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Clausewitz's Center of Gravity: Changing Our Warfighting Doctrine--Again!

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II.

September 2002

35 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author cuts through the myriad interpretations surrounding the concept and gets back to the original idea as conceived by its author, the Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. In going back to the original concept, Lieutenant Colonel Echevarria reveals that Clausewitz intended the center of gravity to function much as its counterpart in the mechanical sciences does, that is, as a focal point. He thus argues, quite persuasively, that the Clausewitzian center of gravity is not a strength, nor a weakness, nor even a source of strength. A center of gravity is the one element within a combatant's entire structure or system that has the necessary centripetal force to hold that structure together. This is why Clausewitz wrote that a blow directed against a center of gravity will have the greatest effect. The author concludes with recommendations for revising Joint and Service doctrine so that they will reflect a more accurate and coherent definition of a center of gravity. He also offers some considerations for the war planner when applying the concept.


The center of gravity has become one of today’s most popular military concepts despite the fact that its origins extend back to the early industrial-age. Clausewitz’s military center of gravity (CoG) and the CoG of the mechanical sciences share many of the same properties: neither is a strength or a source of strength, per se, but rather a focal point where physical (and psychological) forces come together. The U.S. military’s doctrinal publications—especially Joint Pub 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, and Joint Pub 5-00.1, Joint Doctrine for Campaign Planning—should be revised to reflect a more accurate definition of the CoG.

U.S. Military Doctrine and the CoG Concept.

Over the last 2 decades especially, the U.S. military has struggled both to understand the CoG concept as developed by Clausewitz, and to find practical ways to apply it. In the process, however, it has drifted away from Clausewitz’s original idea. For example, each of the services—shaped by different roles, histories, and traditions—tended to view the CoG concept in their respective images. The CoG concept has, therefore, been fitted with many guises over the years. The Joint community attempted—though with only limited success—to pull the various service perspectives together into a single definition with the publication of Joint Pub 3-0 in 1995. In other words, Joint Pub 3-0 strove to achieve an “authoritative” consensus by drawing together many of the services’ predilections. However, in so doing, it defined CoGs too broadly and offered no real method for determining them.

The recently released Joint Pub 5-00.1 (January 2002) builds upon Joint Pub 3-0 and attempts to provide a general method for determining CoGs. However, the process that Joint Pub 5-00.1 describes for determining a CoG actually leads us not to a CoG, but to a set of critical (physical or psychological) capabilities. This process appears to have borrowed from Dr. Joseph Strange’s popular “CG (center of gravity)—CC (critical capabilities)—CR (critical requirements)—CV (critical vulnerabilities)” approach. In theory, Strange’s approach linked CoGs (which he defined as “dynamic agents of action or influence” to CVs in a way that war planners could put to practical use. However, because any number of “dynamic agents of action or influence” can exist within a given nation or within a given battlespace, his definition fails to offer a way to focus one’s efforts and other resources on something that will prove decisive. Strange’s method only brings war planners to the enemy’s centers of critical capability, rather than to an actual CoG.

Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity.

Clausewitz’s original definition follows the physics analogy more closely than previous analyses of his work have appreciated. In fact, it is not a source of strength or a critical capability, but a focal point that is essentially effects-based, rather than capabilities-based. In modern elementary physics, which was about the state of the mechanical sciences in Clausewitz’s day, a CoG represents the point where the forces of gravity converge within an object. Striking at the CoG with enough force will usually cause the object to lose its balance, or equilibrium, and fall. A CoG is, therefore, not a source of strength, but a factor of balance.

A closer look at the German text shows that Clausewitz never used the term “source” (Quelle). Moreover, the concept remains valid only where the enemy possesses sufficient “unity” or “interdependence” (Zusammenhang) to act as a single body. Before applying the concept in war planning, therefore, we must ask ourselves whether we can consider the enemy to act as a single entity. If so, we should look for connections among the various parts of an adversary, or adversaries, in order to determine what holds them together. This is the CoG.

Furthermore, Clausewitz’s CoG focuses on achieving a specific effect, the collapse of the enemy. Hence, it is an effects-based approach, rather than a capabilities-based one and it resembles an emerging concept called Effects-Based Operations (EBO) more than it does the capabilities-based notion that underpins today’s doctrine. Another important point is that Clausewitz did not distinguish between tactical, operational, or strategic CoGs. The CoG is defined by the entire system (or structure) of the enemy, not by a level of war. In addition, Clausewitz emphasized that we should look for CoGs only in wars designed to defeat the enemy completely. Only the vast amount of energy and other resources that go into wars aimed at achieving decisive victory can cause CoGs and their areas of influence to emerge.

Toward a Simple Method.

However, getting the definition of a CoG correct is only half the battle. War planners need a practical method for determining what a specific adversary’s CoG is. Such as:

Step 1: Determine whether identifying and attacking a CoG is appropriate for the type of war we are going to wage.

Step 2: Determine whether the adversary’s whole structure or system is sufficiently connected to be treated as a single body.

Step 3: Determine what element has the necessary centripetal force to hold the system together.

Additional Recommendations:

• Redefine CoG as follows: Centers of Gravity are focal points that serve to hold a combatant’s entire system or structure together and that draw power from a variety of sources and provide it with purpose and direction.

• Refrain from applying the concept to every kind of war; reduce the competition that can occur between CoGs and political-military objectives.

• Identify where the connections—and gaps—are in an enemy’s entire structure or system before deciding whether a CoG actually exists; CoGs only apply where a combatant is sufficiently interconnected to act with unity.

• Focus more effort on identifying the specific effect(s) to be achieved by attacking a CoG.

• Continually reassess CoGs. However, reevaluate the need to attack CoGs that are extremely transitory.

• Resist “salami-slicing” the adversary into tactical, operational, and strategic CoGs. The bulk of our efforts and intermediate objectives should focus on destroying the CoG.

In conclusion, the CoG concept is one of several of Clausewitz’s ideas—such as friction in war, culmination of the attack, the roles of chance and uncertainty—that have a quality that transcends his day and makes them relevant to our own. However, we must apply it judiciously, especially in today’s post-industrial era in which “networked” opponents armed with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive weapons can operate in a globally decentralized manner.

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