Centers of Gravity Are a Myth

By Colonel Mark Cancian, USMCR
  • It is campaign winning.
  • It avoids heavy casualties.
  • It has deep roots in Army and Air Force doctrine.
  • It gives intellectual focus to planning.

Unfortunately, it often is a mirage. These concepts may be good in theory, but they rarely exist in the real world in a way useful for military planners. The problem is not, as some authors suggest, that centers of gravity are hard to identify and therefore underused by planners; the problem is that centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities just are not there. In addition, their pursuit often overpromises what a campaign can achieve and can distract from more limited, but achievable, objectives.

To illustrate this, suppose we could go back to the Tarawa battle of 1943, and armed with all our postwar research and analysis, could advise Major General H. M. Smith about the battle ahead. What would we tell him? Certainly we would tell him about the reef (too shallow on the lagoon side). We would tell him that prelanding bombardments need to be much longer than he believes. We would remind him not to reinforce failure in landing his reserve but to take advantage of success. But there is nothing useful we could say about critical enemy vulnerabilities or centers of gravity. Japanese capabilities had to be destroyed piece by piece. There was no point so vulnerable that its destruction would produce the collapse of resistance. Communications? Leadership? Supplies? In the actual event, the United States destroyed all of these elements, but fierce resistance still continued. Many U.S. actions produced battlefield advantage—pre-invasion bombardment, isolation of the garrison, decentralized tactical leadership—but there was nothing that could be termed a critical enemy vulnerability.

Before going any further, it probably is worth reviewing the existing definitions of these terms:

  • Centers of gravity : "Those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight" (Joint Publication 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms).
  • Critical vulnerabilities : Enemy weaknesses that, when attacked and destroyed or neutralized, produce decisive results, disproportional to the military resources applied. 1

These definitions can be subjected to considerable analysis, commentary, and refinement. Dr. Joseph Strange of the Marine Corps War College has written an entire monograph on these and related terms, pointing out inconsistencies among the services and proposing doctrinal modifications. The purpose here, however, is to explore the broader usefulness of the terms.

Let's look at another example: Desert Storm, the current model for a joint campaign. From a planning perspective, one observes that the Army, Navy, and Air Force each aimed their component campaigns at what they believed to be the critical Iraqi vulnerability and center of gravity:

  • The Air Force devoted considerable effort to attacking strategic targets—electrical production, telecommunications, military production, oil refining—that could have effects only in the long term, far beyond the intended coalition campaign. By attacking these infrastructure targets, however, the air planners hoped to inflict such pain that the Iraqi leaders would opt to change their policies.
  • The Army's planning focused on the Republican Guard, Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell believing that these divisions were the glue that held together Saddam's regime. Without the Republican Guard, they reasoned, Saddam would not be able to suppress dissent and would fall from power. (Originally, the Air Force planners had not even targeted the Republican Guard, which they regarded as a tactical distraction.)
  • The Navy, in addition to its participation in the air war, conducted a traditional maritime blockade, aimed at strangling commerce and interdicting the export of Iraq's primary economic resource, oil.

Arguably, all these efforts had some success. The strategic attacks on Iraqi infrastructure severely disrupted their economy. The Army's attack on the Republican Guard (combined with the air attacks) cut the Guard's strength in half. The naval campaign completely cut off trade, especially the vital oil exports—and does so to this day. Nevertheless, all failed in their ultimate objective, to change the nature of the regime. Nothing we did forced Saddam out of power or made him change his basic attitudes. As a result, he continues to threaten his neighbors and to pursue weapons of mass destruction.

The primary issue here is whether the concepts of critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity have usefulness to planners. If they are to have any utility, they must do three things:

  • They must offer the prospect of a disproportional effect—that friendly efforts concentrated on the selected enemy point will produce decisive results.
  • They must not be obvious applications of traditional military theory. We do not need a new concept to tell us that turning an enemy's flank or cutting off his supplies will offer an important battlefield advantage. We know that already.
  • They must be executed at a practical level of effort. Any weakness can become "critical" if enough effort is brought to bear. It is not very helpful for planners to be told, "If you bomb the enemy intensively for extended periods, their morale will begin to crack." That is true for any army and is not a useful insight.

The fundamental problem is that few situations in the real world meet these requirements. One finds many examples of vulnerabilities and campaign-winning tactics, but these display long-standing battlefield phenomenon—demoralization after protracted failure, collapse after being surrounded, disorganization after prolonged pounding by firepower. A few, quick examples make the point:

  • In several campaigns the Air Force has tried to strangle the logistics of enemies by attacking long and vulnerable supply routes—in Italy in 1943-44, in Korea, in Vietnam. These supply lines represented classic enemy vulnerabilities. All these campaigns affected enemy operations, but none was decisive or even led to decisive results.
  • In the Falklands Campaign of 1982, the British struck many Argentine points. Their naval campaign quickly swept the Argentine Navy from the sea. Their air campaign held the Argentine Air Force at bay. Their ground campaign reduced the outlying Argentine outposts, pushed the Argentines into the capital, then cracked the main line of resistance, finally forcing surrender. It is hard to see this campaign as a strike at a center of gravity or at a critical vulnerability. What one does see is a classic joint campaign, each move of which sets up the subsequent move.

Discovering the reason for this resilience in military, political, and economic affairs is worthy of an article in its own right; however, one may infer from the few examples here and a review of history that the reason is related to two notions: (1) that human affairs are networks with many alternative paths, and (2) that enemies are dynamic actors, every bit as clever individually as we are, actively trying to thwart our designs.

Army and Air Force doctrine regard networks as vulnerabilities—knock out one node and the whole network may collapse. 2 The problem is that networks, by definition, have many paths leading to the same end. So it is with military activities. If a bridge at point A is destroyed, then the enemy will use the bridge at B, or the ford at C, or the ferry at D, or repair the bridge.

As a result, doctrines that rely on precision effects against nodes of a network are on shaky ground. Instead of collapse, one sees instead coping mechanisms such as alternative routing, imaginative work arounds, and strict prioritization of flow traffic. Indeed, for these reasons, networks often are strengths, not weaknesses.

Deep Doctrinal Roots

If this idea of centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities does not come from history, where does it come from? This is clear. For the Army, the idea comes from Clausewitz. For the Air Force, it comes from a long line of air power proponents. For the Navy, interestingly, there is no equivalent; it has, in contrast, a doctrinal base emphasizing gradual effects over time. 3

The U.S. Army always has studied Clausewitz. In the late 1980s, however, as it was revitalizing itself from the effects of Vietnam and the hollowness of the 1970s, the Army rediscovered his theories as part of its reemphasis on operational art. Following this increasing interest in Clausewitz has been an interest in centers of gravity, which Army doctrine describes as follows:

The concept of centers of gravity is key to all operational design. . . . As with any complex organism, some components are more vital than others to the smooth and reliable operation of the whole. If these are damaged or destroyed, their loss unbalances the entire structure, producing a cascading deterioration of cohesion and effectiveness which may result in complete failure. 4

Not surprisingly, then, Army doctrine states that "destruction, dislocation, or neutralization of the enemy center of gravity should prove decisive." 5 This concept is applied at all levels, from the strategic to the tactical. It is easy, therefore, to see how the Army focused on the Republican Guard during Desert Storm. Its doctrine clearly implied that a center of gravity would exist and that the campaign plan should focus on it.

This interpretation of centers of gravity goes beyond Clausewitz, however. Clausewitz discusses centers of gravity at a very high level and in the context of a decisive battle: "Centers of gravity will be found wherever forces are most concentrated. . . . It presents the most effective target for a blow." 6 He calls identification of the centers of gravity a "major act of strategic judgment.? This is consistent with his focus on decisive battle as the means of decision in war, but there is nothing in Clausewitz like the Army's "network" theory.

Air power, almost from its inception, has looked for decisive results from strategic effects against enemy centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities. The prospect of "jumping over the trenches" to strike directly at an enemy's critical vulnerabilities has been extremely attractive. In its earliest form this strike was conceived as terror bombing against a vulnerable and easily demoralized civilian population. Later it took the form of strikes against critical economic targets. In addition to theoretical reasons for such an approach there probably were institutional reasons—air forces needed a compelling rationale to make a place for themselves in a military structure dominated by older technologies and to justify the high costs of developing aviation technologies.

Recently, air power theorist Colonel John Warden, U.S. Air Force (retired), has updated these theories and widely disseminated them. He states bluntly that "in all cases the enemy centers of gravity must be identified and struck." 7 These centers of gravity he identifies as command-and-control capabilities and critical infrastructure. Nor is this just an Air Force theory now. Joint Publication 3-0 talks about air power "directly attack[ing] strategic centers of gravity."

Naval theory traditionally has had a very different orientation, arising from the inescapable fact that human beings live on land. It is therefore difficult, though perhaps not impossible, for naval forces to have effects that are both decisive and rapid. Far more common are the gradual processes of blockade and of wearing down enemy capabilities by attacks on the periphery. The Union blockade of the Confederacy during the Civil War and the British blockades of France during the Napoleonic Wars and of Germany during the world wars all were critical components of victory but were slow to take effect. Offensive actions such as the submarine campaigns of both World War I and World War II also had potentially decisive effects that took time. Alfred Thayer Mahan, who put theory behind these long-standing practices, talks about sea power in terms of commerce and sea power's ability to encourage or stifle it. 8 Although he envisioned the clash of mighty battle fleets, this was a means to an end, not the end itself. As a result, in traditional naval theory, the concept of striking at a center of gravity or a critical vulnerability is not strong or, for the most part, even evident.

For this reason, Naval Doctrine Publication-1, Naval Warfare , seems to be an uncomfortable melding of traditional naval theory—with its focus on forward presence, deterrence, and sea control—and the newer, joint theories of centers of gravity, direct attack, and quick decisions, the whole overlaid with a discussion of land-oriented maneuver warfare. This may explain why its discussion of centers of gravity is so confusing, arguing, alone among the services, that there can be only a single center of gravity. 9

So What?

Does it really matter that joint planning focuses on a questionable goal? Of course it does. When joint doctrine holds this concept up as the pinnacle of military objectives, planners will be encouraged to assume that critical vulnerabilities always exist and will look for them. Where such vulnerabilities are not evident, they will manufacture them. By looking for a silver bullet, our planners may ignore other, more modest but more realistic, objectives, or may oversell their plans as being potentially more effective than is the case. Arguably, this is what happened in Desert Storm, where we flawlessly executed plans aimed at critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity, yet still had no decisive outcome.

This last caution is particularly relevant in the current political-military environment. If military commanders tell civilian leaders (few of whom today have any military experience) that a campaign will attack critical enemy vulnerabilities and centers of gravity, then these leaders naturally will assume that the campaign will be shorter, less costly, and less risky than is often the case. Qualifying statements by the military cannot overturn these impressions, particularly since this is what civilians will want to believe. The national military strategy and Joint Vision 2010 , which talk about achieving "full-spectrum dominance," encourage this belief in short, bloodless conflicts with accurately foreseeable courses of events. This belief is further encouraged by an abiding American faith in technological superiority and its battlefield advantages.

This environment is a particular problem for naval planners. They are, arguably, being forced into an Army and Air Force doctrinal approach that does not fit naval capabilities well.

An Alternative Approach

The foregoing discussion should not discourage planners from striving for victory or foster a belief that one approach is as good as another. It should not encourage any notion that broadly based attrition strategies are as good as focused, targeted strategies. High-priority targets still exist; some tactical approaches will produce better results than others; attacking weakness still is better than attacking strength.

Nor is the point to eliminate any notion of critical vulnerabilities or centers of gravity because, occasionally, there may be a critical vulnerability that our forces can actually get at. In retrospect, for instance, it seems that Saddam himself was a critical vulnerability, probably the only one. If he had been eliminated (and we tried), Iraqi policy might have changed. 10

Nevertheless, a more useful focus for thinking about joint campaigns is needed, and the pieces are in place:

  • Joint Publication 1, Joint Warfare , talks about "sequenced and synchronized employment of all available land, sea, air, special operations, and space forces." Joint Publication 5-0, Doctrine for Planning Joint Operations , echoes this by describing campaign plans as "a series of joint major operations arranged in time, space, and purpose to achieve a strategic objective."
  • Naval Doctrine Publication-1 has a quite sensible discussion of how critical vulnerabilities may, or may not, exist and may, or may not, be accessible.
  • Marine Corps Doctrine Publication-1 talks of exploiting opportunities to create more opportunities that will, in the end, produce decisive results.

The common thread here is that, instead of focusing operations on a single decisive point by a single service, planners should focus on the more general goal of attaining battlefield advantage. Each advantage leads to another and another, the final result being decisive. The Falklands Campaign is a good model, where each effort—land, sea, and air—set up the next, until the final victory. In addition, this vision is more compatible with emerging notions of a joint campaign. Instead of each service trying on its own to land the decisive blow, the blows work together, building on each other, the result being decisive in a way that no single effort could be. Finally, this approach does not promise or imply more than it can deliver. It is less likely to lull civilian decision makers into a false sense of security because it implies that campaigns might be long and that the unexpected might occur.

Joint doctrine today talks of focusing on critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity to attain the desired end state of a joint campaign. Because critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity so rarely exist, at least in a way useful for planners, joint doctrine would be better off focusing instead on battlefield advantages. The ultimate result would be the same—attaining the joint campaign's desired end state. The means, however, would focus on sequenced actions in a joint campaign, rather than on single-service attempts to land a decisive blow.

Colonel Cancian, a reserve infantry officer, has served in a variety of billets from company to Marine expeditionary force level. He also has served at Headquarters Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, where he worked extensively on joint issues. In civilian life, he works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

   1. Adapted from definition in Joseph Strange, Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities (Marine Corps War College, 1996). back to article
   2. For an extreme example, see Col. John A. Warden, USAF, "The Enemy as a System," Airpower Journal , Spring 1995, pp. 41-55. back to article
   3. Carl Builder, in his classic The Masks of War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), argues that the roots go even deeper: "The roots of modern American strategy can be unearthed by digging down into the institutional personalities of the American military services" (p. 6). back to article
   4. FM 100-5, Operations , 1986 edition, Appendix B, "Key Concepts of Operational Design."
back to article
   5. FM 100-7, Decisive Force , p. 3-0. back to article
   6. Karl von Clausewitz, On War , ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 485-86. back to article
   7. Col. John Warden III, USAF, The Air Campaign (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1988), p. 138. back to article
   8. For example: "Sea power . . . includes not only the military strength afloat, that rules the sea or any part of it my force of arms, but also the peaceful commerce and shipping from which alone a military naturally and healthfully springs." Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little Brown), p. 28. back to article
   9. NDP 1, Naval Warfare: "The center of gravity is something the enemy must have to continue military operations. . . . There can only be one center of gravity." back to article
  10. Central Command planners recognized this and did their best. According to rumors, the bombing campaign several times came close to hitting Saddam. back to article



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