Small Wars Journal

Carl von Clausewitz, Meet Albert Einstein and Max Planck

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 5:30am

For a while now we have been telling ourselves that Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Irregular Warfare (IW) are “different”, “more complex”, and even the “graduate level of warfare”. Although I disagree with the latter two terms, I do think COIN and IW are different than traditional (or conventional) warfare (though I think in reality warfare is much more fluid than we give it credit for). As such, we should be using different tools to conduct these types of operations. Instead we have prescribed “more of the same”. We use the same unit structures, personnel system, concepts, and planning tools that we use for more conventional operations. One of these is the “Center of Gravity” (CoG) concept. Instead of using a notion taken from 19th Century physics and fused with an industrial-era reductionist’s analytical tool, we should turn to the latest physical science theories to help make sense of operations that are not conventional. Carl von Clausewitz’s concept needs updating from the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck instead of continuing to rely on Isaac Newton.

CoG Concept History

It should be no surprise that Carl von Clausewitz first heard the term of “Center of Gravity” at a physics conference in 19th Century Germany (pg 110) The physics at the time, Newtonian Physics, did well to explain most observable phenomena then in existence. Newton’s take on gravity was tied to a mass’s body: that physical point within an object at which the gravitational attraction to other bodies is exactly equal in every direction. Clausewitz, it is postulated, heard the concept and immediately imagined a wrestler losing his balance due to his opponent finding a center of gravity and exerting a force against it. He further imagined this concept being used in the military context: as a general would find that point at which to concentrate effects so that the opposing army would likewise lose balance and “fall”. Of course, Newtonian physics suffered from a few issues, the main ones being that it is only accurate as long as one is dealing with sufficiently large objects and relatively low speeds. As one approaches the speed of light, for instance, Newtonian, or “classical” physics does not explain observable phenomena very well at all. The military, of course, taking its cues from Clausewitz’s metaphor, have a very distinct take on the military “Center of Gravity”.

Military Take on CoG

The U.S. military, taking many of its cues from Clausewitz, incorporated his Center of Gravity concept into its doctrine, even updating it into an intricate analytical tool with which to assist in targeting enemy capabilities. According to U.S. doctrine, an enemy’s Center of Gravity is the source of its strength. Broken down further, one does a Center of Gravity (CoG) analysis by first identifying critical capabilities (CCs)- those capabilities which enable a CoG. Next, one further breaks down a CoG by identifying those critical requirements (CRs) necessary for those capabilities. Lastly, the requirements are analyzed in order to find those requirements that are vulnerable to action- thus “critical vulnerabilities” (CVs). Once one theoretically has identified an enemy’s vulnerabilities, one can concentrate action (force) on the vulnerabilities and thus ultimately influence one’s enemy’s CoG- thus rendering them defeated, or at least in theory.

What this is, of course, is a targeting methodology for breaking something seemingly complex down to manageable parts. As COL Dale Eikmeier notes in his JUL ‘04 article in Military Review on CoG (pg 5), “So, as with attacking any complex problem, we can break strategic centers of gravity down into more manageable pieces.” Complexity theorists, of course, would have a problem with COL Eikmeier’s description as they most likely would with the U.S. military’s use of a reductionist tool to approach complex subjects. Simply stated, one cannot break down a complex problem, study its pieces/parts, and then come to a deeper understanding of the complex problem as a whole. The nature of complexity renders this notion- that one can understand a complex system -very illusory and dangerous. But, COL Eikmeier goes further with his reductionism. He explains that strategic CoGs are very difficult to influence therefore one must identify COGs at the operational levels and then, through the combined action of many operational-level units attacking their respective CoGs, the aggregated result will be that the strategic CoG is defeated. Unfortunately for the U.S. military, the concept of gravity as a physical phenomenon has changed since the 19th Century and complexity theory has gone a long way towards describing the fallacies in reductive analysis of complex phenomena.

Updates to Physics since Newton: Center of Gravity

A lot has changed in science since Sir Isaac Newton got hit on the head with that apple. For starters, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity has updated the concepts of gravity and “centers” of gravity. In physics the center of gravity concept is used to determine the average location of all the mass in a body or group of bodies. Of course this is used to measure distances and locate celestial bodies among other things. In so-called “uniform fields” (a field in which the gravitational forces upon an object are the same no matter the position of the object), this isn’t that much of a problem, but in “non-uniform” fields, gravitation’s effects cannot be calculated using the center of mass alone. The center of gravity of an object within a non-uniform field may not even exist (or, if it exists, it may not be “unique”, i.e., there may be other centers)! In fact, the concept is rarely used in application today, since the center of gravity depends on the external field within which an entity exists. In layman’s terms, the center of gravity says more about the context of an object than of the object itself. Applied to the military, if one has to, one might say: “the center of gravity of the Taliban insurgency, even if we could identify one, would say less about the Taliban insurgency than it would about the regional political struggle going on in that part of Asia.”

The description here ( is a very good example of how physics uses the CoG concept: it assumes a body at one position or activity, freezes that position/action and then makes measurements of its weight, position, momentum, etc.- to arrive at a pretty close approximation (depending on the use of the information) as to the "center" of the object's mass (or gravity). For uniformly distributed objects, it is fairly simple. For objects that are not uniformly distributed- more complex forms of calculus are required to determine the CoG. If I had to make an argument one way or another, I’d submit that a “small war” would be more like a non-uniform field…

Quantum Mechanics

Complex systems arguably have a lot in common with Quantum Mechanics (QM). Both are very difficult concepts--not intuitive to humans. Both are not observable phenomena--at least not by the average human and many times only indirectly by others. Quantum Mechanics gets into concepts at the very small levels of our universe, and comes to the surprising and non-intuitive conclusion that at the root of our existence, life is very relativistic. The issue with relativity, of course, is that it is impossible to predict things that are relative to the observer, due to the observer being a part of the equation. For instance, one cannot measure the exact movement and position of entities at the quantum level, because the very act of measuring influences the object being measured. Likewise, one might imagine that the very act of targeting a vulnerability would actually change the CoG of a complex system. Complexity, by its very nature, resists attempts to bring about rapid and objective change. Another issue identified within Quantum Mechanics is a curious lack of deterministic causality. This, if applied to the military, could be maddening since it basically holds that we would be chasing our tails if we attempted any kind of causal analysis of complex entities. In other words, our entire assessments epistemology and infrastructure would have to be scrapped.

CoG updated

To update the CoG concept I propose using the theory of General Relativity to guide our way towards something useful: it might be helpful for most interactions at the “cognitively clear causality level” (where linear thinking is effective, or, one might simplistically say the “tactical level”). In other words, since the physics take today on CoG is that it is largely irrelevant to objects and that it says more about the external field an object exists in rather than the body itself, let’s throw the concept out as far as planning goes! If we want to keep something in our doctrine about a capabilities-requirements-vulnerabilities reductionist analytical tool, then by all means do so, but let’s be clear in our doctrine where it came from, the weakness of it, and the questionable use of it above the “ground user” level. In fact, it might be more useful as a targeting tool. But to imply any higher benefit from an analytical tool, even to its use during conventional on conventional warfare (if there is such a thing), I submit is oversimplification. Unless one is willing to admit that as soon as one targets something that borders on the abstract (“will of the people”, for instance) that one has analyzed it will change and it is very dubious whether it will have any kind of decisive effect, then the use of the C-R-V analytics tool would be dangerously illusory as would any implication of decisive action when dealing with complex phenomena.

A Quantum Mechanics Military Theory

I advocate instead for a Quantum Mechanics (QM) military theory as a more useful metaphor to replace the current one based in 19th century physics. In the latter model of how warfare goes, linear causality is assumed, actors are rational, and the complex can be understood with the right amount of analysis. At the “linear level” (where causality is easier to determine) there are millions of random activities going on--micromanagement and top-down rational analysis of those activities actually would tend to make things worse as for every action there is an uncertain reaction and micromanagement and top-down analysis simply adds to the already existing mix of actions (just to discourage obsessive officers from further attempting to control things below them). At levels further away from direct “ground” level things would seem to “even out” and thus trends can sometimes be determined; this is the real value of headquarters in complex environments: being able to make assumptions about “the aggregate”, change priorities, gauge feedback, and revisit assumptions. Because averages are important according to Quantum Mechanics and not a lot of randomness in the aggregate, this is where our analytical efforts should be concentrated, not to lead our action but to confirm our assumptions and help make intelligent decisions on priorities and how best to meet policy objectives through the use of our actions.

To be more effective within a “QM” world we must imagine that it is entirely possible that we have to look at the world in a different way. Not different for everyone: most at the pointy end of the spear would be able to continue seeing things in a Newtonian (or General Relativity) manner. Things are logical there, there is causality (or the appearance of causality), and one can use reduction to understand greater concepts (one can take an M-16 apart and understand how it works, an ambush can be broken down into its components and lessons can be gained from that analysis, people may protest and burn our President in effigy because they are paid to do so, etc.). As one gets into the aggregate of those “micro-level” activities we have to realize that things are different. Things seem illogical and causality is difficult, if not impossible, to trace. But, because one is attempting to look at an average of “lower-level” actions in the aggregate at higher levels, things don’t have to seem random if we don’t attempt to force linear causality (simple explanations for things) onto everything. We can aggregate data and make assertions about trends, shift things a little and note the changes, never forgetting that the act of “shifting” itself changes the environment we were observing. At this level it is even more difficult, but not impossible, to affect positive change. Again, it will take a recognition that things are not the same at the aggregate level as it is at the “linear” level. One cannot get too bogged down in the data, the narratives, and the “tactical” to “miss the forest”. And one has to at least have an appreciation, if not an intimate comfort level, with complexity theory, systems thinking, emergence, biological evolutionary change mechanisms, quantum mechanics, and other disciplines that study some of the same types of phenomena that one studies in the preparation for warfare.

Afghanistan as an Example of Applying QM Military Theory

One possible description of how this would look in the real world is to imagine Afghanistan as it is now and how it could be under a QM military theory construct. Today we develop campaign plans in the upper levels of our headquarters that in turn influence (in theory) subordinate units all the way down to the battalion and lower levels. Starting at battalion level we manage the current operations through what is termed as an “operations center” or OPCEN. Unit locations are tracked in real-time, message traffic is collated and abbreviated for power point briefing updates, video feeds from drones give a false sense of situational awareness of specific areas and allow those almost wholly divorced from the operational area to feel as if they are there, and resources are pushed down to units who might not necessarily want or require them. Mission concepts are forwarded to these centers and the smallest details are approved of from on-high, what kind of body armor to wear, for instance. Headquarters have even been known to require units to patrol on a certain time schedule or frequency with little thought to the implications of that action in each unique area.

Under the QM Military theory construct there would be no campaign plans, only a list (and most likely a classified and constantly shifting list) of political and strategic objectives that are tied to some very clearly defined assumptions as well as the logic behind why the objectives would further U.S. political interests. Below that political-military nexus, preferably kept at the embassy level, would be a series of resource hubs that would assist the political objective “definers” in prioritizing resources, and the issuance of guidance, guidance updates, and lower-level objectives, to include the logic and assumptions reference those objectives. In other words, the headquarters would exercise true “mission command”, or almost “hyper mission command”:  issuing intent and allowing lower-level units the sufficient freedom to execute within that intent.

Two key missing pieces within mission command, however, would need to be added: requiring lower-level units to inform the higher headquarters on issues with their logic and assumptions and the development of concepts from the ground up instead of waiting on higher headquarters to issue plans and orders. The higher-level headquarters would mainly coordinate and prioritize resources, define objectives and describe their logic behind those objectives- identifying assumptions along the way- and monitoring the feedback from the field in order to invalidate improper assumptions and re-work the logic and possibly the objectives as well. It would take trust in subordinate units, some career risk for commanders, and the acceptance that control (outside of guidance) would not only be very loose, but even detrimental to the accomplishment of objectives if it stifles “emergent” solutions (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6, published in 1996, basically describes this the best in my opinion, although it only applied to command and control and only in a context that fit the USMC’s view of warfare and thus did not go far enough for what I advocate here.)  QM military theory rests upon an assertion that emergent phenomena represent one of the best, if not the best way to affect change in a complex environment as opposed to top-down-driven efforts and analysis.


It can be argued that one of the reasons, if not THE reason, that we have struggled to accomplish our objectives in Afghanistan is that we have applied a more industrial-era approach to the way we conceptualize planning for and the execution of operations. Our tools, such as the Center of Gravity concept, have made us think there is a secret formula for success in a not-so-conventional environment and that if we just analyze the situation enough, we can discover that formula. Instead, complexity may by definition and nature resist this kind of approach, and as we get further into the “irregular” (and thus complex) we must turn away from our conventional wisdom and approaches. Instead we may need to rely less on centralized and top-down planning methodologies and analysis and allow subordinate units the most freedom possible to accomplish objectives within the higher’s tied-to-political-objectives guidance.  We should do this all the while re-looking our assumptions based on the feedback from below and then re-tooling our logic and the objectives we have identified from that logic.

Headquarters must be adept at trusting subordinates, listening to them, changing logics and assumptions, and noticing trends in data that can allow for exploitation by shifting priorities and resources. What we are adept today in, arguably, is the generation of information, an absolute faith in conventional assumptions, and risk averseness, all due to emergent political and cultural forces perhaps beyond our ability to change without external impetuses. If those traits are self-defeating in a complex environment and cutting-edge physics and science tells us theoretically why, then we have three choices: wait until an external force pushes us to change (a strategic “loss”, for instance), pray for Congress to mandate change, or attempt the very difficult change that internal transformation implies.

To be absolutely clear, the internal transformation I describe here required to tackle complex situations would have to allow for a unique approach to each situation: a unique structure, personnel incentives, planning constructs, assessments methodology, and theory of warfare. This recommendation would most likely redefine what being a member of “the military” means and how it acts. Transformation like this would bring a new definition of pain to the entrenched bureaucracy that struggles today with even simple and meaningful change. The question is not whether we should do this, but whether we should wait until we can no longer afford the current construct, which is arguably at odds with being able to be effective in complex situations.

About the Author(s)

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Korea, Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International JournalMilitary, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.



Thu, 12/06/2012 - 6:00pm

LTC Martin,
My name is Major Christopher Rowe. I'm currently a student in SAMS and I'm very interested and intrigued by your article. I've actually written a thesis not too long ago espousing some similar ideas. I'm currently working on a second, follow-up, piece and would really like to pick your brain. If you are interested, I could send you a copy of my last thesis "Causal Claims and the Operational Environment: An Analysis of Conventional and Emergent Causality as Applied to the Systems In 2007-2008 Iraq" and my current ideas for my second thesis "The Center of Gravity and Emergence".


Thu, 11/01/2012 - 6:34am

1. I believe we should keep the Center of Gravity (CoG) concept as it is in the military and if required introduce Quantum Mechanics Military Theory as a new approach. Because, I think both of them are addressing different paradigms and should not replace each other.
2. “……….and complexity theory has gone a long way towards describing the fallacies in reductive analysis of complex phenomena.” It`s certainly true but the solution should not be “Under the QM Military theory construct there would be no campaign plans, only a list (and most likely a classified and constantly shifting list) of political and strategic objectives…..”. If we do so, how we will manage the complex environment with a holistic vision, in a synchronized fashion of top-down approach? I still believe that we should have “campaign plans” but maybe in a different format or design. As already stated, maybe we should “allow for a unique approach to each situation: a unique structure, personnel incentives, planning constructs, assessments methodology, and theory of warfare”.
3. We need to think about the existing challenges to meet the essential requirements while providing necessary visibility for top decision makers to let them manage the `System` appropriately. We are having many dilemmas, paradoxes regarding the organizational management of complex systems but CoG is not the only scapegoat for our problems. On the contrary, CoG is a smart assessment approach for "Prioritization" which is a basic requirement for today`s complex and poorly resourced systems.
4. Finally, QM Military Theory delineated in this article should be elaborated more providing some modeling approach to be adopted by key stakeholders.

Roger Erickson

Fri, 10/26/2012 - 2:48pm

In the domain of human operations, don't the distinctions boil down to kinetics, i.e., tempo?

CoG works fine, as long as you accept that the CoG can dissolve & reassemble in different form slowly or extremely quickly in different settings.

Any process will work in theory, if you can drive it with enough agility to meet situational needs. That, in turn, leads one back to the crossroads of all process designs & methodologies, and a staff agile enough to adopt the combination that works, fast enough.

For example, one process & toolkit for hunting bison, another for big-fish fishing, and another for collecting shellfish ... and enough practice at quickly changing your outfit & altering & refitting adequate teams. Human nomads did this 100K years ago - at least in small teams & tribal units.

Not sure you need to invoke relativity & quantum mechanics for that repertoire, but feel free if you can develop a staff agile enough to run with it. In supra-tribal populations, the trick reduces to convincing others to cede enough logistical freedom to allow given units operational flexibility. In any social species, most group agility boils down to communication methods, involving acknowledging, accepting & embracing diversity, as a prelude to proposing the return on coordination. That's how to get the support you need from a group, in order to provide a service many don't initially grasp the need for.

Group agility tracks speed at achieving permission vs taking liberties? The former compounds cooperation & return-on-coordination, the latter generates friction & reduces coordination.

Ken White

Fri, 10/05/2012 - 11:16pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.:

Good find. British, yes but certainly applicable. Shorter version; get the issues and goals correctly sorted then select the most competent to command in that situation or poor results will follow.

Our Training and Personnel systems are not designed to insure such analysis occurs and cannot insure the best qualified is designated to command. In fact, those systems today are not able to make poor results merely improbable...

Bill C.

Tue, 10/09/2012 - 6:47pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

In the article at the link I provided at my Oct 5, 8:55pm comment above (see the paragraphs in the major section beginning with the words -- in bold lettering -- "Strong leadership is required ..."), the author suggests that mission command may not be a good fit for irregular warfare:

"The inappropriate action of even a lance corporal can have far reaching consequences. This in turn leaves open the question to which extent mission command can actually be applied in these circumstances. Mission command was certainly being applied in Northern Ireland in the early days but has long since been superseded by standing instructions and rigid control measures that in effect, have rendered its application meaningless, whatever doctrine might suggest to the contrary."

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/09/2012 - 12:20am

In reply to by G Martin

Just a side comment---Grant is in fact headed the right way---Mission Command in it's current doctrinal direction really focuses on Cmdrs and their Staffs'---some of us have lately been pushing the idea that MC should be taught to ALL NCOs and Officers.

Grant's bottom up approach is in fact a follow through on the idea of the German "auftragstaktik" which pushed decentralized command to the Company and Plt levels and which via MC doctrine we in theory as saying we the Big Army wants.

We also need to teach ALL NCOs/Officers that in fact in an environment of open critical thinking/dialogue with trust Design is in fact buried inside MDMP and then COG makes sense.


Fri, 10/05/2012 - 10:45pm

In reply to by G Martin

I am also not enamored of the physics metaphor, I must confess. This is in part personal prejudice: I dislike the term "quantum" in anything but scientific usage. It often seems to be applied any time an author wishes to endow an idea with a geek-chic modern coolness, as opposed to a dowdy old alternative invariably designated "Newtonian". I think the argument that change and uncertainty are constants and that people in the field need the freedom and the trust to respond to the conditions they actually face is strong enough to stand on its own, and to me the "quantum" stuff is a distraction.

Of course I'm not he intended audience, and if the metaphor does resonate with those who are, it makes perfect sense to ignore me and talk to them.

Sometimes I feel that "linear thought" is getting a bad rap that it doesn't entirely deserve. That's partly because, as mentioned below, what we call "linear" is often twisted into circuitous knots to accommodate various externally ordained priorities. There's also, I suspect, a tendency to assume that if a thought process isn't giving useful answers to our questions, we need a better (and usually more complicated) thought process. That isn't always the case. Sometimes we don't get useful answers because we're asking the wrong questions. Applying linear thought to the question of how to defeat the Taliban can lead to useful ideas on how to defeat the Taliban, but it will not give us any useful idea of how to provide lasting governance that's sufficiently functional to prevent the Taliban from returning.

Doesn't matter if our thought process is Newtonian, quantum, thermodynamic or electromagnetic, if we're not asking the right questions, we're not going to get useful answers. Getting the questions right is - to me at least - less a matter of the esoteric metaphor than about getting back to that utilitarian stuff and being honest about where we're at, where we want to be, what's keeping us from getting there and how we can either get around those obstacles or recalibrate to a more realistic objective. All of that to me is less about rocket science than about pragmatism, but again, if the people you need to convince need a rocket science analogy to see the point, by all means go for it...

Bill M.

Fri, 10/05/2012 - 5:34am

In reply to by G Martin

That does make me feel better, because I thought I was missing something obvious :-)

I think the MDMP/JOPP process would be much better if we removed the COG aspect from it. Assuming that even is a COG, if you get it wrong then your entire planning effort is a waste, but then we get wedded to our plan and fail to let the bad logic we developed go. Like you said we're resistant to reframing. I'm sure that viewing the challenge through the COG optic contributes to that.

I think the bigger issue you, the issue that in fact addresses 90% of complaints we see on SWJ and hear in the team rooms is micro-management. It has rapidly evolved to the level of toxic and in many ways is destroying the force. I recall one of our former Chiefs of Staff complaining that we somehow evolved into the Red Coats, but I think it is worse, I think we're evolving into a Soviet Army culture without the balls to aggressively clash with the enemy. CPTs and below are treated as conscripts, and MAJs and above act like political commissars stifling any initiative at the lower levels. Might as well go back to a conscript military if we're going to have this caste system.

I suspect you guys still have to submit a formal request to the first General Officer in the chain of command to have a beer if you're TDY somewhere. Someone needs to throw that GO's ruck in the hallway.

Sir, my men, aged 25 to 42 y/o, all SF qualified are on a TDY trip in Poland and our SOF partners would like us to go out and have a beer with them. We beg you sire to grant us permission to engage with our partners like men from an Army representing a great free nation instead of micromanaged conscripts in a communist army, so we can enjoy having a couple of drinks with them. By a couple, I mean no more than two beers or its equivalent and absolutely no more unless we submit a separate request. Our coordinates will be PJXXXXXX so you can put a UAV over us and monitor our behavior just as you do during combat operations. I apologize again for one of my men having his sleeves rolled up and another wearing unauthorized sunglasses during our last combat rotation. Both of these men received counselling statements for putting our combat mission at risk of failure due to these serious violations. To the Regiment!

Someday it may change without outside intervention, and for the generations that follow us I certainly hope so.

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:00pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill- if it makes you feel better, I found myself confused by my own article at times! Obviously I am not a physicist, and any metaphor only has so much utility- this one might not have much, but I guess my idea is that it might have more than the current metaphor...

Although I do think the philosophy behind why we use CoGs is linked to the philosophy behind why we are micromanaging today. My theory is that- and this is an immature theory- our nation-state has emerged to a level in which bureaucracies have grown exponentially powerful and at the same time inept- and yet we are able to hide that ineptness for now due to our wealth, the complexity of our security situation and the world in general, and a monopolistic and self-referencing profession that protects itself from scrutiny through the use of its own language, concepts, and specializations- or the illusion of specializations (i.e.- above the tactical level the Wizard of Oz rules...). Not that we are unique- many other disciplines, shoot- maybe all, have also morphed into having these characteristics.

Thus, we have developed an ineffective process called the CoG analysis (and MDMP, JOPP, JOPES, JCIDS, PPBES, etc.) and we micromanage- all because of philosophies that have emerged from our current cultural and geographical status (to give you an SF metaphor- there's a reason, for instance, that instead of the practice of throwing a team leader's ruck into the hallway evolving into the practice of throwing a <em>company commander's</em> ruck out into the hallway- the practice "devolved" into not even being able to throw a team leader's ruck into the hall anymore...)

Agree with you that it is the wrong metaphor and that the process has issues- good analysis of that- but I do think they are emergent phenomena from our culture and thus the fix isn't to simply replace it or wish Congress will fix it (they are artifacts of that emergent phenomena just as we are and CoG too)- instead we have to change the fundamentals that give it more resilience over time if left unchecked. The personnel system is a great example- that too has emerged and only protects the current system and becomes ever stronger and inept as the years go by...

Usually a fan of Grant's articles and posts, but I found the general themes in this article somewhat illogical and disconnected. Two, what I believe to be very separate issues were addressed. First the center of gravity concept, and second the micro/centralized management of our forces. We can have the COG concept and still have decentralized execution, so these issues are positively correlated. I think a better case, or cases, could have been made if these were two separate articles. Overall I agree with the Grant's comments on each issue.

The COG concept has significant flaws, but why spend so much time focused on disproving the physics aspect of it? The real issue is it has limited utilty for operational planning and targeting because it drives reductionist thinking that leads to incorrect framing of the problem or system. In short it is simply an inappropriate metaphor (even if it did work in the realm of physics) that we have taken to the extreme. We continue to be blind to its ineffectiveness, especially as it applies to irregular warfare after years of failure of using the COG, CR, and CVs. Admittedly this concept looks logical in briefs, but at the end of the day it is usually little more than snake oil laced with something that makes us addicted to it. In too many cases where it is used to frame the targeting effort the problem we were attempted to mitigate simply got worse (IEDs for example). The process is never questioned, if the targeting selection is questioned at all it is usually focused "did we get the wrong COG?" It will be hard free ourselves from the COG, CR, CV construct when the entire force is indoctrinated to use it. It will take a free thinker not adverse to risk in command somewhere to challenge his staff to disgard this process and develop another optic to view the situation and then develop recommended courses of action. If he and his staff are success they can publish an article on SWJ and it may go viral and gradually challenge the COG radicalization process we're all subjected to.

As for the excessive micro-management that problem is well documented, but as Ken pointed out good Army units didn't do this not too many years ago. Not too long ago when Special Forces communicated primarily by HF radio using various brevity codes it was impossible for their higher to micromanage them and it was counter to SF doctrine and tradition. Now that SF communicates mostly via e-mail and the commander can now hover above all his ODAs with his UAVs and watch them on kill T.V. he can provide much useful mentoring to those young CPTs who are obviously oblivious to what is really happening in their operational area. The old model has changed, tactical level officers can't lead and respond to opportunity anymore without a daddy may I concept submitted through various chains of command. The enemy doesn't have to out maneuver us, he just needs to wait us out while we defeat ourselves. Sadly, in many cases SF leadership is worse than general purpose forces now. Technology enabled this process and unfortunately we weren't wise enough to prevent it from being abused.

I agree with Ken the only way to fix it is to select the right personnel for promotion and command, but disagree that it can be done without external influence (Congress) because the current crop of leaders want to replicate their gene code because they think they're at the pinnacle of evolution. Natural belief in a culture likes ours that tends to over inflate egos and devalue humility.

The other thing we must do is slow down promotions and reduce the number of field grade officer positions in the force. Let's face it every MAJ and LTC needs to make his or her mark, and when you have a dozen of them hovering over every tactical unit they're going to try to get their day in the sun. Reduce the number you reduce the problem. Many officers should be allowed to retire as CPTs, but that would turn the personnel system upside down on its head.

Used to be great to be Tm Sgt, CWO, LT and CPT at the tactical level, but those days have passed us by. Our most senior leaders seem to get it, but they have multiple levels of staff and command barnacles who are slowly destroying our great ship.

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:29pm

In reply to by glensalo

What happens when you don't or can't "know your objectives", or the ones you pick are the wrong ones?

And how does one "achieve results"? We have been achieving results in Afghanistan for awhile now- and no-one is getting fired- but I don't think we're getting to a place anyone likes (not that that is a bad thing, maybe that's better than getting to a place you really hate...).

I guess I would agree with you on having a utilitarian mindset... unless that doesn't work in the environment you are operating in.

Surely you are not advocating following Mao's words as expressed here in EVERY situation (or even most)?


Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:55pm

QM is ultimately related to probabilities.

I'm of a more utilitarian mindset. Here is Mao Zedong's view of military operations:

1. All actions are subject to command.
2. Do not steal from the people.
3. Be neither selfish nor unjust.

1. Replace the door when you leave the house.
2. Roll up the bedding on which you have slept.
3. Be courteous.
4. Be honest in your transactions.
5. Return what you borrow.
6. Replace what you break.
7. Do not bathe in the presence of women.
8. Do not without authority search the pocketbooks of those you arrest. (Samuel B. Griffith, Brigadier General, USMC (Ret), trans., Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1961), p. 92.)

"In guerrilla warfare select the tactic of seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid, attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws." (Mao Tse-Tung, "On the Purely Military Viewpoint", in William J. Pomeroy, ed., Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism, (New York: International Publishers, 1968, 5th Printing 1984), pp. 174-75.)

Finally, you have to know what you really want to do, then do it.

We are now engaged in a war; our war is a revolutionary war; and our revolutionary war is being waged in this semi-colonial and semi-feudal country of China. Therefore, we must study not only the laws of war in general, but the specific laws of revolutionary war, and the even more specific laws of revolutionary war in China. (Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse Tung (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1963), p. 75)

Mao Zedong identified four characteristics of China's revolutionary war from which all strategies and tactics derived:
"The first is that China is a vast semi-colonial country which is unevenly developed both politically and economically, and which has gone through the revolution of 1924-27... The second characteristic is the great strength of the enemy ... The third characteristic is that the Red Army is weak and small... The fourth characteristic is the Communist Party's leadership and the agrarian revolution." (Mao Zedong,"Characteristics of China's Revolutionary War", in William J. Pomeroy, Guerrilla Warfare and Marxism (New York: International Publishers, 5th printing, 1984), pp. 179-181.)

In the words of General Chu Teh, the commander of the Communist Eighth Route Army:

"Our plan is to establish many regional mountain strongholds throughout north and northwest China.

Our regulars can return to such bases for rest, replenishment and retraining... From these strongholds we can emerge to attack Japanese garrisons, forts, strategic points, ammunition dumps, communication lines, railways. After destroying such objectives, our troops can disappear and strike elsewhere." (Griffith, pp. 20-22)

BOTTOM LINE: Know your objectives and achieve results.

Gonzalo I. Vergara, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.)

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:14pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Agree with the "objectives creep" you mention.

In terms of complexity- I agree with you to a certain extent. I don't think, for instance, that UW or warfare today is "more complex" in general. But, I do think human experience has grown more complex and I think it is objectively measurable. For instance, there are more SKUs today product-wise, and exponentially more- and all the time growing- than ever before. Mortality rates are much lower today than ever before- and that has brought up a host of complex issues homo habilis didn't have to worry about. Access to, growth in and transfer of information has grown exponentially- and that too continues to increase- and as such has made things- at least seem- more complex ("and the more that I find out, the less I know", I think Johnny Nash said it first?).

I would guess that as humans get further away from subsistence living, their world naturally becomes more complex from a subjective, human reference, but also objectively as noted. Warfare, the further we get away from it supporting natural resource acquisition, maybe the more complex it gets? How do you fight against an enemy whose greatest asset is an idea? On the flip side- how do you defend against an enemy who says it is fighting a method (terrorism)? Maybe attempting to fit these phenomena always into a "war" category is problematic...

I would agree (I think this is agreeing with you) that we make things more complex as well. In general- we attempt to address greater complexity and unique situations by applying old metaphors to them. And then we look to linear causality to explain phenomena. When things don't work out the way we think they would we label it more complex. Good excuse for the bureaucracy, huh?

And LOVE this thought of yours: <em>"I don't think there's anything really wrong with the mode of thinking prescribed here, but I suspect we'd accomplish as much, more simply, by finding people who really know the environments where we propose to work and listening to those people, and by a bit more realism in the selection of objectives."</em> Couldn't agree more. I think local conditions are the key and we do need to be more limited in our objectives.

I'd have to take issue with this:

<i>It can be argued that one of the reasons, if not THE reason, that we have struggled to accomplish our objectives in Afghanistan is that we have applied a more industrial-era approach to the way we conceptualize planning for and the execution of operations. </i>

It could also be argued, and I suspect more persuasively, that we've struggled to achieve objectives in Afghanistan because the objectives were allowed to creep to a point where they not practical, not suitable to the environment, and not proportional to the time and material resources we are willing to apply. The problem with the desire to create a state, build a nation, install a government, construct an army and make it all work in time for the next election lies not in the methods selected to pursue the objectives, but in the objectives themselves.

I've noticed a tendency on the site toward references to "increased complexity", often presented without support, as revealed truth. I'm not sure that complexity really has increased all that much. To the extent that our problems seem more complex, I suspect that this occurs less because of the inherent complexity of the situation than because of our own lack of knowledge of the environment and our own tendency to impose complexity by selecting goals that are ephemeral, impractical, and suited neither to the environment nor to our own political will.

I don't think there's anything really wrong with the mode of thinking prescribed here, but I suspect we'd accomplish as much, more simply, by finding people who really know the environments where we propose to work and listening to those people, and by a bit more realism in the selection of objectives.

Criticism of linear thinking is often reasonable, but it seems to me that our problem is often less a matter of linear thinking than of circuitous thinking: thinking that detours away from anything resembling a line because it has to twist around politically imposed obstacles and leap over real world gaps in pursuit of unrealistic goals.

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:10pm

In reply to by Sean Crocker

Good point. If I were the U.S.'s adversary- knowing in open-sources that the U.S. uses CoG analysis- and many times publishes its CoG analysis results (it's the people in Afghanistan, for instance...), then one can frame one's strategy around that analysis and framework in order to best undermine it and use it against us.


Thu, 10/04/2012 - 2:09am

In reply to by Sean Crocker

One rational for strategic bombing North Viet-Nam was that it was thought that the value of what little industrial capability the North had, would be seen by them as disproportionately great since their industrial plants hand been purchased by an extremely poor nation at the price of considerable sacrifice, over many years . . . Destroying them then, would put pressure on Hanoi's leadership to terminate the war.

What the U.S. didn't know was that the North was being guided, with dissenters either marginalized or imprisoned, on a war in the south first policy at the expense of developing the North.

So, in a sense you are correct, it wasn't important to them, but I don't believe the U.S. thought what little industry the North had was their center of gravity . . . That would have been the leadership, which by the way, was no longer Ho Chi Minh, but Le Duan.

Sean Crocker

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 4:12pm

Let's also not forget that relativity as it affects CoG also includes the way each actor views his own COG. The United States in North Vietnam blasted what it believed to be the Vietnamese CoG - that nation's industrial means. From the position of the U.S. as an industrial nation this made sense; however, U.S. officials did not take into account that what was important to them might not be important in the Vietnamese perspective.

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:08pm

In reply to by GBNT73

I'm intrigued, sir- I will have to look Smith's thesis up.

Speaking of the personnel system- I was having a conversation today about that very thing and opined that a few changes come to my mind:

1) 360 eval results on everyone's evals
2) the ability to give an officer a below center of mass rating without it killing his career and the requirement for an officer to GET one below center of mass rating every so often (the thought being that if you don't, then you're just a "yes-man"...)
3) tying one's OER to mainly a person's performance in that job- with some potential thrown in, instead of the current system that mainly looks at what one's potential was early on in one's career
4) somehow measuring "career courage" and requiring it


Sir Rupert Smith would be proud. Well done. You took Smith's thesis (Utility of Force) and dug the foxhole a bit deeper. The optimist -- my lesser self -- says this kind of work should be considered for changing the way the military creates and exercises doctrine. We ought to use competetion instead of concensus to make our business rules. However, the cynic in me -- the greater portion of me -- says this kind of thinking will not make it very far as long as we maintain antiquated personnel management systems, substandard professional military education, and continue to make general officers the way we do.

Ken White

Fri, 10/05/2012 - 11:38am

In reply to by G Martin


Thanks for the response. This retired Sergeant Major who spent years disagreeing with the genre in an effort to keep them out of trouble will agree wholeheartedly with that particular retired Colonel on both aspects. My suspicion is that he's correct -- however, like GBNT73, I'm <i>trying</i> to let my inner optimist whip my experienced cynic here...

You are also of course correct. Societal and bureaucratic as well as systemic -- the budget process and Congress, notably -- factors certainly militate (no pun intended) against any changes.

I do believe, however, that we can achieve change if by freak accident another Chief of Staff, Army is appointed and he or she can and will like Shy Meyer in his day flank the bureaucracy. That person will need to do a bit better than did Meyer -- and that can be done, I've done it, have seen others do it and General Meyer did flank most of it, he simply forgot the silent, entrenched, negative power of the DAC community (and I know them, was one for 18 years after I hung up my war suit...), their Unions and Associations and their friends in Congress. Meyer achieved success in many things but TRADOC won <i>their</i> war.

There's a significant message in that...

G Martin

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:04pm

In reply to by Ken White

Interestingly I was talking to a retired Colonel today and he thought it more likely that we would only learn and transform to a more effective structure/system through a strategic loss- and in his mind losing 3k on 9/11 was not such a loss...

I wonder how much of our current bureaucracy is tied to inevitable emergent factors within our culture/geography/population/history, etc.- and at this point they are so strongly interwoven as to make it impossible to change (within our governmental institutions) for the better any other way...?

Ken White

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:16am

Great essay. On target in so many ways but the essence is this:<blockquote>"Headquarters must be adept at trusting subordinates, listening to them, changing logics and assumptions, and noticing trends in data that can allow for exploitation by shifting priorities and resources..."</blockquote>Good units in the US Army have been doing just that for years and most successes of elements of the Army may be attributed to that fact. Unfortunately, it is anathema to the 'Army' as institution and a whole and most of our many failures are due to that systemic and cultural failure.

Major Martin further states, accurately:<blockquote>"...If those traits are self-defeating in a complex environment and cutting-edge physics and science tells us theoretically why, then we have three choices: wait until an external force pushes us to change (a strategic “loss”, for instance), pray for Congress to mandate change, or attempt the very difficult change that internal transformation implies."</blockquote>It appears the first choice is not terribly likely at this time -- and such a loss might be devastating were it to occur, therefor it should be avoided. The second is unlikely due to ignorance and relative lack of concern as well as other priorities on the part of Congress. Thus only the third choice will offer timely change.

That can be achieved but will not be until we tighten selection procedures -- with or in spite of Congress -- and totally revamp our Personnel system to properly place the right people as opposed to he or she whose turn it is. The system is an anachronism, it is very resistant to change and a lot of Rice Bowls will need to be broken. It's long past time for that to occur.


Wed, 10/03/2012 - 8:28am

Brilliant! I could not agree more with Martin. Kudos for such an intellectually stimulating article.