There’s a new article in Joint Forces Quarterly on the perennial issue of the American interpretation of Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity (COG). The article makes the point that the definition of the COG in Joint Publication 5-0 (as well as the general American interpretation of the COG) is incoherent and proposes a new operational definition: “The center of gravity is the primary entity that possesses the inherent capability to achieve the objective.” The author also argues that a slavish devotion to the COG definition originally laid down by Carl von Clausewitz is inappropriate.
There are two separate issues here. First, although On War is the most transcendent work of military theory ever published, even some of the most ardent Clausewitzians do not treat the work as the Bible or the Quran. So if a concept is no longer useful we should abandon it–Clausewitz himself would understand. The problem is, however, that most of the American problems with the COG concept originated not from the way Clausewitz wrote the concept but how it was defined in American doctrine.
I’ll quote from my SWJ article on the subject:
The Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) scholar Antulio Echevarria II, however, disagrees with the Paret interpretation. The Army analyst argues that the Paret translation, while the best available, gives the false impression that COG is a source of strength. He then suggests that Clausewitz’s own metaphor is drawn from classical physics’ concept of “the point where the forces of gravity can be said to converge within an object, the spot at which the object’s weight is balanced in all directions. Striking at or otherwise upsetting the center of gravity can cause the object to lose its balance, or equilibrium, and fall to the ground.” In Echevarria’s view, the center of gravity is neither a strength nor weakness. Echevarria explains that the COG is a point of connectivity—a state of unity or purpose from which the opponent comes together. As such, they can be directly attacked to upset the delicate balance. Echevarria argues that Clausewitz’s concept is derived primarily from the mechanical sciences and reflects a holistic and systemic view of the opponent.
This interpretation is remarkably different from how it is expressed in JP 5-0, where the COG “can be viewed as the set of characteristics, capabilities, and sources of power from which a system derives its moral or physical strength, freedom of action, and will to act.” This, in turn, led to the concept of critical requirements and vulnerabilities, which is an American innovation as well. These are subtle but important differences. In the American conception, the COG is a source of strength that exists on every level of war. In the Clausewitzian concept, the COG is simply a point of connectivity that binds the opponent together. The Clausewitzian concept is, from a practical perspective, more useful. Why?
In James McPherson’s retelling, Abraham Lincoln’s strategic acumen lay in his recognition that the Confederate Army was the COG of the Southern war effort. His generals, on the other hand, were obsessed with maneuvering to gain control of the Southern capitol. Seen in this light, striking the COG had massive effect across the Southern system. This is what an real “effects-based operation” looks like. The Southern Army was neither either purely of strength or weakness, but it was what bound the Southern war effort together. There is nothing really complex about this–as Clausewitz tells us defeating the enemy’s fielded forces is a good idea. This is true either in a campaign of annihilation or erosion.
The critical vulnerabilities and requirements, target value analysis, systems analysis, and campaign design frameworks may be useful in and of themselves in operational art for various purposes. But they have little to do with the Clausewitzian concept of the COG. If we want to use these frameworks we should justify them on their own merits. The COG as Clausewitz originally defined it is also an eminently practical framework. The author’s proposed redefinition also comes close to the Clausewitizian COG definition too.