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War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.

– Sun Tzu.[1]

On 07 December 1941, a Japanese strike force struck Pearl Harbor and  sank four battleships, the main target in lieu of aircraft carriers; with a total of 19 warships sunk or disabled, the raid was considered a success.[2] The Japanese had rightly identified the United States (US) Pacific Fleet as the Centre of Gravity (CoG)—‘The hub of all power and movement,’[3]as defined by Clausewitz—which could have inhibited Japanese operations in the so-called Southern Resource Zone, Dutch East Indies and Malaya. Yet the Japanese focused on the tactical, the ships and the aircraft which were in Hawaii. The four and-a-half million barrels of oil stored in the open, two dry docks and two oil replenishment ships, were left unscathed. Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, it would have prolonged the war another two years — Chester Nimitz.[4] While the CoG had been identified, the ‘critical vulnerabilities’ of that CoG (oil, primarily) was not targeted. A tactical success and, in hindsight, a strategic failure. The example above highlights the importance of what a CoG is and how it fits into military planning. This article is for military planners to comprehend how the idea of a CoG was formulated and how we need to think about it now.

The paradigm of what is a CoG has been confused from its conception, and therefore is a useful framework for discussion, but not as important to military planners as understanding your enemy and how to destroy them. A CoG is merely a framework to discuss how to destroy the enemy; as such, a discussion of a CoG is needed, but a discussion on capabilities, requirements and vulnerabilities is much more important—and subsequently, if the identification of the CoG is wrong—to be able to quickly adapt, quicker than the enemy, and win.

Clausewitz was a student of war and science. While at the Prussian Kriegsschule (War School), Clausewitz attended a year of lectures given by his friend, physicist Paul Erman, and was introduced to a number of scientific terminologies such as: momentum, friction and Centre of Gravity.[5] Through these concepts, Clausewitz then offers a paradigm, a framework, for military planners to reflect upon warfare. Thankfully, these concepts remain with us now, and a CoG is appealing to military planners because it seems like a formula for success. Ever since, military doctrines around the world have been trying to find the panacea of victory through identifying the enemy’s CoG. Articles such as ‘Redefining the Center of Gravity’,[6] and more ominously, ‘Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: It’s not what we thought’,[7] add to the confusion and discourse. What must be understood by military planners is the context in which Clausewitz formulated his ideas to understand how that impacts us today.

Clausewitz was born in Prussia and lived from 1780 to 1831 when nation states were primarily centred around a capital and power was held in the hands of individuals. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) had the greatest impact upon the young soldier and his writing.[8] These wars centred around large continental armies moving across the map of Europe with little involvement of navies (for Prussia) and no airpower—a very different state of affairs to today when air and naval power are intrinsic to operations. Add in the domains of space and cyber, and the debate upon the relevance of Clausewitz’s ideas today is fair. However, Clausewitz was able to distil fundamental ideas of warfare in a dialectic abstract manner, which is part of the reason for the continuing conjecture today. For military planners, an understanding of Clausewitz’s context and life and what he actually wrote is important to understand how we can use these ideas now.

On War was produced in 1832, and in Book Eight, War Plans, Chapter 4, entitled ‘Closer Definition of the Military Objective’, Clausewitz outlines his idea of a CoG.

One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed. Small things always depend on great ones, unimportant on important, accidentals on essentials. This must guide our approach.[9]

After this text, the author then discusses different types of CoGs, but constrained within the context of his time, identifying cities and armies themselves as CoGs. The challenge for military planners is to understand the context of Clausewitz and his time and bring it forward to now (and in the future). From this passage, note the focus on the characteristics of the belligerents leading into and identifying the CoG, suggesting the CoG is not set and changes as the characteristics do. Now look at a map of the Western Pacific and note how Japanese military planners identified that the US Pacific Fleet was the CoG of the enemy. Also, note that a destroyer of that time needed to be replenished with oil every three to five days[10] and the relationship between a CoG and a vulnerability becomes stark.

Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 5.0, Joint Planning, is the philosophical (higher level) of understanding of current doctrine. In this document, the current Australian definition of a Centre of Gravity is ‘the primary entity that possesses the inherent capability to achieve an objective or the des bired end state’.[11] Sufficiently abstract to allow a broad application of the term and bring in more confusion and contention for the ab initio planner. This is by design to allow the planner to question their assumptions and conclusions in a continuing attempt to ‘get it right’, a loop of information, assessments, analysis, assertions and conclusions. Ultimately, doctrine gives a baseline of understanding to then be applied to environments and contexts which are largely unknowable. ADDP is valuable in bringing together the higher ideas of doctrine and offering contemporary definitions to reflect upon.

Of the two definitions, Clausewitz remains the more important definition to consider because of its dynamism. A continual observation of the characteristics of the belligerents allows for change and context within the continuing analysis and ‘plan’ to destroy the enemy’s power. In  ‘operational art’ terms, it suggests more of a focus upon campaign management and less on campaign design in the knowledge that the enemy gets a vote and reacts to your own actions. Dynamic and realistic. Eisenhower is attributed to have said, ‘Plans are useless, but planning is essential’. An experienced military officer who then went on to become president of the United States. Australian doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that the CoG is knowable prior to engagement and doesn’t allude to the importance of change, flexibility and adaptability on both sides. Because of this approach, it may be more contemporary, but lacks the subtlety and strength of Clausewitz’s words. Either way, the discussion continues in picking apart the constituent parts of a CoG within the Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP).

Australian Defence Force Procedures (ADFP) 5.0.1, JMAP goes into greater detail identifying the relationship between a CoG and its capabilities (what the CoG does), requirements (what it needs) and vulnerabilities, and because of this is of more interest to the military planner.[12] More focus should be placed upon the idea of what you are trying to achieve, what is stopping you from doing it, and what are the possible vulnerabilities of the enemy. From this study, an idea of a CoG should coalesce, and more time be allowed in formulating a plan to destroy it. This link between the idea of a CoG, its capabilities, its requirements, and then possible vulnerabilities should be the area to focus upon.

Clausewitz’s ideas remain relevant today even though he formulated his ideas over 200 years ago. The context of that time is different to how we view the world today, but his ideas remain. Military planners walk a tightrope of thinking, trying to balance plans or ideas off against a context which is unknowable; an environment which is unknowable and changing at the same time. With this unknowable changing environment as context, it then behoves the military planner to study history and arm themselves with knowledge. Clausewitz has offered a framework to think about how we plan to defeat our enemy. It is now up to the professional military officer to continue their education, continue thinking and continue reading.

Bibliography

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Department of Defence. Joint Planning. Canberra, 2018.

Department of Defence. Joint Military Appreciation Process. Canberra, 2019.

Donovan, Patrick H. ’Oil Logistics in the Pacific War’. Air Force Journal of Logistics XXVIII, no.1 (Spring 2004): pp 29-44.

Echevarria II, Antulio J. ‘Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: It’s Not What We Thought’. Naval War College Review 56 no.1 (Winter 2003): pp108-23.

Eikmeier, Dale C. ‘Redefining the Center of Gravity’, Joint Forces Quarterly 59 (October 2010): pp 156-58.

Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Tzu Sun. The Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffiths. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Footnotes

[1] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffiths (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) p 63.

[2] Patrick H. Donovan, ‘Oil Logistics in the Pacific War’, Air Force Journal of Logistics Volume XXVIII, no.1 (Spring 2004) p 35

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Ed. Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993) p 720.

[4] Donovan, ’Oil Logistics in the Pacific War’, p 37.

[5] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), p 310.

[6] Dale C. Eikmeier, ‘Redefining the Center of Gravity’, Joint Forces Quarterly 59 (October 2010): pp 156-58.

[7]Antulio J. Echevarria II, ’Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: It’s Not What We Thought’, Naval War College Review 56 no.1 (Winter 2003): pp 108-23.

[8] Clausewitz, On War, p 5-25.

[9] Clausewitz, On War, 720.

[10] Donovan, ‘Oil Logistics in the Pacific War’, p 38.

[11] Department of Defence, Joint Planning, (Canberra 2018), pp 2-7.

[12] Department of Defence, Joint Military Appreciation Process, (Canberra 2019), 3 10-3 14.

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Ward, M. 2021. 'The Centre of Gravity in Context'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/centre-gravity-context (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
(Ward, 2021)
Ward, M. 2021. 'The Centre of Gravity in Context'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/centre-gravity-context (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
Michael Ward, "The Centre of Gravity in Context", The Forge, Published: December 01, 2021, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/centre-gravity-context. (accessed April 19, 2024).
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