The CoGs in the war go round and round…


Anyone with small children knows how invasive and persistent THAT tune is…

In Do Ideas Matter? Some thoughts… I commented on Adam Elkus’ paper on interpretation and application of the Centre of Gravity construct, and Adam and I have batted some comments back and forth since.. This has had me thinking more and more about centres of gravity, both generally and in specific regard to the complex environment. I think that we are wrong to consider a centre of gravity as a point of strength.

Many years ago, in the good old days (and they were!!) when I was a young soldier and we maintained a substantial presence in Singapore, I stumbled across a UK-based military book club that accepted overseas subscribers and offered a flat rate for shipping. The deal was that you had to buy so many books each year and – much like my current approach to Audible – I would get busy and let my obligation lapse until the last safe moment when I would have to make some snap selections from whatever was available in the most recent catalogue in order to stay in the club. As a result, I built up quite an eclectic library. One of the books that I acquired was David G. Chandler’s The Military Maxims Of Napoleon (Greenhill Books, 1987, ISBN 0947898646) It contains all 78 Maxims, the original 19th Century commentary and a new commentary by David Chandler applying “…the 20th Century perspective of two world wars, Vietnam, the Falklands and other conflicts…“. At the time, I read it, thought it of minor interest and it’s been on the shelf ever since. However one point, not even from the Maxims, has stuck with me in the succeeding two and bit decades. It regards what Chandler describes as one of Napoleon’s best known sayings “The principles of war are the same as those of a siege. Fire must be concentrated on a single point and as soon as the breach is made the equilibrium is broken and the rest is nothing.” The commentary in the book offers that most who seek to apply this ‘rule’ get it wrong in that they fixate on the word ‘point‘ and miss the whole implication of ‘equilibrium‘.

Chandler offers that it is highly probable that Napoleon actually meant the ‘joint’ or ‘hinge’ of enemy dispositions. There will always be issues of translation and interpretation when we seek to learn from those who gone before, especially when there is a significant temporal air gap – poor old Clausewitz and Mahan suffer in the same manner as does Douhet, when I ever get round to reading The Command of the Air. Sometime we fixate a little too much on the purity of original text and not enough on the actual content of the interpretation – to quote one of our Principles of Lessons Learned “Focus on what is being said and less on who is saying it“. One of the greatest examples of this is the Clausewitzian Trinity which is popularly accepted as ‘the people, the action arm, and the leadership’ – the actual Trinity from the original texts, as Adam and others have pointed out is much more ethereal. Regardless, the popular version of the Trinity still holds true, remains applicable today and, when you get right done to it, is probably more useful as a model than the original. The modern definition of ‘centre of gravity’ is

(FM 3-0) The source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act. The center of gravity is a vital analytical tool for designing campaigns and major operations. It provides a focal point for them, identifying sources of strength and weakness at the strategic and operational levels of war. Centers of gravity are not relevant at the tactical level; the tactical equivalent is the objective. At the strategic level, the center of gravity may be vulnerable to an operational-level approach; at the operational level, the center of gravity may be vulnerable to tactical actions. The enemy may shift a center of gravity to protect and sustain a source of power. Similarly, changes in the operational environment may cause centers of gravity to shift. Therefore, analysis of friendly and enemy centers of gravity begins during planning and continues throughout a campaign or major operation.

This is very much a Fulda Gapist definition and even then, in the context of Third World War, Red Storm Rising-like, high intensity conventional conflict, it is somewhat flawed. It neither states nor implies any of the characteristics one might expect of a centre of gravity like pivot, balance, or equilibrium. In describing the centre of gravity as a ‘source of power’ and equating it with a tactical objective, it logically but incorrectly follows that the centre of gravity is something that is struck. While it may be correct that centres of gravity apply only at the operational and strategic levels in conventional conflict, this does not apply in the much higher fidelity/granularity microcosms of the complex environment where influence may be applied at all levels. Now compare the military definition of a centre of gravity with an aeronautical one based upon the Archimedean centre of mass principle:

The center-of-gravity (CG) is the point at which an aircraft would balance if it were possible to suspend it at that point. It is the mass center of the aircraft, or the theoretical point at which the entire weight of the aircraft is assumed to be concentrated. Its distance from the reference datum is determined by dividing the total moment by the total weight of the aircraft. The center-of-gravity point affects the stability of the aircraft. To ensure the aircraft is safe to fly, the center-of-gravity must fall within specified limits established by the manufacturer. When the center of gravity or weight of an aircraft is outside the acceptable range, the aircraft may not be able to sustain flight, or it may be impossible to maintain the aircraft in level flight in some or all circumstances.

Placing the CG or weight of an aircraft outside the allowed range can lead to an unavoidable crash of the aircraft. When the fore-aft center of gravity is out of range, the aircraft may pitch uncontrollably down or up, and this tendency may exceed the control authority available to the pilot, causing a loss of control. The excessive pitch may be apparent in all phases of flight, or only during certain phases, such as take-off or descent. Because the burning of fuel gradually produces a loss of weight and possibly a shift in the center of gravity, it is possible for an aircraft to take off with the center of gravity in a position that allows full control, and yet later develop an imbalance that exceeds control authority. Calculations of center of gravity must take this into account (often part of this is calculated in advance by the manufacturer and incorporated into CG limits).

‘Striking the weak joint‘ is the defining point that I took away from Napoleon’s Maxims all those years ago and it has stood me in good stead since. During my very junior intelligence training (most of which occurred as DESERT STORM was flashing across our screens, adding a whole new real-time perspective to intelligence doctrine), a common CCIR was to identify the boundaries between enemy elements. The answer to questions regarding the ‘why’ behind this was that it helped determine unit identities…but why? I’d ask again – I got to spend a lot of time sitting in the corner…A few years later, on the Infantry Minor Tactics (so what? I like the old name!!) course, the other guys (this was before we had guyesses in the Regiment) ‘got it’ and we always paid extra attention to the boundaries between elements as potential weaknesses.

If you consider the CoG construct against Napoleon’s advice to strike the weak point to break the equilibrium and the physical definition of a centre of gravity, you find a model that it considerably more robust and applicable to both conventional high-intensity traditional conflict and the complex microcosms of the COE. The centre of gravity is NOT a source of power, nor is it a weakness per se – it is more an area that might be influenced by one of a number of simultaneous or sequential actions that create a higher potential for instability. The effects may be incremental as those of Keenan’s theory of Containment or as immediate and catastrophic as those of the assassination if Archduke Ferdinand or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In chaos theory, this is also known as the Butterfly effect where the small flap of the butterfly’s wings that in time leads to unexpected and unpredictable results. Newton’s law of equal and opposite reaction does apply as it is unlikely that there will be a direct proportion correlation between the size of the action and the subsequent effect(s).

Influencing one or more centres of gravity creates a tipping point, the physical definition of which is “…is the point at which an object is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a new equilibrium state qualitatively dissimilar from the first…” Although some definitions of tipping point consider the point tipped when the new state of equilibrium becomes permanent or irreversible, achieving and maintaining this state can not be taken as a given. Sometimes the effects are temporary, either because the influencing actions have ceased prematurely, because of other influences having a contrary effect, or simply because the inertia of ‘normalcy’ is too great to be overcome long term. Even though a nuclear device might achieve critical mass, there is any number of factors that may prevent a full detonation. In COIN, there is a temptation to perceive positive change as steady state, and withdraw the critical influences before the changes in equilibrium and environment have fully taken hold. Hence, one of the core truisms of COIN and peace support operations is that success takes time, probably generations, before it can be safely said that peaceful equilibrium has been achieved.

A more practical definition of centre of gravity may be:

The point which, when subjected to influences or actions, effects change in the equilibrium or balance of an object, group of individual. The center of gravity is a vital analytical tool for designing campaigns and major operations. It provides a focal point for them, identifying sources of strength and weakness.

Centres of gravity may not be static and some may be in a state of constant flux. Similarly, changes in the environment may cause centers of gravity to shift. Therefore, analysis of friendly and enemy centers of gravity begins during planning and continues throughout a campaign or operation.

To achieve the desired ultimate effect, it may be necessary to be influence multiple centres of gravity sequentially and/or simultaneously.

The second point is important in all types and levels of activity and is endemic of weaknesses in intelligence apparatus. A snap shot of centres of gravity is only as current as the time it was taken; current apparatus are probably adequate for maintaining current pictures of centres of gravity in conventional platform-based activity but they have yet to adapt in any significant manner to the much higher granularity, global scope and complexity of individual-based activity and operations.

The final part of the definition requires a perceptional adjustment in how centres of gravity have been defined previously. While still holding true in traditional platform-based activity, it becomes vital in environments of complexity and uncertainty. Traditionally we speak of THE centre of gravity; now we must think and talk in terms of centres of gravity. Consider many cogs rotating in a machine: by applying subtle influences to specific cogs at specific points in their rotation and relationship to other cogs, the machine can be made to run faster, or smoother, or slow down or fly apart catastrophically…

Or, using the planetary model in Interbella, significant effects can sometimes only occur when the planets are in alignment….

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2 thoughts on “The CoGs in the war go round and round…

    • I find it comfortably more specific than The Art of War, most takes on I find rather bland and elastic; the Maxims are more of a series of takes of Napoleon’s take on war fighting and I tend to focus more on the each maxim that who they may or may not be attributed to…possibly a bit of horses for courses…

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