Clausewitz and the CoG: Marriage Stability for Over 180 Years

row of books in a library

by Lieutenant Colonel Nick Bosio

If there is one thing on tactics courses, staff colleges and real time operations that create arguments and lead to plans staff fracture quicker than a lack of coffee, it is the dreaded Centre of Gravity – or the “CoG analysis”.

Apparently, Clausewitz and the Centre of Gravity have had a divorce. Dale Eikmeier is probably right to say that the metaphors Clausewitz used may not resonate with today’s professional officers. However, this does not equate to the metaphor being a “red herring”. Nor does it mean the concept is separate from Clausewitz, or irrelevant as a military idea. There is still much love in this union, even after 180 years of marriage. So, where does our perception of a “failed marriage” come from?

All English translations have problems, and within the Howard and Paret version, Centre of Gravity appears over 50 times. However, Schwerpunkt has three broad English translations pending the sentence context: main effort, focal point and centre of gravity (or centroid, centre of mass). Lind used Schwerpunkt as “main effort” within his Maneuver Warfare Handbook. Blitzkrieg used “focal point” to highlight the breakthrough location and formation (pVII-38 to VII-47). So, what did Clausewitz mean by the term? It is true that Clausewitz is no longer here to ask, but I would suggest: All of the above!

When one reads the phrase “Centre of Gravity” – or Schwerpunkt – in On War, it can often be replaced with focal point/main effort (p8-10) or “mass centre” (concentration of mass (p61-63)), leading to the English sentence making greater sense. However, in Book 8 Chapter 4, Centre of Gravity means exactly what it says: the point of an object where its mass is balanced. Alan Beyerchen (PDF), Antulio Echevarria (PDF) and John Haines highlight Clausewitz’s use of Newtonian analogies. These same metaphors are implied in Eikmeier’s latest article on the subject – through his use of logic, precision and testability criteria. These are conceptual metaphors.

So, why Centre of Gravity? To explain complex ideas, Clausewitz often used conceptual metaphors – using known expressions to explain theoretical concepts. The Centre of Gravity – or more commonly referred to as Centre of Mass in modern physics – is one of the expressions military officers would have studied (Military curriculums here; Prussian War College academic selection here (PDF p9-11)). What better metaphor to show how a military force and endstate are bound.

In physics, a Centre of Gravity is calculated by knowing an object’s dimensions, or boundaries. What are the “boundaries” of the “object” that Clausewitz refers? It is ‘…the kind of war on which (the nation is) embarking’ (p88). By knowing this, and understanding the endstate – which Clausewitz calls the object – we know the dimensions within the context of the metaphor. Therefore, the Centre of Gravity of a force only has meaning in the context of the endstate – just like the centre of mass in physics is only relevant to the physical object.

How can we use this to define a Centre of Gravity? Luckily, Joint Doctrine has generally embraced this thanks to the work of Strange and Iron (PDF). Their analysis broadly reinforces the conceptual metaphor. Ironically, Eikmeier also presents a methodology that aligns with the original metaphor. Understanding the metaphor allows us to translate the concept into a practical method. Figure 1 shows how a Centre of Gravity is generated using the metaphor as the guide.

By understanding the original conceptual metaphor, we see that doing CoG Analysis before our/enemy objectives (or decisive events) is backward. It’s like defining a centre of mass, and then fitting the dimensions around it! The metaphor highlights you start with the endstate, then define the objectives (“dimensions”). For each objective, the critical requirements (“points in space”) are identified. As highlighted by Strange, Iron and Eikmeier, these are nouns. The common active critical requirement – the “doing thing” that occurs the most – forms the Centre of Gravity. Why? Because war is a wrestling duel, and wrestling requires the combatant to be balanced (here, p11; here, and here(PDF)).

Balance, seen in other areas of Clausewitzian theory, is critical to a force as it provides cohesion (Zusammenhang), allowing the force to generate the most effects against the most objectives. However, the Centre of Gravity can be undermined through Critical Vulnerabilities. In Figure 2, the Centre of Gravity – relevant and related to the endstate – is used to identify the critical vulnerabilities. Of course, we can take this further and group these vulnerabilities together to assist in prioritisation.

There is still much art – particularly if there are two or three common critical requirements. However, understanding the metaphor provides a relevant method that assists in shaping that art. After all, even the greatest painter requires an understanding of the mathematics of proportions. This approach goes a long way in reducing the stress on plans staff. After all, planners are people too, and I am all for less CoG arguments!

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Bosio is the Staff Officer Grade 1 Strategy within the Directorate of Future Land Warfare. He has just returned from deployment after being the Chief of Campaign Plans, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (Operation OKRA). He is currently studying a PhD in Military Theory.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.