Von Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity concept

And its possible relevance to systems thinking

Von Clausewitz, the seminal 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously wrote that war is merely “the continuation of policy [with the addition of] other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln). This suggests that war is essentially about politics. Clausewitz also spoke of the so-called trinity in war of people, army and government, suggesting that Clausewitz’ ideas mainly apply to nation states, a concept that itself is now under attack because of the rise of non-trinitarian wars involving non-state fighters as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Mali. The question is of course whether these countries were fully developed nation states (well, probably not) in the first place, and whether the nation state as a concept is in decline as suggested by current theorists such as Van Creveld. Clausewitz also used a second trinity – passion, chance, and reason – for his analysis of war (Fleming, 2013). All very fascinating stuff, but let’s first concentrate on the Center of Gravity concept, since it seems – to me at least – to have potential as a useful complementary concept in the systems approach. It may also hold the key to understanding Clausewitz’ trinities as incompletely developed systems categories, but that’s way beyond the scope of this post and this blog (for now).

Between “is” and “ought”    I am not the first to suggest that there is a link between systems thinking and Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity (CoG) concept, witness e.g. The center of gravity, systemically understood (Rowe, 2013). The CoG concept kindled my interest, because the phrasing itself in the context of warfare is suggestive of a general systemic principle that may apply to complex, dynamic, conflictual situations in urgent need of redressing. Churchman’s equally general set of principles as embodied in his dialectical systems approach facilitates inquiry of the “is” situation and can be very helpful in designing an improved “ought” situation, but it may not always be clear how to get from “is” to “ought”. The CoG concept, properly understood, may come in handy.

Center of Gravity   … is a fundamental concept in Clausewitz’ ‘On war’ (Vom Kriege), which he wrote after the Napoleonic Wars between 1816 and 1830. Clausewitz died of cholera before it was finished, so the book was published by his wife, in 1832 to be precise. Clausewitz was influenced by Kant through the intermediary of Kiesewetter, so it comes at no surprise that Clausewitz opts for a dialectical approach in his analysis of war strategy. And he was looking for principles rather than guidelines. One of the principles centers around the notion of ‘Center of Gravity’ (CoG), a concept hitherto largely ignored in US military’s warfighting doctrine (Echevarria, 2002), probably because it was not well understood. Echevarria emphasizes time and again that the concept may never be reined in properly.

The first principle     … is this: “To trace the full weight (Gewicht) of the enemy’s force (Macht) to as few centers of gravity as possible, when feasible, to one; and, at the same time, to reduce the blow against these centers of gravity to as few major actions as possible, when feasible, to one.” (Vom Kriege, pp. 1009-1010, quoted in Echevarria 2002, p. 9) We can conclude that the number of CoGs can be between zero and multiple, preferably one for each adversary. A CoG is defined by ‘interdependent unity’ (rephrased by me as ‘systemic unity’ in the concept map). This unity derives from the presence of certain ‘centripetal forces’ (Clausewitz uses a model derived from the mechanical physics of his time. He also use a Randomly Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum to illustrate the trinities and the inherent unpredictablility of war). Now, “the unpredictability of war makes action imperative. Oftentimes, the bold, sweeping action is the safest course. Sometimes, such bold action is necessary even when it opens nasty cans of worms we’d prefer to avoid, if those cans are likely destined to be opened anyway and under less favourable conditions.” The CoG concept is intended for understanding how and where swift, bold action should be applied.

The concept map        Part of above concept map has been explained in the previous paragraph. In addition, if the CoG concept is to be applied successfully to a situation, there must at least be two CoGs, one for one’s own activities and for those of the enemy. One must understand both of them to see their strengths and weaknesses and how they interrelate. The CoGs are likely to be different, with the one of the enemy having at least one fatal flaw. There are no fixed rules; determining a CoG is a wicked problem! For its proper application, a sense of innovative surprise (or serendipity) is required. In Clausewitz mind only a military genius has the necessary capability (Napoleon was a good runner up, but didn’t quite make it to genius status). For this he needs all sorts of qualities (balance of character & intellect, not too bold, brave, prudent, bull-headed intellectual, rash or impulsive). A good strategists can see how different actors and conditions can act as ‘focal points of systemization’ to (self-)structure and focus the different power systems. These power systems in turn draw their raw power from e.g. a population base (recruits or strong popular will to vanquish the enemy), food supply or an  industrial base.

CoG and the systems approach         The concept of CoG is much more like the concept of system than one might suspect at first sight. Only the system is adversarial, in a two-system or multi-system configuration (that’s the nation states view, which nowadays is replaced by the international relationships view, which is – still – resisting a mutually exclusive civilizations view). The CoG is what structures a configuration of the enemy’s ‘power’ in a particular way. It is configured to project maximum ‘danger’ to its perceived adversary. To avoid (more) war it needs to be reconfigured. The first step often used to be victory, be it in a destructive or neutralizing sense. The next step reconfiguration (incorporation etc.) in a friendly, neutral or adversarial sense. At this stage, we are well beyond any situation where Clausewitz’ CoG would normally apply, but where the systems approach could be very useful. So, the systems approach may well serve a complementary function. Perhaps there is even a way to avoid fighting a war.

CoG as a complementary tool       The systems approach is well suited for understanding an actual situation ‘A’ and a hopefully improved situation ‘B’. The question remains: how to get from A to B? The simple answer is: B will replace A. But there is often some form of resistance to prevent it. Where mutual agreement fails, something else may need to be done. The adversarial CoG perspective could well help to identify and deal with unwillingness in a way that the non-adversarial systems approach can not. CoG may also complement framing in the systems approach method of Wicked Solutions. Instead of say three one- or two-word statements of what a particular wicked problem or situation is about, CoG may express the centripetal force from which the situation derives its unity or stability.

Some final guidance     Echevarria provides a few simple guidelines for applying the CoG concept in strategic analysis: (1) appropriateness: determine whether identifying and attacking a CoG is appropriate for the type of war one is going to wage; (2) connectedness: determine whether the adversary’s whole structure or system is sufficiently connected to be treated as a single body; and (3) identifiability: determine what element has the necessary centripetal force to hold the system together. These seem sufficiently general rules or steps to apply – judiciously – to the transformation of wicked problems generally. Echevarria further emphasizes that use of the COG concept should have a unifying effect–pulling  all tactical and operational efforts toward the strategic end. Some of the lower-level principles of strategy include: defense is stronger (this must be understood in a Machiavellian sense: all else being equal, the course of war, will tend to favor the party with the stronger emotional and political motivations, but especially the defender); superior numbers; concentration, strategic reserve, economy of force, surprise, perseverance, turning movements, and culminating points. Clearly, these lower-level principles are less general in nature, so they are unlikely to apply as such in many non-war situations. But they may inspire the serendipitous emergence of more appropriate strategic approaches.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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One Response to Von Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity concept

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Interest and commented:
    Sjon van ’t Hof is always worth reading, and this is no exception.

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