Clausewitz's Center of Gravity: It's Not What We Thought

By Echevarria, Antulio J., II | Naval War College Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Clausewitz's Center of Gravity: It's Not What We Thought


Echevarria, Antulio J., II, Naval War College Review


Over the last two decades, the U.S. military has struggled to understand the center of gravity concept as developed by Carl von Clausewitz and to find practical ways to apply it. In the process, however, each of the services-shaped as they are by different roles, histories, and traditions-has brought individual perspectives to Clausewitz's expression and redefined it in its respective image.

Thus, the U.S. Marine Corps, a relatively small force designed more for winning battles than fighting campaigns or wars, prefers to strike at enemy weaknesses. Accordingly, it initially equated enemy centers of gravity (CoGs) with key vulnerabilities. Recently, however, Marine Corps doctrine has distinguished between CoGs and critical vulnerabilities, considering them different but complementary concepts; CoGs, for the Marines, are now "any important sources of strength."1

By comparison, the U.S. Air Force, which takes a "targeting" approach to warfare, sees centers of gravity as multiple strategic and operational critical points that it can attack with its bombing assets. Airpower theorists like John Warden, with his notion of "concentric rings," have in fact identified so many CoGs as to reduce the concept to absurdity.2

In contrast, the U.S. Army, which has the role of fighting campaigns and winning wars, sees the enemy's center of gravity as his "source of strength."3 Accordingly, the Army tends to look for a single center of gravity, normally in the principal capability that stands in the way of the accomplishment of its own mission. In short, the Army considers a "friendly" CoG as that element-a characteristic, capability, or locality-that enables one's own or allied forces to accomplish their objectives. Conversely, an opponent's CoG is that element that prevents friendly forces from accomplishing their objectives.

Likewise, the U.S. Navy, as America's force for winning maritime wars, has a center-of-gravity concept that resembles that of the Army and the Marines. Like the Army, the Navy's doctrine states that a "center of gravity is something the enemy must have to continue military operations-a source of his strength, but not necessarily strong or a strength in itself. There can only be one center of gravity."4 Like the Marine Corps, the service it supports most, the Navy has made the linkage between CoGs and vulnerabilities more explicit.5

Recently the Joint Staff's Doctrine for Joint Operations (Joint Publication 3-0) attempted-with only limited success-to pull these various perspectives together into a single definition. Joint doctrine currently asserts that the essence of the operational art-a term that Clausewitz would not have used-rests in being able to mass effects against the enemy's sources of power, or centers of gravity, to gain a decisive advantage.6 The Joint Staff now defines centers of gravity as those "characteristics, capabilities, or locations from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight."7 At the strategic level, they can include a military force, an alliance, national will or public support, a set of critical capabilities or functions, or national strategy itself. At the operational level, they are generally the principal sources of combat power-such as combat forces that are modern, mobile, or armored-that can ensure, or prevent, accomplishment of the mission. At its core, this definition is capabilities based, despite the presence of terms such as "national will" and "public support." On this view, all elements-whether leadership, national will, or public opinion-tend to flow from an opponent's capability to resist.

However, this capabilities-based definition differs substantially from Clausewitz's own concept, which is effects based. To be sure, the U.S. military is under no obligation to accept a concept developed nearly two centuries ago by a military theorist who was influenced by a long-disappeared cultural environment and used conceptual tools quite different from those available today. …

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