Le’ Notes #2: The Centre of Gravity

This post discusses the centre of gravity as a concept and the confusion surrounding it, while also pondering whether or not we still need a concept of the COG in modern warfare.

Out of the dominant characteristics of both belligerents “a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.  That is the point against which all our energies should be directed. – Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, 595-596

First formulated by the great Clausewitz, the term “centre of gravity” or Schwerpunkt, which I will shorten to COG, has become one of the most debated terms in military strategy. Much intellectual energy has been spent on debating the definition of a COG to whether or not the COG is still relevant to today’s strategy. 

Oddly, you won’t find many actors discussing the COG outside the military realm. That’s because the COG itself is a term exclusive to strategists and the military alone. To understand what a COG is, we use the Clausewitzian definition as a starting point, which I have already posted above. From there, we can derive a basic understanding of what a COG is. Put in very simplistic terms, the COG is the place where we should focus our efforts on to achieve the maximum benefit, i.e. the defeat of the enemy. Borrowing a thing or two from physics, the COG of an object is where the forces of gravity converge on it, allowing the object to stay balanced. If I were to make you fall, I would direct my shove to your COG, which would be around your torso.

Striking the COG of both the building and the American spirit

Okay, bad joke aside, the concept of the COG is interesting because it promises a “decisive victory” over your enemies. Which is why military strategists are so obsessed with it. The bad news is… since Clausewitz’s definition of the concept remains open, there are so many definitions of the COG.

Seow Hiang Lee [PDF] has identified the 4 “centres of confusion” surrounding the concept of the COG.

  1. Confusion over definition
  2. Confusion over nature
  3. Confusion due to differences in perspectives
  4. Inherent unpredictability in war

Some thinkers think of the COG as a weakness or vulnerability, some think of it as a source of strength and some think of it as strength itself (as seen in the following image).

seow hiang lee1.png
Seow Hiang Lee, 1999

So which one is it? It turns out that each branch of service has their own definition of the COG, depending on what their specialty is. The US Army, for example, still believe that the other person’s army is the COG. The US Navy believe that there is only one COG, i.e. the enemy fleet. The Marines believe that COGs are weaknesses that need to be exploited since they’re an expeditionary and mobile force.

Still within definitions, Vego [paywall], one of the more contemporary thinkers, defines the COG as a “source of leverage or massed strength -physical or moral” that when struck at with sufficient force, will cause difficulty for the enemy to achieve their military objectives. Interestingly, Vego asserts that there are different COGs at different levels of strategy. Going up the chain, i.e. into the strategic realm, the COGs tend to be more abstract or intangible, whereas at the tactical level – the actual firing of guns – COGs are mostly physical, such as the enemy army.

Warden [HTML] proposes a way to think about the COG, that is, by thinking of the enemy as a system. Using the Five Rings model, Warden lays out the components of the enemy and their relation with one another.

5 Ring model

Based on this model, Warden asserts that a successful attack would target the innermost ring where leadership resides. The principle is simple: take out their leader, the entire system collapses, you have total control over the enemy. However, in reality, it would be really difficult to directly take out their leader, so the next best thing would be to take out the organic essentials to put pressure on the leader to concede. If that’s not doable, then target infrastructure. The entire point is to successfully apply pressure on parts of the system to the point where they concede.

Echevarria [PDF] and Strange [PDF] strive further to clarify and operationalize the concept. Building on the “critical vulnerability” assumption, Strange then constructs the CG-CC-CR-CV framework which allows strategists to identify potential COGs based on the existence and relations with Critical Capabilities (CCs), Critical Requirements (CRs), and Critical Vulnerabilities (CVs). In theory, it would allow strategists to be able to differentiate a COG and a Critical Vulnerability. A COG is a “primary source of moral or physical strength, power and resistance”; whereas a CV is:

Critical requirements or components thereof which are deficient, or vulnerable to neutralization, interdiction or attack (moral/physical harm) in a manner achieving decisive results… – Joseph Strange

Not one of the best leaders in world, but a leader nonetheless

Simply put, one must have the relevant CCs and CRs to be a COG. Otherwise, a COG is not a COG. To illustrate Strange’s model, let us take a national leader. A national leader, who we presume is a COG, would need the following CCs:

  • The ability to stay alive (duh)
  • The ability to stay informed
  • The ability to command the army
  • Maintain influence over public opinion

Backing up these CCs would be many CRs, such as, but not limited to:

  • To stay alive, the leader must be protected by a secret service
  • To stay informed, a leader would need constant access to the internet and communications network
  • To command the army, the leader would need to stay in contact with military generals
  • To maintain influence, the leader must be able to make public appearances.

From there, you can identify several CVs that you can exploit to bring the leader down. If he needs to make public appearances, a well-placed sniper could take him down. Or, have someone jam the satellite networks, leaving him incapable of making decisions due to lack of information. If the leader is indeed a COG, then the inability to perform due to strikes on the CVs should be able to cripple the adversary.

Echevarria’s concept of the COG resonates with Strange’s. Echevarria thinks of the COG as a “focal point” where forces converge, or as a “factor of balance”. Kinda like a black hole. Take the army for example. The army is a COG because it focuses elements of power i.e. the people as soldiers, the industry in the form of arms, and agriculture in the form of rations. Without the army, these “forces” would have no place to converge on, making them undirected and loose. Disrupting the flow of forces should be enough to strike the COG, like cutting off supply lines.

From these myriad definitions, if you’re confused by now, then good, we’re on the same page. Like many strategists, Clausewitz’s COG has intrigued and baffled many. But in a modern world where massive duels between clearly distinguishable national armies have been replaced by armies operating in deserts and shooting brown people wearing black balaclavas and suicide vests, does the COG even matter anymore?

The COG against terrorists

The concept of the COG worked when there were two distinguishable enemies facing off one another on the battlefield. But now, wars are fought against terrorists that are (1) almost indistinguishable, (2) operate very loosely, and (3) are not part of a system. ISIS, for example, is a decentralized organization without a clear-cut system. So, is there even a COG to strike at anymore?

This particular question caused a lot of debate to happen in the class, which can either be interpreted as a good or bad sign. On the bad side, that means we don’t what the hell we’re talking about; on the other hand, it means that there’s an opportunity to develop new thoughts on the issue.

My personal opinion would be that we need a total revamp on the concept of the COG. The COG of today cannot be understood in mechanical physics as it was when Clausewitz was alive. In the face of an amorphous enemy, the COG concept should be redefined. How should it be redefined then? I’m still working on that. However, I am inclined to agree with Rudolph Janiczek. Janiczek [PDF] proposes adding a “human element” in considering the COG. Adding such an element would add more “stability procedures” to the COG, or, constructing a new, benign COG after the destruction of the previously belligerent COG. So, when once we thought of the COG as something to be utterly destroyed, we now should think of as something that needs to be systematically taken down. Janiczek brings up the case of the American invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan. They won the tactical battles but ended up losing the war because by focusing on destruction, they created a new enemy for themselves. The addition of the human element when considering a COG then forces strategists to view modern warfare as holistic, rather than being composed solely of battles.

The bells ring…

  • There is still much confusion about the concept of the COG, from definitions to operationalization. A COG can be understood as either a strength, source of strength, or vulnerability depending on which branch of the military you serve in.
  • There is a need to redefine or re-construct the concept of the COG when facing a new kind of decentralized and amorphous enemy such as global terrorists.

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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