Let’s Fix or Kill the Center of Gravity Concept by Dale Eikmeier, Joint Force Quarterly
The current revision of Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, provides an opportunity to fix the flawed description of the center of gravity (COG) concept. The description is constructed so poorly that it has fueled endless debate and created volumes of articles and papers—all for something that is supposed to be clearly understood and accepted as the “linchpin in the planning effort.”1 This article proposes a new COG definition that moves away from a Clausewitzian foundation toward a modern 21st-century concept that can end years of debate and let the concept become the useful tool doctrine intended.
The main flaws fueling the doctrinal concept’s debate are its Clausewitzian foundation and its use of imprecise metaphors. When we use metaphors to define something, we do not really understand it. This imprecision, first introduced in Army doctrine in 1986 and joint doctrine in 1994, created a cottage industry of theoretical debate that rages on to this day.2 This debate has three camps: the Clausewitzian traditionalists, the rejectionists, and between them, the accommodators, who are perhaps a bit quixotic in their quest to fix the concept.
The Clausewitzian traditionalists, best represented by Antulio Echevarria II of the U.S. Army War College, have sought to correct the doctrine’s flaws by going back to Carl von Clausewitz himself and his seminal On War, often in the original German, and trying to divine what he really meant. Echevarria confirmed this, stating, “Yet after more than two decades of controversy, the meaning of center of gravity remains unsettled. Fortunately some of the confusion can be eliminated by returning to its original [Clausewitz] sense.”3 The traditionalist argument is that flawed English translations corrupted the original concept and doctrine accepted this corruption, fueling the debate. Echevarria’s Naval War College Review article, “Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: It’s Not What We Thought,” discusses this mistranslation argument. The solution, according to the author, is “to align the definitions of center of gravity with the Clausewitzian concept and bring it back under control.”4 The cornerstone of the traditionalist argument is that what Clausewitz said trumps real world utility.
The rejectionists, represented by Alex Ryan of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies and Colonel Mark Cancian, USMC, also studied the concept of the doctrine’s discussion and the real world. What they learned and saw caused them to throw up their hands in frustration. This led Ryan to conclude the COG concept is “so abstract to be meaningless.”5 The title of Cancian’s award-winning article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1998, “Centers of Gravity Are a Myth,” pretty well summed up the rejectionist argument. The rejectionists do not care what Clausewitz said or meant almost 200 years ago; they are practitioners looking for concepts and tools that will help address the challenges they face in a complex 21st-century environment. They perhaps have the strongest argument in searching for a solid analytical tool that has real utility, but they only see unsettled theory, so they reject it.
Then there are the accommodators represented by Joe Strange, formerly of the U.S. Marine Corps War College, Milan Vego of the U.S. Naval War College, and me of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Accommodators take a practitioner’s view, much like the rejectionists, but are less concerned than traditionalists with what Clausewitz meant and are more concerned with how planners use the concept. The accommodators, however, reject the rejectionist viewpoint and see value in the concept, thus their quixotic quest to fix the concept. So JP 5-0’s revision is the “giant,” or, if one prefers, the “windmill” that the accommodators’ lances are aimed at. On the tip of the lance is a new definition…