Centers of gravity — Do they still matter?

Decisively defeating al-Qa‘ida will involve neutralizing its CoG, but this will require the use of diplomatic and informational initiatives more than military action.  LTC Antulio J. Echevarria II, USA (ret.)1/

This most perceptive statement, written before our invasion of Iraq, raises the issue of whether the center of gravity concept offers anything for the types of conflicts we find ourselves engaged in today.

At least twice in the last week or so, I’ve seen “centers of gravity” in articles about US defense policy:

The problem with all this is that the first is a tautology — destroy the enemy and you defeat the enemy — and other is something to occupy historians. Both of the authors recognize the limitations of traditional approaches, and they both propose expanding them away from military blows directed against an hypothesized critical vulnerability in the enemy formation:

Steed: 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.

Bacevich: People constitute this war’s center of gravity.

So was Clausewitz just reasoning by wild analogy? Far from it, as it turns out, and that brings us back to Dr. Echevarria. He first notes that the most popular translations are inaccurate or at least misleading. Clausewitz, like Boyd, was a keen student of the physics of his day and knew perfectly well what a center of gravity was. In particular, it’s not a”source of strength” nor a particularly strong or effective component. It’s not that in physics, either, where the center of gravity might not even be part of the object in question.

Envision it like this: If you have a rigid object, say a board, and you strike it a sufficiently sharp blow at its center of gravity, it will shatter. If your blow lands somewhere else, the board will probably rotate rapidly around its center of gravity likely striking you in the head.

In other words, a center of gravity is what holds the organization together, what gives it cohesion. As Echevarria put it, “The salient issue once again is Zusammenhang—interdependence, or connectivity.”

So if you translate this to a military force, you might ask: What’s holding it together? Why do they fight? Fear of their officers? Esprit du corps? Morale? Einheit? Love of country?  Great — how do you attack these? You could try propaganda. Think Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose and then recall how effective they were. But there are ways to attack cohesion.

The notion of attacking cohesion, in fact, runs all through Boyd. Drawing on physics that emerged after Clausewitz, particularly thermodynamics, Boyd concluded that disorder will increase, and cohesion will decrease, in any organization that is both isolated from the environment, inwardly focused as we might say, and that comes under stress. For example:

Mentally we can isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations, [CR Note: puts them under stress] as well as by operating at a tempo or rhythm they can neither make out nor keep up with. Operating inside their O-O-D-A loops will accomplish just this by disorienting or twisting their mental images so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s really going on. Strategic Game, 47.

A few points stand out. Being inwardly focused is OK if there’s no threat. But if you adopt this attitude, be really, really sure, somehow, that there’s no threat.  Second, Boyd’s concept, as laid out in this paragraph, doesn’t require us to guess beforehand at what will shatter a center of gravity or even where or what it is.  Operate inside their OODA loop, while keeping the environment “ambiguous, deceptive, or novel” and at some point, cohesion will disintegrate. As he so poetically put it on chart 132 of Patterns of Conflict, you’ll “generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” I love that kind of talk.

So although Boyd did not have the benefit of Dr. Echevarria’s translation, both Boyd and Clausewitz end up in the same place, albeit by different paths. Clausewitz’s approach was to direct one’s effort at something, while Boyd’s was all about manipulating the opponents’ perception of time.

What does this have to do with our current situation? Can we operate inside the OODA loops of guerrilla organizations like ISIS? Sure. Read David Hackworth’s Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts and you’ll find all kinds of examples of “out-G’ing the G” as he put it. At roughly the same time, Mike Wyly was using maneuver warfare to achieve similar results, as mentioned in Certain to Win.

These methods work on any opposing military force. The question is “Then what?” Think back to 2003. We achieved Clausewitz’s objective of destroying the enemy military forces, and we declared “Mission Accomplished,” which in the military sense was true, but somehow the next few years have not turned out quite as we had hoped.

To make sense of this, it helps to recognize that Boyd was a Clausewitzian in that, like Steed, he carried “an unreserved subscription to the thesis of war as the continuation of political activity with an admixture of means.”2/ As he put it, operating inside the OODA loop (call it “maneuver warfare” if you wish)  is a most effective way to wield the military instrument, and beyond that, it offers political possibilities for the post-war era that attrition-based strategies cannot provide:

…  of these latter four strategic and tactical notions permit real leadership to avoid high attrition, avoid widespread destruction, and gain a quick victory. This, combined with shattered cohesion, paralysis, and rapid collapse demonstrated by the existing adversary regime, makes it appear corrupt, incompetent, and unfit to govern.  Under these circumstances, leaders and statesmen offering generous terms can form the basis for a viable peace. [CR Note: political objectives]  Patterns 142.

This last sentence is what we did not do, so we threw away the advantages that our lightning victory gave us. For more on this, I recommend Jim Fallows’s Blind into Baghdad and Cobra II, by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, USMC, ret., particularly chapter 24, appropriately entitled “Starting from scratch.”

Fine and well, I hear you say, but the invasion of Iraq was a conventional operation against a conventional military force, such as it was. What about guerrilla warfare? What I’m going to offer might strike you as odd, given all that’s been written on the subject over the last 50 years or so, but we don’t need to worry about where the guerrilla’s center of gravity might be. US military forces cannot win a people’s war in a Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian country. They are not our people, and those are not seas we can swim in.

Yes, as Hackworth and Wyly showed, we can defeat any military units that we can find, but that will prove, once again, to be irrelevant. Boyd’s suggestion should make us examine whether it was necessary for Iraq to turn into a guerrilla war in the first place. There were, for example, no guerrilla bands of any note when Saddam was in power. Would they have formed under a government with more popular support than his?


1. The article is “Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity. It’s Not What We Thought,” in the Winter 2003 issue of the Naval War College Review. LTC Antulio J. Echevarria, II, Ph.D., is now the editor of the US Army War College’s journal, Parameters. At the time he wrote this article, he was Director of National Security Affairs at the College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

2. Think of it as the “terms” in “survival on your own terms.” Boyd cited Clausewitz more than any strategist other than Sun Tzu, and he borrowed two fundamental concepts, friction and centers of gravity, from him.

17 thoughts on “Centers of gravity — Do they still matter?

  1. When Boyd briefed “patterns of conflict” at IBM … he would talk about reframing the military examples to apply to any kind of competition/conflict. Lots has been written about recent battles really for public opinion … both in commercial competition and numerous forms of military operations … especially asymmetric. Time and time again, the are examples of MICC believing that the battle is one of lethal force and not recognizing the battle is one for public opinion.

  2. The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth; pg113/loc1614-16:

    By the time he took over the ISI in 2004, Kayani knew that the Afghan war would be decided not by soldiers in mountain redoubts but by politicians in Washington who had an acute sensitivity to America’s limited tolerance for years more of bloody conflict .


    In 2004, Kayani’s thesis sat in the library at Fort Leavenworth, amid stacks of other largely ignored research papers written by foreign officers who went to Kansas to study how the United States Army fights its battles. This was a manual for a different kind of battle, a secret guerrilla campaign. Two decades after the young Pakistani military officer wrote it, he was the country’s spymaster, in the perfect position to put it to use.

    … snip ..

  3. Nice post Chet. This is the very reason why Warden’s 5 rings is a more useful form of analysis in modern war situations, due to the fact that we are facing many COG’s in an Enemy System.

  4. Drawing on physics that emerged after Clausewitz, particularly thermodynamics, Boyd concluded that disorder will increase, and cohesion will decrease, in any organization that is both isolated from the environment, inwardly focused as we might say, and that comes under stress.

    The logical conclusion of this is that the US must be deeply in disorder.

    When the Bush administration invaded in 2003, they did not even anticipate having to deal with an insurgency. Likewise, they did not seem to think that there would be more in common in the War in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion of that nation in the 1980s than initially expected.

    Should it be a surprise? This is after all, the same MICC of the Cold War, only if anything, it has gotten worse.

    – Chris

  5. Spinney’s MICC “Perpetual War” theme is not to win … but always have continuous conflict as part of keeping MICC fed … much of the rest is Kabuki Theater

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