Center of Gravity (COG)- What is that?

The third criticism, and one of the more enduring debates within the U.S. military, is the understanding of Clausewitz’ concept of the 'Schwerpunkt' or Center of Gravity (COG).  The implications of this particular debate are vitally important to the U.S. strategic and operational thinking, as the notion of finding an opponents’ COG has become pervasive in U.S. military doctrine to facilitate strategic, operational, and tactical planning.[1]  Clausewitz gives a very clear definition of COG, without attempting to define one for every particular situation-

    “What the theorist has to say here is this:  one must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind.  Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.”[2] 

What’s more important than even this oft-quoted paragraph is the rest of this section, where Clausewitz clearly states that the center of gravity will vary depending upon the circumstances of that particular conflict-

    “Destruction of his army…Seizure of his capital…delivery of an effective blow against his principle ally…Blow after blow must be aimed in the same direction:  the victor, in other words, must strike with all his strength and not just against a fraction of the enemy’s.”[3] 

Many critics miss this concept when complaining that Clausewitz espoused only that a commander should be focused on destroying the enemy army, even though that was certainly the overriding objective of Napoleonic warfare.

Modern critics of Clausewitz complain in particular how the U.S. military has integrated center of gravity thinking into doctrine.  The difficulty in understanding and applying COG to American military planning and strategy is a real issue.  The ability to determine what the focal point of an enemy’s military power and how to focus our military forces on it, has been a daunting problem in the Iraq campaign, particularly as those ‘focal points’ of U.S. military effort changed during the seven years of combat in Iraq.  U.S. forces initially expected to fight a conventional battle against Iraqi ground forces, and the COG was assumed to be the Republican and Special Republican Guard units, the best trained and equipped Iraqi forces in 2003.[4]

These early battles also show the difficulty the American military has with a rapidly changing military/political situation and the incongruities in how COG thinking is applied across the different armed services.  Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that COG theory, like most of On War, is subject to interpretation and requires understanding and context.  In particular, German and American commanders have historically interpreted COG very differently.  The Germans viewed the Schwerpunkt as the point of an opponent’s vulnerability where an attacker’s forces and efforts should be concentrated, even at the risk of weakening other forces on the battlefield.  American commanders, conversely, viewed the COG as the source of an enemy’s strength or capability that should receive particular attention by available forces to weaken or destroy this particular capability or force.  The historical German Schwerpunkt concept that evolved further than even Clausewitz’ original thinking and was much richer than American conceptualization.  The German effort was described as the weight of effort that not only looked at the relative perceived strength or weakness of an opponent, but weighed such factors as terrain, the best unit to conduct the attack and even the execution of the attack via surprise and follow-on forces. [5]

Modern critics are partially correct in arguing that the application of COG theory in American service and joint doctrine is somewhat disjointed, but it would be unwise to consider abandoning COG altogether without offering a suitable alternative.  COG doctrine, in the modern context, is really about allocating available and likely limited military resources to achieve maximum effect—a form of ends, ways, and means balancing that should be examined within overall campaign and strategic planning.  Just as Clausewitz understood that a commander must maximize his forces at some decisive point on the battlefield, modern COG attempts to develop a systematic means of deciding how to apply military power to the best result.  The problem occurs in modern warfare when our enemies are decentralized and do not exhibit the sort of ‘mass’ or ‘critical point’ to apply our overwhelming conventional firepower capability. 

Counterinsurgency warfare in particular has vexed American military planners, as combat and destruction of the enemy may not be the decisive ‘center of gravity’ needed to achieve a political victory.  This was the painful conclusion American forces in Iraq finally discerned in the fall of 2006 as the planning for the eventual 'Surge' began to shape American strategic and operational thinking.  The early COIN efforts by American forces focused on tracking and killing insurgents while completing the hasty rebuilding of Iraqi military and police forces to allow American forces to withdraw as soon as possible.  When sectarian violence increased through 2005 and 2006, U.S. strategy floundered as competing priorities of reducing casualties and presence in major urban areas led to the disengagement and fortification of American forces in large, isolated bases.  When a realistic and comprehensive strategy review was conducted in the fall of 2006, a new COG was determined for American forces- protecting the Iraqi population and continuing support for the growing rejection of Al Qaeda extremists by the Sunni tribes.  Militarily, the sharpening and focusing of the new COG allowed a Schwerpunkt of placing small groups of American troops in neighborhoods and villages, denying sanctuary to insurgents and gaining the support of the population.[6]

The modern debate is likely to continue, and even accelerate as the US military begins to withdraw from a decade of land combat and reorient forces and attention to the Pacific Rim, where naval and air power will once again become the predominant factor in American war planning.  Fighting a sea and air battle with China will be far different than chasing Taliban across the mountains of Afghanistan, yet the debate on the proper Schwerpunkt to defeat hordes of Chinese aircraft will be no less intense...............

[1] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0 Operations (Washington , DC: U.S. Army, 2008), 6-8.
[2] Clausewitz, 595-596.
[3]  Ibid., 596.
[4] Fontenot, Col Gregory, et. al. , On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004), 90-96.
[5]  Milan Vego, "Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt-Mistranslated from German, Misunderstood in English," Military Review (U.S. Army), January-February 2007: 101-109.
[6] Jason Wood, "Clausewitz in the Caliphate: Center of Gravity in the Post-9/11 Security Environment," Comparative Strategy (Taylor & Francis Group, LLC) 27 (2008): 44-56; Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008 (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2009), 119-124.