Small Wars Journal

After the Divorce: Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity

Thu, 03/06/2014 - 9:55am

After the Divorce: Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity

Dale C. Eikmeier

This is a follow-up companion piece to the Small War Journal article ‘Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity a Divorce’ July 2, 2013. I am writing this at the request of readers who asked me to “go further and deeper”.

Well the divorce is final.  Clausewitz and the modern Center of Gravity concept are going their separate ways.  I know I speak for many in wishing them a happy and fruitful future, albeit in their own domains. 

Now the divorce settlement stipulates that any discussion of the Center of Gravity in contemporary usage must refrain from using any of the following Clausewitzian ‘red herring’ topics:

  • Physics, Mechanics, Engineering, or metaphors related to the aforementioned;
  • Newtonian, Quantum, positivist, post-positivist or any other philosophical ‘ists’ or ‘isms’;
  • Mass, Fulcrums, Centroids, Hubs or useless but interesting factoids such as the center of gravity of a football is in a hollow space; (That was fun to think about, but not relevant.)
  • Schwerpunkt, German language, quality of translations or anyone calming to know what Clausewitz really, really meant.

Note:  The settlement does permit the use of the aforementioned topics if strictly limited to historical or evolutionary discussions of the divorced parties.

Another stipulation is that the term ‘Center of Gravity’ eventually be replaced with a new term widely accepted by the military community.  Someone proposed ‘The Important Thing’, (TIT) but the acronym’s giggle factor is too high.  ‘The Really Important Thing’ (TRIT) is a possibility, but it lacks the catchiness of something like ‘DIME’.  ‘The Thing to Focus On” (TTTFO) is an option because it is more descriptive of the concept’s purpose, but TTTFO isn’t easily remembered and is not very fun to say – unlike TIT.  One could make it T3Fo, but that might distract chemists in the group trying to figure out what compound or element it is. One regularly hears ‘Silver Bullet’ mentioned, but it is just a metaphor that will lead to more red herring discussions like The Lone Ranger and werewolves which always lead to vampire and zombie debates.  So until the community accepts a new term, ‘Cog’ is the term – for now.  Note that it is spelled ‘Cog’ which is a word, not ‘CoG’ or ‘COG’ which are acronyms for the flawed metaphor that needs replacing.

Since the divorce agreement rules out any Cog discussion based on Clausewitz an alternative foundation must be built.  The first step in building this new foundation is to agree on the intent and purpose of the concept.  The second step requires creating and defining something that meets the intent and purpose.  The third and final step in this article is establishing a methodology for indentifying a Cog.  The actual last is a description on how to use the Cog in planning, but that is a subject for another article.   Hopefully somewhere in this process the Cog will find a new name.

Starting the foundation building process requires removing Clausewitzian references and jargon from  joint doctrine, specifically Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning.  Sort of like  reduction in cooking to boil away any Clausewitzian contaminant that is clouding the concept’s understanding.  [Someone out there is saying, no it’s ‘distilling’ not ‘reduction’ which is just as meaningless as the fulcrum centroid debate.]  What is left after the reduction or distillation provides clues to the concept’s modern intent and purpose, its 21st century foundation.  

Joint planning doctrine says, “The essence of operational art [conceptual military planning] lies in determining how to allocate available friendly resources against an adversary’s CoGs to achieve friendly strategic and operational objectives.[i]   This means the Cog is a thing that planners can and should direct available resources at.  It is the ‘essence of operational art’ and linked to the ability to achieve objectives.  Therefore it is something planners must identify and focus on.  Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, goes on to claim “One of the most important tasks confronting the JFC’s [Joint Force Commander’s] staff in operational design is the identification of friendly and adversary CoGs.” [ii]  This statement reemphasizes the Cog’s importance and the conclusion is it is worth keeping.  It also makes clear that friends and adversaries have Cogs, which implies the need to protect one and attack the other.  JP 5-0 goes on to state that,

 “The COG construct is useful as an analytical tool to help JFCs and staff analyze friendly and adversary sources of strength  as well as weakness and vulnerabilities.  This process cannot be taken lightly, since a faulty conclusion resulting from a poor or hasty analysis can have very serious consequences, such as the inability to achieve strategic and operational objectives at an acceptable cost”.[iii]

This quote is important because it creates a distinction between a Cog and the Cog concept as a planning tool.  The first two quotes describe the Cog as being part of a friendly or adversary system.  It is a thing that exists, the ‘existent Cog’.  It is an integral part of a system.  Now the last quote describes something entirely different, a conceptual planning tool, the ‘conceptual Cog’.  As a concept the Cog is a tool that helps focus planning and operations in an economical way to achieve objectives.  This is an important but subtle distinction; there is the Cog as an existent thing, and the Cog as a conceptual tool.  This will undoubtedly generate numerous comments and debate.  The following quote from JP 5-0 refers to the ‘conceptual Cog’.  “This analysis is a linchpin in the planning effort”.[iv]  [Linchpin is an acceptable metaphor, according to the divorce lawyers.]  It confirms the Cog concept as a planning tool that looks at friendly and enemy strengths and weaknesses so that planners can better allocate available resources to protect or attack the actual ‘existent Cog’.  Perhaps more importantly, if done well it should improve the changes of attaining strategic and operational level objectives and at an acceptable cost.

From the discussion above the conclusion is that the Cog concept is an important tool for planning whose purpose is to help achieve objectives in the most economical sense.  In other words the concept is about being economical and efficient in planning and operations.  Therefore there is a need to design a conceptual planning tool that accomplishes this by focusing both planning and operations in a way that avoids wasted peripheral efforts and achieves the objective.  The key word is ‘focus’.  The intent is to focus both plans and operations on the ‘existent Cog’ and help achieve the objective in an economical and efficient way.  The opposite is doing a myriad of actions, most of them wasteful, and hoping one of them achieves the objective.  [Metaphor Alert, some of you are thinking ‘silver bullet” versus ‘shotgun blasts’.]  Now keep in mind the ‘existent Cog’ and the ‘conceptual Cog’ are not the same.  The ‘conceptual Cog’ is a planning tool.  The ‘existent Cog’ is what the plan and operations focuses on.

Understanding the intent of the ‘Cog concept’ leads to the next step, defining the ‘existent Cog’ so we know what it is and give meaning to the concept. 

Any revised definition of the ‘existent Cog’ that fulfills the concept’s intent should meet the following criteria: [v]

  • Clarity – Answers the question what something is and is simple to understand with limited meaning.  It explicitly states what the center of gravity is, in simple terms without resorting to metaphors or lists of imprecise examples.
  • Based on Logic – Contains rules that allow for a valid inference.  This reduces guessing and debates that go nowhere.
  • Precision – Is narrowly focused to exclude the extraneous.  After all, if the intent is to focus, then everything can’t be a Cog.
  • Testable – It can be objectively tested using rules and logic.  If it is so important shouldn’t planners have to validate the selection?

Here is a proposed definition that meets the listed criteria; The Cog is the primary entity that possesses the inherent capability to achieve the objective.[vi]   Note that this definition is in full compliance with the divorce settlement and contains no reference to Clausewitz or useless metaphors.  More importantly it meets the doctrinal intent of the ‘conceptual Cog’ by helping planers and operators focus on something – the ‘existent Cog’ that friends or adversaries must have to obtain their respective objectives.  Planners can then analyze the Cog’s strengths and weakness so they can create a plan that economically attacks or defends it.

Now test the proposed definition against the criteria.

Clarity.  The definition is a simple declarative statement of what a Cog is.  It is the entity that can achieve the objective.  Unlike the current Clausewitzian based joint definition in joint doctrine, it is not a list of characteristics or descriptions separated by commas.  The words used in the proposed definition have limited meaning, unlike metaphors or the phrase “a source of power” which can have several meanings.  Simply, the Cog is the primary thing that achieves the objective, it isn’t just an abstract concept.  Clarity enables logic. 

Logic.  This definition has two built in criteria that when met lead to a valid inference.  First criterion, the Cog is the primary entity, the key word being primary.  Second criterion, the Cog has the capability to achieve the specified objective or purpose.  The logic is: A (primary entity) + B (capability to achieve the objective) = Cog.  Using these simple criteria one can easily infer what is and what is not a Cog.  Note that the capability must link directly to what attains the objective. The Cog is the primary possessor of that capability or power.

The logic can be further illustrated by asking three questions.  What is the objective?  How can it be achieved (the required capability)?  What does the system need or have that can to do it (primary entity)?  The answer to the last question is the Center of Gravity.  This logic then excludes other contenders allowing for greater precision.

Precision.  The clarity and logic of the definition allows for precision.  Again the concept’s intent is to focus resources and to focus planners need precision.  Use of the word “primary” is meant to exclude the secondary, supporting or extraneous.  If something is secondary, supporting or even essential, it is a requirement, regardless of its importance, but it is not the Cog.  The Cog is the primary doer; it has the capability required to achieve the objective.  If an entity does not have that capability, it is not the Cog and the system needs to find or create a Cog.

Testable.  The logic in the definition provides for a validation method which I call it the Supported and Supporting test, but is also known as the Doer and Used test.


  • Only the center of gravity is inherently capable of achieving the purpose or objective.
  • If something executes the primary action(s) (capability) that achieves the objective it is the center of gravity.
  • The center of gravity executes the action and uses or consumes other entities or resources to accomplish it.


  • If something is used or consumed to execute the primary action (capability) it is a requirement.
  • If something contributes to, but does not actually perform the action, it is a requirement, not a center of gravity.

With this definition, intangibles, such as moral strength or public opinion, cannot be ‘existent Cogs’ because they have no capability for action and require a tangible agent to perform an action.  At best they are supporting entities or requirements.  So how are intangibles accounted for?  They are accounted for in the Cog’s critical factors.  But like the doctrinal definition of the Cog, the definitions for the critical factors also need revision.[vii]

JP 5-0 says that planners should analyze Cogs within a framework of three critical factors –critical capabilities, critical requirements, and critical vulnerabilities.[viii]  This would be sound advice if it were not for the joint doctrine’s flawed definition of critical capabilities.

In 1996 Dr Joe Strange of the Marine Corps War College created the concept of critical factors and defined them as follows:

  • Critical Capability: Primary abilities which merits a Center of Gravity to be identified as such in the context of a given scenario, situation or mission.
  • Critical Requirements:  Essential conditions, resources and means for a critical capability to be fully operative.
  • Critical Vulnerabilities:  Critical requirements or components thereof which are deficient or vulnerable to neutralization, interdiction or attack in a manner achieving decisive results.[ix]

These factors and their definitions were a tremendous step forward in analysis of the Cog because they create a logical hierarchy that helped separate the true Cog, the supported or doer, from other contenders which may be requirements.  Additionally the factors provide planners insight on how to attack or defend a Cog by showing what a Cog does, what its needs are and of those needs, which are vulnerable.  However, for unknown reasons doctrine writers significantly changed Dr. Strange’s definition of the critical capability.  Here is the joint definition:

Critical Capability - a means that is considered a crucial enabler for a COG to function as such, and is essential to the accomplishment of the specified or assumed objective(s) [x]

Strange, in his definition, refers to abilities which are verbs.  The joint definition refers to means and enablers which can be thought of as things which are nouns.  This ambiguity between abilities or things leaves room for confusion.  If one believes that means and enablers are things, then the joint definition can be considered synonymous with the definition of critical requirements.  The obvious solution is to accept Dr. Strange’s definition for Critical Capability which emphasizes Primary Abilities which cannot be confused with nouns and returns the focus to actions that accomplish the objective.

Fixing the doctrinal definitions of both the Center of Gravity and Critical Capabilities is one step towards achieving the concept’s intent as explained in JP 5-0.  The next step is to provide a useful method for identifying the Center of Gravity.

JP 2-01.3’s,  Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment, system of systems nodal analysis and “visualization”,[xi]  are useful for providing insights into understanding a system,  they are not practical methods for identifying the Cog and doctrine  should replace them with the easier to use “ends, ways and means” method.[xii]

No method, no matter how detailed, will produce truly scientific solutions.

However, a disciplined and easily understood process such as the “ends, ways and means” method can more efficiently meet the concept’s intent than the current system.

The best way to determine a center of gravity involves a holistic view with a systems perspective.  Without it, Cog identification is just guesswork.  However, systems theory covers a lot of ground, and it is easy to get lost in a system’s networked forest of nodes and links. Lykke’s strategic framework[xiii] offers a simple solution to this problem. The framework’s three simple questions; what is the desired end-state; how can it be achieved; and what resources are required, is a systems perspective boiled down to its essential elements in support of Cog identification.

This is how the “ends, ways and means” method works.  There are six steps, four to identify the Cog and two for critical and vulnerable requirements.

  • Step one.  Identify the organization’s desired ends or objectives.
  • Step two.  Identify the possible “ways” or actions that can achieve the desired ends.  Select the way(s) that the evidence suggests the organization is most likely to use.  Remember: Ways are actions and should be expressed as verbs.  Then select the most elemental or essential action—that selection becomes the critical capability.  Ways = critical capabilities.
  • Step three.  List the organization’s means available or needed to execute the way or critical capability. 
  • Step four.  Select the entity (noun) from the list of means that inherently possess the critical capability to achieve the end. This selection is the center of gravity.  It is the doer of the action that achieves the ends.
  • Step five.   From the remaining items on the means list; select those that are critical for execution of the critical capability.  These are the critical requirements. These critical requirements are supporting means that enable the Cog, the supported enity to perform the critical capability.
  • Step six.  Complete the process by identifying those critical requirements or components of the critical requirements that are vulnerable to adversary actions.  Remember, it is the adversary’s ability affect a requirement that determines if it’s vulnerability.

Graphic: Strategic Framework and Center of Gravity Analysis

What this method provides is a simple and clear process for the identification and selection of a Cog and the ability to differentiate between a true Cog and other candidates that are actually critical requirements.  This method with its objective rationale contributes to the concept’s and JP 5-0’s intent by focusing planning and avoiding the wasteful and pointless Cog debates.

Joint doctrine is clear on the concept’s purpose and utility, if not the definition.  However, it currently lacks a sound basis for achieving its own intent.  What doctrine needs is the proposed set of definitions based on clarity, logic, precision and testability, combined with a logical Cog identification process.  Not a slavish devotion to 18th century military theory which has not served us well and only confused generations of military planners.

If adopted, the proposed non-Clausewitzian Cog definition, combined with the ends, ways and means identification method should fulfill doctrine’s intent.  Meeting that intent will provide planners a real analytical tool that helps focus planning and operations and help achieve the objective while avoiding wasteful peripheral efforts, a noble goal.  But, there is another advantage, it will force writers like me to find a new topic to pontificate on.  Maybe I’ll jump into the Newtonian-Quantum or positivism-post positivism debate.  Stand by...

End Notes

[i] Department of Defense, Joint Publication (JP) 5-0 Joint Operations Planning, (Department of Defense, Washington DC, 2006), Pg. IV-18

[ii]Department of Defense, Joint Publication (JP) 5-0 Joint Operations Planning, (Department of Defense, Washington DC, 2011),  III-22

[iii] JP 5-0, 2011, Pg. III-23

[iv] Ibid

[v] Dale C. Eikmeier, ”Redefining the Center of Gravity”, Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 59 4th quarter 2010

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] DOD, JP 5-0 2011, Pg. IV-12

[ix] Dr. Joe Strange.  Perspectives on Warfighting Number Four Second Edition , Centers of Gravity & Critical Vulnerabilities, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 1996): ix

[x] DOD, JP 5-0, IV-12

[xi] Department of Defense, Joint Publication (JP) 2-01.3 Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment, (Department of Defense, Washington DC, 16 June 2009), I-3, 4, II-44, 45, III-13.

[xii] Dale C. Eikmeier, “A Logical Method for Center of Gravity Analysis”, Military Review (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas)  September-October 2007

[xiii] Arthur F. Lykke Jr., ed., Military Strategy: Theory and Application Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1998


About the Author(s)

Colonel Dale C. Eikmeier retired from the Army after 30 years of service as an air defense artilleryman, joint planner, and strategist. Assignments include duty in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Campaigns include Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He has taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army War College, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences, a Masters in Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.


G Martin

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 2:17pm

In reply to by Phil Ridderhof

Assuming, of course, that everything is testable. The more complex something is, some assert, the more difficult it is to trace cause and effect. This becomes even more problematic with a professional military force in that they often have conflicts of interest that systematically- if not consciously- get in the way of objective appraisals.

Phil Ridderhof

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 10:04pm

Your reference to developing a COG that is "testable" brings out an important point. No matter what the analytical process, or resulting COG (a thing, a concept, a tool, etc.), what is developed in planning, especially early planning, is no more than a hypothesis (or assumption). Given all the effort I have seen go into COG development in various plans, what is normally missing is any type of focused intel, or assessment process, as we proceed into execution, to "test" whether we have, in fact, discovered the COG, or at least a COG, or an important thing, etc. While the COG can and should be the foundation of a resulting plan, that doesn't change the fact that it is unproven until we actually operate and see if or hypotheses of "cause-effect" relationships holds accurate. We need to build into the plan the "test" to see if we are correct--and we need to have the flexibility to change the plan if we find out we are wrong.
Col. Phil Ridderhof USMC

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 03/08/2014 - 1:44pm

Having seen far too many COG analysis efforts done IAW the methodology captured in our Joint doctrine turn into largely meaningless intellectual exercises, I developed and submitted an approach that seemed more logical and testable and practical in my 2006 War College paper exploring the COG for the War on Terrorism.

The joint pub process is a fascinating mix of being incredibly dogmatic in how to think about COG, while at the same time virtually ensuring that no two efforts looking at the same problem would ever come up with the same results; with no real way to determine who's product was any better than anyone else's. I suspect this is a large reason why COG analysis has fallen so out of favor in recent years. That, and our inability to come to terms with the idea that in a populace-based conflict that both sides may very well share the same COG...

Too many efforts go off the rails as they are looking at how to defeat the enemy, rather than how to resolve the conflict. These are not always the same things, but I digress.

My COG approach also linked Ends-Ways-Means to COG; with the idea that COGs became more practical if we attempted to determine a separate COG for each of the ENDS we hoped to achieve.

Another key aspect was the idea that one should not determine their Ways and Means until they had done their COG analysis for their END. The idea is also premised in the thought that the COG is not something one is likely to go after directly, but rather something one seeks to rob of its power for one's opponent. If it is a shared COG, I want that power to be predominantly in support of my effort and not my opponent's. If it is a COG unique to my opponent I want to render it powerless or moot.

So, If I believe some thing is a COG for my opponent I determine why I believe it is the COG. I do this by developing a list of the critical capabilities that this COG gives to my opponent. These can be thought of as outputs. The value of these outputs is what validates the COG. One can think of the COG as a factory, and the products coming off of the line are the critical capabilities.

But the factory itself may be impossible to get at or defeat. To simply attack the products is a path to attrition warfare that is unlikely to be acceptable, even if feasible or suitable. So I look to what the critical requirements of this COG/"factory" are. These are the inputs that give the COG the ability to generate the critical capabilities.

While many inputs may be critical, not all are vulnerable. I think of CVs as being a subset of CRs that I can actually get after in WAYs and with MEANS that are acceptable, suitable and feasible. With that identified I can then complete my Ends-Ways-Means analysis for that particular END. Repeat this process for each End.

Of note, if a critical requirement is also a strength, such as a religious-based ideology, it should not be attacked. Only a foolish commander attacks an enemy's strengths when there are vulnerabilities available to engage.

It was interesting to see Dale's paper come out a year later and see that others shared some of my thoughts/concerns on this topic.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 4:40pm

In reply to by G Martin

Better yet, if only we could recognize that the Taliban are not, and were not, our enemy.

But that would be too complex to comprehend...

G Martin

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 3:36pm

In reply to by Starbuck

Amazing that we can't help ourselves in "Jominizing" Clausewitz. We are in love with the French Enlightenment because it promises a rational and analytical approach to fuzzy concepts like war and makes us feel comfortable in our technical rationality. German Romanticism scares the **** out of us and we either ignore it or translate it into "French".

Our culture has landed a man on the moon and convinced obsese people to eat cheeseburgers while getting free health care: we can accomplish anything if we put our Judeo-Christian minds to it. This hubris has caused us to declare war on drugs, poverty, and terrorism. Worse- we have attempted to approach these phenomena using a systematic approach. If only the Taliban were like a watch (or a factory)...


Fri, 03/07/2014 - 5:04pm

Question--Why is it that Clausewitz scoffed at those who touted ideas such as the "key to the country", but plenty of Clausewitz adherents have filled countless pages talking about the COG? You could insert COG for "Key to the Country" in Book 6, and it would probably read about the same...and be just as applicable.