify or quantify them during the planning process. Yet, military professionals constantly use these terms in a broad suggestive sense and are able to communicate their meaning effectively through a mutual understanding developed through study and experience. The value of such an analogy, therefore, is its ability to express the complex aspects of war in an understandable form. This makes it timeless. But it has no place in doctrine. As Douglas Johnson put it, ?Doctrine should set forth principles and precious little more. That would allow the Army to adapt those things that endure to ever-changing conditions and the tools available.?32

This is not to say that the exceptional work in developing the present COG paradigm over the past quarter century should be discarded. Specifically, the CC-CR-CV model arrived at by Dr. Joseph Strange and discussed earlier should be retained and refined under a differently named concept such as ?Critical Strength.? This capabilities-based model amounts to an insightful, but self-limiting, form of systems analysis for targeting. Though useful in many circumstances, such a paradigm presents the hazard of confusing the vitally important with the readily derived. In that regard, it seems a bit at odds with what Clausewitz was trying to offer.

For years the COG has been an imperfect, controversial, but arguably effective tool for focusing the effort of military operations. The concept?s prominent role in the doctrine of decisive operations has made it central to military thinking. But the context that bore out such doctrine has dramatically changed and, in many important ways, exposed some flawed thinking. The writers of American doctrine and other military professionals will no doubt continue to grapple with these realities, working to approach war ever more holistically. As they do so, they will no doubt seek to apply the timeless and steadfast concepts of the past effectively. To maintain its place among these concepts, the COG must come to be properly understood as an abstract but important metaphor or analogy. Attempting to maintain it literally as an operationalizable form of doctrine will severely limit the potential for a historically intriguing concept.


32. Douglas V. Johnson II, ?Doctrine That Works,? available from www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm ?pubID= 724, Internet, accessed December 31, 2006.