Small Wars Journal

Let’s Fix or Kill the Center of Gravity Concept

Sun, 10/23/2016 - 11:16am

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…

Read on.



Thu, 11/17/2016 - 3:23pm

How would you explain the COG concept if you were teaching it? Could you give 3 different examples from history and how you reached your conclusion? I realize this may be a lot to ask but if you have the time.


Tue, 11/15/2016 - 12:13pm

In reply to by RIngleby

I agree with you and so did CvC which is why I think he said the COG should be traced back to one "IF" possible! During Gulf War 1 they thought there were 3. National command authority,WMD capability,Republican Guard. CvC was even more concerned about this when he talks about "arming the population" or Irregular warfare ,he admits he did not understand it well.

Strategy bridge just published an article about the problems with our definition of war,which not directly related to COG has some common ground. Don't have a link but it is worth a read.


Tue, 11/15/2016 - 11:15am

In reply to by slapout9

I think your comment underscores the problem with the military today - a gross misunderstanding of CoG. It also shows a failure to utilize lessons from history.

***Such a misunderstanding is exactly why we have had so many unsuccessful conflicts recently(!!!)

The CoG is not always a military (and almost never a specific unit), in fact rarely so. How many wars have we (the US) fought where we have focused on destroying the enemy military? How many of these we have been successful in so doing, yet we lost the war in the end? Answer: a lot. Recently any ways.

Why? The CoG was not an enemy's military.

If war is an arm of forcing policy, that alone shows there is more to the story than just a military - there is something behind that.

Bottom line: We need to rely on history here to substantiate/unsubstantiate this argument. It clearly shows a different reality than what you have just suggested.


Wed, 11/09/2016 - 8:40am

At the back of On War CvC tells how to find a Cog and what to do about. In simple terms if you face more than one Army the most capable is the Cog, if it is a single Army the most capable unit is the Cog. In other words what is the enemy main effort. Instead fixing or killing the concept we should face the fact that if you can't figure out Cog you resign your commission and go be a truck driver because you sure don't belong in the military.

If "modernization," to wit: the achievement of fundamental, complete and comprehensive state and societal "change" of outlying states and societies -- this, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines only -- if this is our political objective today,

Then might we consider the "center of gravity" of our opponents (those sitting on the fence and/or actively resisting our such desired fundamental, complete and comprehensive state and societal "change" of their states and societies) to be the power and appeal of these such opponents' varied, individual and unique -- but collectively "non-modern"/"non-western" -- political, economic, social and value norms?

Thus, to suggest that if -- in the eyes of these such "non-modern"/"non-western"-oriented/inspired opponents" --

a. The power and appeal of their primitive -- or modern but non-western (think, for example, "communist") -- political, economic, social and value norms can be significantly discredited, reduced and/or actually eliminated. And if

b. The power and appeal of modern western political, economic, social and value norms can be made to take their place. Then

"The war" (to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and values lines) could be said to have been "won?"

Bottom Line:

In this analysis, the "center of gravity" of one's opponent is, essentially, the power and appeal of the "primitive" -- and/or other "modern" but non-western -- political, economic, social and value institutions and norms that one's opponent governments, and/or their populations, either (a) still cling to or (b) desire anew.

Thus, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, (a) an active attack on their such "center of gravity" and (b) an active promotion of our own such "center of gravity" (much as was our approach in the Old Cold War of yesterday?) becomes, once again, our "way forward."

Why is this?

Because, post-the Old Cold War of yesterday, such ideas as "universal (Western) values," the "overwhelming appeal" of our way of life, etc., and the "end of history" (the Western such version) did not play out very well/were proven to be erroneous/an illusion.

Thus, back to Square One Operations for us (work hard to discredit/undermine/destroy the other guys' ways of life, and the principles upon when these are based; and work hard to promote and advance our own way of life, and its underlying values, attitudes and beliefs, etc.).

J Harlan

Wed, 11/16/2016 - 3:20pm

In reply to by RIngleby

If you kill enough Americans morale on the home front will break and the US will quit. True but it's true for every state and the fact that if you kill a undetermined but substantial number of the enemy they will give up is hardly worthy of staff college discussion and certainly not what Clausewitz meant.

What about something more tangible as the COG of the US. How about the internet. If ISIS was able to shut it down for several months would the US surrender? Of course not! "We'd fight them on the beaches, the landing grounds....". How about terrorist attacks to sap morale? No. Potable water? Electricity? The food supply? Destroy JSOC? A housing crisis caused by fraud? No to all if they were even possible.

How about the current enemy- the various jihadis. How is it in 16 years the combined forces of NATO and it's various local allies haven't destroyed the jihadi COG if even by accident? The answer is that they don't have one. There is no single central location, person, or capability that is the lynch pin for their war.

There may be a COG in a battle- a hill, a bridge or supply dump etc- but there are none in modern war which is why all take the form of wars of attrition.


Tue, 11/15/2016 - 11:04am

In reply to by J Harlan

I disagree - there is always a CoG. Always. Every society (to include its military) has something that its ability to function balances on.

The US - our CoG is clearly popular support back home. As I cited above, Ho Chi Minh clearly recognized that. So have our insurgent opponents since.

Bottom line, this is a fundamental part of warfare, one that will never go away. Can we attack the wrong CoG (or just attack something blindly)? Absolutely. Recent American conflicts show that clearly. But there will always be something that is central to that nation (to include its Army) functioning.

J Harlan

Tue, 11/08/2016 - 8:54am

In reply to by RIngleby

Perhaps we have trouble finding "the" COG because there isn't one. One can imagine how Clausewitz could envisage a central lynch pin that kept a Napoleonic era enemy going- a fort, a city, the army but it's not apparent how that applies to modern warfare.

What is America's COG? Does a resilient flexible enemy actually have one? What if you attack what you think is the enemies COG but have it wrong? Do you attack other things just in case? Do you attack other things because all of your services and arms demand a spot in the starting lineup?

Frankly I think all this concern over COG and other Clausewitzian concepts is one part misplaced "Panzer envy", one part make work for military academics and excess officers and one part the usual attempt by the military to make itself appear more intellectually complex than it is.


Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:27pm

(With all respect to the author) Articles such as this are extremely disconcerting, especially coming from the Army's mid-grade educational institution. The fact that there are so many diverging opinions across the Army shows a systemic fundamental misunderstanding of what a CoG really is. Even further disconcerting is the complete lack of historical scrutiny in these arguments, just unsubstantiated arguments over definition. And then, after such minimal study, to suggest incorporation into doctrine is reckless.

Bottom line: the Clausewitzian concept of CoG is not flawed or antiquated, we have just repeatedly failed to understand and engage it.

This problem is highlighted by the definition in JP 5-0 (and what is being subsequently being taught in the Army's school house): that "at the operational level, a COG often is associated with the adversary’s military capabilities" (pg. III-22). This has been interpreted and perpetuated that the CoG is ALWAYS enemy forces. Yet, examples (to name just a few) of Germany in WWII Russia, France and the US in Vietnam, the Soviets and Americans in Afghanistan, and Iraq all show an army continually striving to engage and destroy enemy forces. In all they were successful in so doing, but yet each example resulted in defeat.


Because in each case, the various military leaders misidentified the CoG, and engaged something else. The CoG for each of these conflicts (strategic and operational) was NOT an enemy force.

Yet interestingly in Vietnam, the enemy did not fail to identify ours: "You will kill 10 of our men, and we will kill 1 of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it." Ho Chi Minh knew that our CoG was not our military, but our popular support for it back home. Attacking this included killing US soldiers. But it also included efforts to terrorize the South Vietnamese population, affect American media, etc. He was right. And as a result, he handed the US its first military defeat in its history.

CoG hasn't changed since Clausewitz wrote it centuries ago - it is the hub that everything revolves around (it is what makes an opponent function, or more simply put, "what makes them tick"). It is actually a simple concept. But if we cannot fundamentally understand what it is, we cannot identify it.

The US has shown a pattern of preferring to always engage militarily - and is continuing to perpetuating this problem by emphasizing that CoGs are always military forces. Perhaps this is because it does not want to endeavor to figure out a different line of effort that is unfamiliar or requires a significant effort to fundamentally understand.

Regardless, this understanding is absolutely vital - this failure is the central reason that we have continuously struggled in our conflicts since the Korean War. We cannot afford to send American soldiers into decade-long wars with sub-par end results because we cannot properly understand what CoG is.

It's not broken, we don't need to "fix" it or junk it. We just need to learn how to drive it.

J Harlan

Sun, 10/23/2016 - 11:50am

What's amazing is that the organization- DOD-that funds such ridiculous debates will actually argue it doesn't have enough resources. Not just the learned professors but the students who have to sit through their classes surely have something better to do.