Moving Beyond Mechanical Metaphors: Debunking the Applicability of Centers of Gravity in 21st Century Warfare

By Amos Fox and Thomas Kopsch

As many historians like to point out, 19th century Prussian military theorist and army officer Carl von Clausewitz’s (1780-1831) seminal work, On War, was not written to be a “how-to” manual about waging warfare, but instead as a timeless treatise on the nature of war.[1] Yet, Clausewitz was a product of both his time and experience. As a result, some of the ideas and metaphors Clausewitz used to describe his understanding of war and warfare might have outlived their utility. This is certainly not to say On War or Clausewitzian theory no longer carries value, but instead suggests some of the concepts therein need reexamined in relation to the passing of time.

One of Clausewitz’s more controversial concepts, the center of gravity, falls into this category. The center of gravity (COG) – a metaphor to define warfare between relatively closed systems – has been rendered ineffective in modern warfare. Modern warfare is embodied by the collision of opposing systems in pursuit of political objectives. Modern systems sense, adapt, and act, while simultaneously hiding and protecting their critical vulnerabilities, and operating for self-perpetuation. Doctrine, rooted in a linear, Jominian application of Clausewitz’s COG concept, lacks the agility – cognitive and physical – to match the dynamism of contemporary systems warfare. As a result, doctrine must break with an anachronistic application of a metaphor, which is suited for 18th and 19th century warfare, and instead address the realities of contemporary and future warfare by replacing the COG with a systems approach that accounts for an adversarial systems’ ability to sense, adapt, and act.[2] In doing so, doctrine will become more responsive to the fleeting opportunities in warfare, resulting in a more meaningful use of force.

Finding the COGs Context: The Character of 19th Century Warfare

Clausewitz wrote On War drawing largely upon his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars and the philosophic-dialectical approach of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, while to a lesser degree pulling from the historical lessons of Frederick the Great’s campaigns.[3] Clausewitz’s combat experience included fighting against Napoleon Bonaparte during the War of the Third and Fourth Coalitions, and later, in the service of the Russian army during Napoleon’s 1812 campaign into Russia.[4]

A defining feature of the Napoleonic Wars was that heads of state (i.e. kings, dukes, archdukes, princes, etc.) often joined their armies on the battlefield.[5] While present, most other heads of state did not physically lead their armies in battle like that of Bonaparte, but they were not far from the front. However, the lesser heads of state very often led formations in battle – the Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign finds several archdukes and princes leading formations on the battlefield. Most notably, Austrian Archduke Charles leading the Austrian forces in Northern Italy, Ferdinand IV (king of Naples and Sicily) leading coalition forces into Bavaria, and Archduke John leading Austrian forces in Tyrol.[6],[7] The last recorded instance of the heads of state physically leading their armies into battle was the battle of Solferino, from the Second War of Italian Independence, which occurred on June 24, 1859. During the battle Napoleon III, the emperor of France and Victor Emmanuel, the king of Sardinia, led their armies against the Austrian army, under the command of Franz Joseph I.[8]

The physical proximity of the policy maker(s) to the battlefield created a unique phenomenon in which the purveyor of policy was physically able to see, smell, and hear the effects of battle. This physical arrangement between national policy, military strategy, and the tactical situation created the condition in which the physical destruction of an army had a direct impact on political will. This phenomenon resulted in a relatively self-contained, mechanistic system, where policy, strategy, and battlefield results constitute three parts of a whole; and each component had a reciprocal effect on the others. The destruction of a political apparatus’ source of physical power, its army, directly influenced the political will of both – the destroyer and the destroyed – resulting in battle driving political decisions. This idea is highlighted by Clausewitz’s description of strategy, which he defined as, “The use of engagements for the objects of war.”[9] The mechanistic aspect of Napoleonic warfare likely influenced Clausewitz’s view of the interplay of politics, strategy, and the battlefield results within war.

This physical arrangement between national policy, military strategy, and the tactical situation created the condition in which the physical destruction of an army had a direct impact on political will.

In view of this arrangement, Clausewitz illustrated war as a natural extension of political expression; the head of state used his army to force his will upon an uncooperative opponent. In this construct, the elements of national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economy – were all present on the battlefield in the individual who embodied their purpose and utilization. In this concept – a somewhat closed, mechanical system – the military became the focal point because defeating the main fielded force in the main theater would lead to a psychological effect on the head of state, causing him to acquiesce or have little recourse but to accept the will of the victorious opponent. In this mechanical, clock-like, 19th century construct, in which Bonaparte pushed war beyond the limited character for which it had been characterized for many years, the utility and validity of the COG metaphor is undisputed.

The mechanistic character of warfare and military forces began to shift as industrialization, improved communications infrastructure, and transportation increased a nation’s ability to push resources – to include supplies and personnel – from industrial bases to supply locations close to the front. The Clausewitzian idea of real war, the continuum of limited to absolute war, also influenced the shift from mechanistic warfare to that of colliding systems.[10] Concurrently, the scope and scale of battle grew as technology forced the physical expansion of battlefields. As a result, heads of state were no longer able to directly control the conduct of battle and had to rely more heavily on their field marshals and generals to direct battles, operations, and campaigns. The result of this was the start of a shift in mechanistic, closed-system warfare towards that of a more open, responsive system dynamic. At the same time, this spatial and temporal increase between the policy maker, military strategist, and warfighters created the conditions in which operational art was needed to graft military strategy and tactics.

By the 20th century, as militaries continued to modernize through the incorporation of the latest in weapons technology, communications, and logistics technology, they created ever more robust, adaptive, and resilient systems. For those who could keep pace financially, these systems were capable of probing the environment and enemy, sensing the conditions, and delivering the requisite support to maintain stasis while in pursuit of political aims. As a result of the increased robustness of the system and its increased resilience, the COG’s efficacy has diminished.

The Centers of Gravity and Its Shortcomings in 21st Century Warfare

While the initial planning may not have focused or intended to take such an approach, one could argue that in recent conflicts such as Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) the realized plans settled on an implicit strategy of decapitation. Loosely correlated with a naive reading of Warden's five rings theory and the description of strategic centers of gravity, the notion of regime change via decapitation--that if you cut off the head, the entire regime will fall and can then be rebuilt from the ground up in a fashion more agreeable to the victor--sidesteps the fielded forces of an adversary and in some sense promises easy answers to the complex problems of strategy.

However, this theory continually overlooks the relationship between the state and how war is waged in its name, or as historian Michael Howard wrote, “As states change their nature, so will their policy change, and so will their wars.”[11] The applied COG-centric approach, coupled with modern technology, continually yields “easy-fighting theories” that wish-away the necessity to inflict punishment on the fielded force or other land-based forces.[12] However, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya show the land-based forces must not be overlooked, because they can quickly turn from a uniformed force in the service of the head of state, to a chaotic insurgency beholden to many masters.[13] In doing so, this COG-centric approach limits strategic and operational initiative by focusing on perceived enemy strengths and weaknesses without accounting for the influence of incomplete information.

The applied COG-centric approach, coupled with modern technology, continually yields “easy-fighting theories” that wish-away the necessity to inflict punishment on the fielded force or other land-based forces.

Furthermore, the COG concept defined in contemporary doctrine loses its validity due to the character of modern warfare, which is highlighted by the collision and struggle between opposing systems that are trying to leverage multiple-domain approaches in pursuing their respective political objectives.[14] The sensing, adapting system is resilient, buffered, and might not possess a single source of strength, that modern doctrine prescribes as the COG. Instead, interdependencies, interconnectedness, and redundancy across the systems’ components create a system’s resilient source of strength. To go a step further, the linkages within the system and the conduits of connectivity are the sources of power that enable the systems’ interdependency and interconnectedness. However, it is important to note that these sources of power are not traditional, mechanistic forms (i.e. physical force), hence they facilitate the pursuit and sustainment of internal systemic stasis and perpetuation. In turn, this enables the pursuit of political aims while wrangling with a belligerent.

When confronting a system on the battlefield, a three-fold approach will yield positive results. First, a force should look to reduce a belligerent system’s redundancy. Second, the approach must destroy the belligerent system’s distribution nodes to deny its ability to redistribute needed items to maintain stasis. Third, the approach must disrupt the links within it to isolate components of the system making them vulnerable to destruction. The overarching theme in this approach is to deny the belligerent system the ability to function properly, thus making it more vulnerable to defeat.

Problems with Previous Versions of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking developed a negative aura following its shortcomings in OEF and OIF. Two of the approaches biggest criticisms came between 2008 and 2009. In 2008, General James Mattis (retired), then commander of Joint Forces Command, scuttled the attempt to include effects-based operations (EBO) into joint doctrine.[15] Meanwhile, the Naval War College’s Milan Vego hammered systems concepts like EBO, Systemic Operational Design, and Systems of System Analysis in a scathing review of the concepts in Joint Force Quarterly.[16] The primary problem both Mattis and Vego identified with systems thinking is that it overlooked the human aspect of war, not accounting for the roles of fog, friction, and chance; while simultaneously assuming a linear cause-and-effect relationship between application of force and its ability to generate a desired effect. While these criticisms of systems thinking are valid, a major problem with the previous generation of systems thinking was that it focused on influencing the enemy’s will while simultaneously seeking to minimizing the impact on the components and character of the system and its associated society.[17] This was a problem because it looked only to solve military problems and did not address the relationship between the military, politics, and the society, causing victories to be hollow and absent of any real substance.

More to the point, the first generation of systems thinking focused on changing a belligerents’ political will to resist while simultaneously minimizing the psychological impetus to do so by marginalizing the physical destruction of the belligerent’s force. In essence, the belief was that high-tech demonstrations of precision, targeting perceived COGs such as the seats of political power, political symbolism, command and control infrastructure, and integrated air defense systems, would cripple a belligerent’s will to resist. Yet, this approach neglected the belligerent’s capability to resist in seeking to minimize the destruction of their land-based forces.[18] The theory’s major shortcomings are two-fold: 1) it failed to deliver the desired effect – paralysis – and instead created the conditions in which chaos quickly developed, and 2) it created the conditions for chaos as land forces (conventional, unconventional, insurgents, etc.) still possessed the willingness and capability to resist. As recent applications of this COG-centric theory reflect, precision warfare, while impressive, does not generate the desired psychological effect – paralysis – on the enemy. In fact, the argument has been made that this approach emboldens an enemy’s resolve because it implies a lack of resolve in regards to paying the price of combat.

Learning from the Past: The Characteristics of Modern Systems

Wars today are predominantly fought between systems. This holds true for nation-states, non-state actors, and insurgent groups.[19] Systems are a “representation of an entity as a complex whole open to feedback from its environment.”[20] Moreover systems: (1) have multiple, interdependent components, (2) are organized, (3) have emergent properties, (4) have a boundary, (5) are enduring, (6) have an effect on their environment, (7) are affected by their environment, (8) exhibit feedback, and (9) have purposeful behavior.[21] By their very nature, systems seek stasis and perpetuation. To maintain stasis, systems are an information-bonded system—they are reliant on sensory feedback, coupled with responsive nodes and distribution systems.[22] The nodes are more than just sources of power, they are also sources of information, sustainment, and command. In order for the system to operate effectively—to maintain stasis and continue to exist—the sensory system, nodes, and interrelated distribution system must work in symbiotic manner.[23]

Understanding the nature of the system is critically important, because it then allows one to understand the character of a specific system. Each system is unique to the entity it represents—things such as cultural, economics, and politics, among many others, influence the character of a given system. Furthermore, systems are multi-minded—they are an association of means unified in purpose, collectively balancing means in pursuit of interconnected ends.[24] In addition, systems are shaped by their environment, both through the conditions of the environment and the related interactions between the system and the environment.[25] Lastly, when thinking about systems warfare, it is instructive to heed the advice of early 20th century Russian military theorist Alexsandr Svechin, who wrote that, “Protection against a decisive blow is the first rule of any conflict.”[26] This idea – protecting against a decisive blow – is fundamental to any sensing, adapting system. Because of this a sensing, adapting system possess redundancy while obfuscating the nodes and links inherent to the system.

The Center of Gravity – Context and Where It Fits in Modern Warfare

Following the challenges associated with the campaigns of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military moved to a doctrine that articulated the increased role complexity plays in war – in terms of human aspects, as well as in describing that is force is now multi-dimensional. However, in formally acknowledging the role of complexity, interconnectedness, and the omni-domain character of warfare, the US military – through the continued doctrinal use of the COG construct – still holds to an archaic, 19th century metaphor to underpin its thinking about how to address 21st century opponents.

The doctrinal interpretation of the COG – which lends itself to linear causality throughout the planning process – is not suitable in addressing the problems of contemporary warfare because it is incompatible with modern warfare’s dynamic, responsive belligerent systems. The 21st century’s potential opponents, from peer competitors like Russia and China, to groups like al Qa’eda or Da’esh, leverage modern technology and operate in multiple domains, while operating dispersed. This relationship manifests itself in the Army and joint force’s use of defeat and stability mechanisms, coupled with decisive points, and the direct/indirect approach construct, to generate operational approaches in pursuit of a desired end state.[27] Moving towards a desired effect, based upon a perceived enemy COG, indirectly puts a force in a reactive posture because they often become singularly focused on the associated line of effort or operation, making it blind to events and adaptations on the periphery or outside the line of effort or operation. In this regard, Clausewitz noted that the hub of power develops within a conflict on the foundation of the belligerent’s dominant and changing characteristics.

The doctrinal interpretation of the not suitable in addressing the problems of contemporary warfare because it is incompatible with modern warfare’s dynamic, responsive belligerent systems.

It must also be noted that the term “decisive point” was developed after the fact, a point raised by both Liddell Hart and Michael Howard. In each case, they state that Napoleon operated with “calculated dispersion” to stretch the belligerent’s force so that weak spots developed along its front. In turn, those weak spots were the points in time and space at which Napoleon quickly concentrated his force when the opportunity manifested. The purpose of massing at weak spots was to overwhelm the enemy with firepower, to push through the breach with an ‘expanding torrent’ of force, and to exploit success with cavalry through the pursuit in order to achieve a decisive victory in battle.[29] Liddell Hart further clarifies this idea in postulating that, “A point only becomes decisive when its condition permits you to gain a decision there. For this to be possible, it must be a weak point relatively to the force you bring against it. And the real art of war is to ensure or create that weakness.”[30] The point being is that Napoleon did not pursue decisive points at which to mass his force. Instead, he massed at points of opportunity, or weak spots, in pursuit of decisive battle.

Historians and theorists, such as Clausewitz and Jomini, writing about Napoleon’s exploits years later used the phrase or term “decisive point” to capture the effect of successful weak point exploitations, while failing to articulate the process that yielded the decisive results. In doing so, they implied that decisive points were something that could be planned for, instead of something that was a result of exploited opportunity. In incorporating this concept into planning, US military doctrine does the same thing – in an environment of incomplete information, doctrine suggests that leaders can predict decisive results and through a near linear causality model that links the COG and decisive points along a line of operation in pursuit of an objective. This doctrinal concept might misapply history by failing to account for the process, which in the case of decisive points, was a critical component to achieving the outcome. Replacing the doctrinal term “decisive point” with “opportunity point” would likely help in clarifying the process by which decisive points in battle, engagements, and campaigns actually show themselves – they do not come about through prior planning oriented at a COG, but rather they are the result of successfully exploited opportunities. To be sure, the degree of decisiveness is not often known until an undetermined point in the future.

The Center of Gravity: A Linear Process for a Linear Problem

The COG is not conducive to modern warfare because it is derived from linear thinking about how to combat sensing, adapting systems and because it is reactive – forcing those using the concept to continually cede the initiative to one’s adversary once operations commence. Writing almost 100 years ago, Liddell Hart came to the same realization. Liddell Hart wrote:

For war is a two-party affair. Thus, to be practical, any theory must take account of the opposing side’s power to upset your plan. The best guarantee against their interference is to be ready to adapt your plan to circumstance, and to have ready a variant that may fit the new circumstances…a single objective simplifies the enemy’s problem and complicates yours.[31]

The process of determining a COG is an inexact science. While there are a number of different methods available, COGs are most often discovered through the process of determining critical capabilities, critical requirements, and critical vulnerabilities and then determining what “entity achieves the objective.”[32] A more simplistic understanding is to say the “doer” – the entity that directly accomplishes the mission – is the COG. This idea is codified in joint doctrine as Joint Publication 5-0 (Joint Operational Planning) states that, “A COG, at the operational level, is a usually a powerful element of the enemy’s military capability.”[33] In this model, objectives are inherent to the COG, making a linear path from one’s starting position to the COG.

Additionally, US Army and Joint doctrine both formally acknowledge this idea in relating COGs, decisive points, objectives, and end states along lines of effort or operation. However, military doctrine provides latitude in articulating that a direct approach or indirect approach can be used, as directed by the commander. Yet, an indirect approach is little more than a variation of a linear route towards the desired end state. Therefore, an approach that focuses not on COGs, but on the known features of a sensing, adapting system is warranted and should replace the doctrinal COG construct.

Furthermore, COG analysis employs reductionist logic to map the capabilities, requirements, and vulnerabilities of an opponent to illuminate the COG. However, this approach overlooks that idea that war is an interaction between two (or more) parties with incomplete information. To be sure, Clausewitz makes a similar observation in writing that, “Effects in war seldom result from a single cause; there are usually several concurrent causes.”[34] The 20th century game theorist Roger Myerson takes this idea even further in writing that, “A game with incomplete information is a game in which, at the first point in time when the players can begin to plan their moves in the game, some players already have private information about the game that other players do not know.”[35] By disregarding incomplete information in COG analysis, planners build fragility and vulnerability into their associated plans by failing to include slack in their actions to account for incomplete information.

Roger Myerson wins Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, 15 Oct 2007 | Lloyd DeGrane

Roger Myerson wins Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, 15 Oct 2007 | Lloyd DeGrane

More to the point, Myerson wrote that, “In particular, practical modeling difficulties often arise when players’ beliefs are characterized by subjective probabilities, so the question of what one player might believe about another player’s subjective probabilities becomes problematic.”[36] In this instance, the phrase “subjective probabilities” can be substituted with “center of gravity,” yielding the same results. In seeking to define a COG, with incomplete information about the opponent, one increases problems for themselves by building a plan on unproven assumptions about an adversary. While JP 5-0 does state that COGs exist in an adversarial context, it fails to address the nature of systems in relation to one another by instead focusing on the primacy of relative power and strength to achieve success.[37] Modern conflict – in which sensing, adapting systems populate warfare – illustrates that in many cases dominance (i.e. one’s relative power and strength in relation to a belligerent) is largely irrelevant, and that perpetuation of the system in pursuit of political objectives is warfare’s true aim. Thus, a successful systems approach must account for the bifurcated nature of warfare. In doing so, the associated plans will avoid the traps of linearity associated with the “COG/decisive point/line of operation/end state” paradigm, in which adversaries continually attempt to prevent the imposition of the others will, while pursuing their own ends.

Recommendations for Moving Beyond the Center of Gravity

In thinking about moving beyond the COG, while avoiding the traps of “easy-fighting theories,” doctrine should look beyond elusive targets such as will (political, military, or societal) or ‘desired effects’, and instead focus on tangible aims. To do so, a system’s operational and tactical focus should be on denying an enemy’s ability to resist through an attritional effort that denies the opposing system’s ability to sustain itself and regenerate losses, while eroding its material means to wage war. The goal is to deny the enemy’s ability to adapt and apply force – across all domains, in all available means – in pursuit of its political objectives. In this paradigm, COGs limit strategic and operational initiative by bracketing a force to a narrow operational approach that is out of touch with the realities of the belligerent’s system.

This is not to say that wanton destruction is the aim in this mindset, but instead, this approach must be focused on forward thinking regarding enemy action. To be sure, this approach focuses on two major themes – 1) manipulating an opponent’s operational reach in order to induce culmination, followed by destruction of the systems’ components and 2) on persistent attacks on the links and nodes within an opponent’s system to increase entropy therein, the goal of which being to disrupt or deny its ability to sustain stasis. The overriding idea is that an opponent’s will cannot be measured and therefore trying to make the enemy changing its mind without inflicting severe material loss is an academic exercise. opponent’s will cannot be measured and therefore trying to make the enemy changing its mind without inflicting severe material loss is an academic exercise.

History is replete with examples of this idea. Napoleon’s 1812 campaign is a good case study in highlighting the benefits of a systems approach in contrast to that of a COG-centric approach. During the campaign, Napoleon and his Grande Armée struck out towards Russia in hopes of smashing the Russian army, triggering Tsar Alexander I into accepting Bonaparte’s political aim. Napoleon, focused on decisive battle with the main body of the Russian army, sought to draw it into decisive battle at Smolensk, only to have the Russian army slip away. The Grande Armée regained contact with the Russian army at Borodino on September 7, 1812. The battle, one of the bloodiest of the Napoleonic Wars, failed to result in decisive victory for Bonaparte, and the Russians withdrew further into their own territory. Along the way, the Russians destroyed anything that could be used by Napoleon’s force to sustainment itself. Napoleon, chasing the perceived Russian COG, made it all the way to Moscow in December 1812, only to find it abandoned and ablaze. By this point, his operational reach – dependent primarily on foraging – exceeded its capability and Napoleon’s force culminated. As the Grande Armée retraced its steps back towards the Neiman River, it was continually attacked by Cossack cavalry and other Tsarist forces. By the end of the campaign, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which started the campaign with approximately 650,000 soldiers, crossed back into friendly territory with approximately 120,000 soldiers.[38]

Napoleon’s linear pursuit of the perceived Russian COG against the adaptive Russian system highlights the COGs conceptual shortcomings. Tsar Alexander’s actions demonstrate that perpetuation of his force at the expense of decisive battle was vital to his pursuit of political objectives. Furthermore, the retention of Moscow was not critical to the Russian policy or military strategy, hence the Russian withdrawal from the capital. Tsar Alexander and his associates’ ability to sense, adapt, and act, while protecting their forces from decisive battle enabled them to exploit Napoleon’s pursuit of the COG, causing his force to exceed its operational reach and culminate at a position of physical and political disadvantage.[39] While Napoleon’s 1812 campaign provides an excellent historical example of the COGs theoretical shortcoming, modern history also provides many examples too.

The battle of Debal’tseve, one of the major battles from the Russo-Ukrainian War’s ongoing Donbas campaign, offers an excellent contemporary example of this idea from a defensive perspective. Debal’tseve, a salient into separatist and Russian controlled territory, was a line of communication that was critically important to both sides of the conflict. Ukrainian forces had retaken the city from separatists early in the initial campaign and had transitioned to holding the city. Separatist forces from the Donetsk People’s Army and the Luhansk People’s Army, coupled with conventional Russian forces made advances towards the Debal’tseve.[40] In doing so, Ukrainian forces flooded into the city, the high-water mark seeing upwards of 8,000 soldiers in the city.[41] By mid-January 2015, Ukrainian forces were firmly ensconced in and around the city. Separatists and Russian forces then isolated the Ukrainians within the city and sealed the routes running into and out of the city with mines, rockets, and artillery. In doing so, the separatists and Russian forces severed the links between the isolated Ukrainians and the nodes that sustain its system. With the Ukrainians isolated at Debal’tseve, the Russians and separatists launched an attritional assault, consisting of unremitting rocket and artillery attacks and direct fire attacks with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. This action, coupled with the isolation of the Ukrainian forces, caused what was initially a sensing, adapting system, to lose its ability to adapt. As a result, Ukrainian forces became ineffective and were unable to continue further resistance.

The ineffective and destroyed state of Ukrainian forces in Debal’tseve caused the political and military leaders in Kiev to arrive at a decision point – would they continue to allow forces in the city to be slaughtered, would they to send more forces and attempt a penetration of the separatist and Russian encirclement, or would they to ceded control of the territory to the belligerents? By mid-February 2015, the government in Kiev came to the bargaining table and agreed to give up Debal’tseve, leaving the city in the hands of the Donetsk People’s Republic.[42]

In each case – Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 and the Ukrainian’s defeat at Debal’tseve – defeating an enemy’s system depended on the ability to sever the links within the system to the nodes that sustain the system and maintain its ability to compensate for shock, entropy, and attrition. Taking a step backward, one can see that the victor was able to positively control the other systems operational reach – the balancing a force must do between protection, endurance, and momentum – by disrupting the opposing system’s network, breaking its links and nodes for redistribution, all while increasing the physical and material costs for their opponent. Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and the battle of Debal’tseve highlight the shortcomings of the COG in relation to operations while illuminating the primacy of operational reach and culmination in systems warfare.

In each case – Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 and the Ukrainian’s defeat at Debal’tseve – defeating an enemy’s system depended on the ability to sever the links within the system to the nodes that sustain the system...

Military objectives are bound by operational reach, which is fundamentally the balancing of endurance, protection, and momentum in relation to risk.[43] The essence of operational reach is the ability for sustainment to keep pace with the pursuit of objectives. The reciprocal character of the relationship between objectives and sustainment creates the potential for vulnerabilities through the denial of objectives – both final and intermediate. Operational reach is fundamental to a force conducting offensive action and therefore is a critical vulnerability, inherent to any situation in which a force is actively pursuing objectives that can be substituted for the idea of a COG. As long as a force maintains operational reach, or as long as the enemy’s ability to pursue its objectives—to include its will and logistically manes—are intact, that force is not defeated; and as Clausewitz reminds the practitioner of war, “So long as I have not overthrown my opponent I am bound to fear he may overthrow me. Thus I am not in control: he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.”[44]

Furthermore, diversifying focus and seeking to dislocate the links and nodes of distribution of an enemy’s system enables a force to increase the entropy within an enemy’s system, further reducing its ability to maintain operational reach, pushing it close and closer to culmination. To be sure, Liddell Hart made a similar judgment, writing that, “You take a line that offers alternative objectives, you set up a tug-of-war in his mind and stake rival claims upon his forces – without the need of dividing your own.”[45] Severing the links and nodes within an enemy system will leave its forces isolate, disorganized, and at a suboptimal capability, thus vulnerable to destruction.


In writing on critical analysis in relation to the study and philosophy of war, Clausewitz reminds us that, “The function of criticism would be missed entirely if criticisms were to generate into a mechanical application of theory.”[46] Contemporary doctrine maintains theoretical ideas that are bound to be outmoded in comparison with the requirements of the modern battlefield. The COG, a metaphor used to describe the battlefield dynamic in which the policy maker was often also the lead military strategist and battlefield commander, is not compatible with 21st century warfare, which is characterized by the struggle between belligerent systems.

The current doctrinal application of the COG, determined during the planning phase, is too linear and mechanical to address contemporary warfare’s complex sensing, and rapidly adapting systems. A stale doctrine that favors familiar approaches and denies the necessity for significant changes in its perspective must be avoided. Because of this, the US military should move beyond the idea of COG and adopt a systems-centric mindset in regards to planning and execution. This is not to say that Clausewitz’s On War is no longer relevant, but only that certain ideas within the text no longer carry validity. As Australian defense analyst Aaron Jackson writes, “The emergence of new scientific regimes and their ascendency as the dominant paradigm of the era has not been accompanied by the consignment of previous regimes to history;” similarly, contemporary valid conceptions about warfare do not consign old models to the trash heap, but only move them to the sideline.[47]

Amos Fox is an officer in the United States Army. He is currently an operational planner with the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. Thomas Kopsch is an officer in the German Armed Forces. He is currently a staff officer at the Ministry of Defense in Berlin, Germany. This article contains the opinions of the authors alone and do not represent the views of any U.S. or German agencies.

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[1] Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 192-194.

[2] “Sensing, adapting systems” will be referred to only as “systems” from this point further, unless the full phrase is required to provide better insight to an idea.

[3] Gat, A History of Military Thought, 173-188.

[4] Peter Paret, “Clausewitz,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 188-197.

[5] David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (New York: Scribner Press, 1966), 413-439.

[6] Archduke Charles was also a noted military theorist in his day. See Gat, A History of Military Thought, 98-107.

[7] Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte (New York: Harper Perennial Press, 1997), 387-413.

[8] Orlando Figures, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 438.

[9] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 128.

[10] Clausewitz, On War, 75-89, 582-584, 601-604.

[11] Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 76.

[12] Huba Wass de Czege, “The Hard Truth About ‘Easy Fighting’ Theories: The Army is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter,” Institute of Land Warfare, Land Warfare Paper No. 13-2, April 2014.

[13] “Land-based forces” is used here to describe regular and irregular forces, to include partisans and disaffected elements of the population.

[14] Stephen R. Covington, The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare, (Harvard: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2016), 4.

[15] See General James Mattis’ Memorandum for U.S. Joint Forces Command, Subject: Assessment of Effects Based Operations, dated: August 14, 2008.

[16] Milan Vego, “Systems versus Classical Approach to Warfare,” Joint Force Quarterly 52, 1st Quarter 2009, 41.

[17] The authors define “Components of the system” in this work as the means of force, the systems nodes of distribution, and the linkages throughout the system. The authors define the “character of the system” in this work as a system’s: 1) pursuit of continued existence, or perpetuation, 2) built to pursue an objective, or multiple objectives, 3) built to avoid decisive battles, and 4) operate in a sense-adapt-act dynamic.

[18] Harlan Ullman and James Wade, Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1996), 9-10.

[19] Some underdeveloped states or adversaries, or insular states, like North Korea, might not necessarily operate as a system due to cultural constraints or insufficient resources.

[20] Alex Ryan, What is a Systems Approach, Cornell University Library, 31.

[21] Ibid., 27.

[22] Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture (Burlington, MA: Elsevier Publishing, 2006), 13.

[23] Alex Ryan, What is a Systems Approach? Cornell University Library, 2008., 9.

[24] Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture (Burlington, MA: Elsevier Publishing, 2006), 12.

[25] Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World (Cambridge, MA: Knowledge Press, 2004), 24.

[26] Aleksandr A. Svechin, Strategy (Minneapolis: East View Publications, 1991), 249.

[27] Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Operational Planning (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011), III-13 – III-16; Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2016), 2-2 – 2-6.

[28] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 595-596.

[29] Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon, 103, 111; Howard, War in European History, 83-85.

[30] Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon, 111.

[31] Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon, 115.

[32] Dale C. Eikmeier, “Modernizing the Center of Gravity Concept – So That It Works,” in Addressing the Fog in the COG: Perspectives on the Center of Gravity in US Military Doctrine, ed. Celestino Perez, Jr. (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012), 142.

[33] JP 5-0, III-22.

[34] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 157.

[35] Roger B. Myerson, Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 67.

[36] Myerson, Game Theory, 74.

[37] Ibid.

[38] David G. Chandler, On the Napoleonic Wars. (London: Greenhill Books, 1994), 238-239; Peter Paret, “Napoleon and the Revolution in War.” in Peter Paret ed., Makers of Modern Strategy – From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 136-137; David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966), 746.

[39] William Nester, Why Did Napoleon Do It? Hubris, Security Dilemmas, Brinkmanship, and the 1812 Russian Campaign., 361; Dominic C. B. Lieven, Russia and the Defeat of Napoleon (1812-1814). in Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, (Slavica Publishers, 2006), 302; John T. Kuehn Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns. (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015), 164-166.

[40] Igor Sutyagin, Russian Forces in Ukraine Royal United Services Institute Briefing Paper March 2015, London, 4.

[41] Hugo Spaulding, Putin’s Next Objective in the Ukraine Crisis, (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War), 2015.

[42] Alec Luhn, “Ukrainian Soldiers Share Horrors of Debal’tseve Battle after Stinging Defeat,” The Guardian, February 18, 2015, accessed September 17, 2017, http://the-

[43] ADRP 3-0, Operations, 2-9.

[44] Clausewitz, On War, 77.

[45] Liddell Hart, The Ghost of Napoleon, 115.

[46] Clausewitz, On War, 157.

[47] Aaron P. Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in Understanding the Practice of Warfare (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013), 52