Center of Gravity versus Lines of Effort in COIN

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 7 months ago

The publication of Army Field Manual 3-0, Operations, gives us a chance to pause and ponder definitions, concepts, and going forward doctrine for the global war on terror, much or most of which is likely to be small wars, irregular engagements and counterinsurgency.  But some background is in order before considering the new field manual.

In 2002, Antulio J. Echevarria II authored an interesting analysis entitled Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity: Changing our Warfighting Doctrine – Again!  There is probably no more copiously quoted military strategist than Clausewitz, and it pays to correctly understand what he said.  To begin, Echevarria briefly traces what he sees as the glasses through which the branches within the U.S. military have “seen” Clausewitz.

… each of the services – shaped by different roles, histories, and traditions—tended to view the CoG concept in their respective images. The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, for example, typically thought in terms of a single CoG, which usually resided at the core of one’s land or naval power and provided the “source” of one’s physical and psychological capacity to fight. The U.S. Air Force, on the other hand, pursued the notion of multiple CoGs, each of which could be “targeted” from the air to achieve the paralysis of the enemy.  And, finally, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), with the difficult mission of conducting amphibious forcible entry operations, preferred for a time to think of the CoG as a key weakness, or critical vulnerability, the exploitation of which would give it a decisive advantage.

Echevarria argues that Clausewitz sees CoG neither as a weakness nor a strength, but a focal point at which force may be employed to force the enemy to become unbalanced and topple.  Much like the martial art of Jiu jitsu, the goal is to find the point of maximum leverage against the enemy and exploit it to upend the enemy.

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 … According to Clausewitz, a local commander might determine a center of gravity for the portion of the enemy’s forces that lay before him, providing those forces demonstrated sufficient independence from the remainder of the enemy’s forces. However, this separate CoG would only amount to a local rather than a tactical or operational CoG. For us to speak of a tactical CoG, the tactical level of war would have to exist independent of the operational and strategic levels of war. Similarly, for CoGs to exist at the operational and strategic levels of war, those levels of war would have to have an existence separate from the rest of warfare. This notion defies the principle of unity – or interconnectedness – that German military thinkers from Clausewitz to Heinz Guderian had ascribed to warfare.

Translating “On War” from the German, Echevarria gives us an important point in understanding Clausewitz.

The first principle is: 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.

. . . reducing the enemy’s force (Macht) to one center of gravity depends, first, upon the [enemy’s] political connectivity [or unity] itself . . . and, second, upon the situation in the theater of war itself, and which of the various enemy armies appear there.

Antulio J. Echevarria II recommends a redefinition of CoG: “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.”

This is a complex construction of thoughts, and it bears unpacking a bit.  Clausewitz’s background was in the physics, and so it necessarily stands to reason that a CoG should be single and unitary.  The CoG is a theoretical construct with which one can evaluate and predict the behavior of objects as they are acted upon by gravity.  It requires other things such as computation of the centroidal axis of an object.  For a single object, there is a single CoG.  For multiple objects there can still be a CoG as long as the objects are not dynamic.  But if the objects are moving in Cartesian space with respect to the other objects in a system, there can be no single CoG.

Clausewitz understood this, and while there are arguments for seeing an Army as a dynamic system, he is compelled to see it more as an object with a unitary CoG.  There are not multiple CoG, only one, and this point is critical to understanding Clausewitz.

Speaking at the Center for a New American Security along with Lt. Col. John Nagl, Sarah Sewall of Harvard University stated the following:

If the civilian is the center of gravity, securing and protecting is the main function of military forces, not destroying.  If restraint in the use of military force is fundamental to the successful campaign, then that is in fact the opposite of overwhelming force.

Sewall goes on to give nonkinetic operations a place of primacy over kinetic operations.  In finding a sole CoG, she is true to the Clausewitz idea of a unitary CoG.  But is this notion of locating and articulating a unitary CoG in counterinsurgency (COIN) based solely on Clausewitz, FM 3-24, the newly released FM 3-0, or something else?

Regarding the Counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24, the phrase “center of gravity” appears only three times (except for the definition), and the most interesting is found in section 4-12:

In model making, the model describes an approach to the COIN campaign, initially as a hypothesis.  The model includes operational terms of reference and concepts that shape the language governing the  conduct (planning, preparation, execution, and assessment) of the operation. It addresses questions like  these: Will planning, preparation, execution, and assessment activities use traditional constructs like center  of gravity, decisive points, and LLOs? Or are other constructs—such as leverage points, fault lines, or  critical variables—more appropriate to the situation?

Rather than CoG being the central doctrinal concept in COIN, a different concept begins to appear, that of lines of operation, appearing first in Section 1-36:

The Vietnamese conflict offers another example of the application of Mao’s strategy. The North Vietnamese developed a detailed variant of it known as dau tranh (“the struggle”) that is most easily described in terms of logical lines of operations (LLOs). In this context, a line of operations is a logical line that connects actions on nodes and/or decisive points related in time and purpose with an objective (JP 1-02). LLOs can also be described as an operational framework/planning construct used to define the concept of multiple, and often disparate, actions arranged in a framework unified by purpose. (Chapters 4 and 5 discuss LLOs typically used in COIN operations.) Besides modifying Mao’s three phases, dau tranh delineated LLOs for achieving political objectives among the enemy population, enemy soldiers, and friendly forces. The “general offensive–general uprising” envisioned in this approach did not occur during the Vietnam War; however, the approach was designed to achieve victory by whatever means were effective.  It did not attack a single enemy center of gravity; instead it put pressure on several, asserting that, over time, victory would result in one of two ways: from activities along one LLO or the combined effects of efforts along several. North Vietnamese actions after their military failure in the 1968 Tet offensive demonstrate this approach’s flexibility. At that time, the North Vietnamese shifted their focus from defeating U.S. forces in Vietnam to weakening U.S. will at home. These actions expedited U.S. withdrawal and laid the groundwork for the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Here the concept of lines of operation appear, by example, in a linear implementation.  If this line of operation doesn’t work, another will be implemented.  In FM 3-0, this concept is upgraded and explained as something other than unitary, singular, sequential actions (6-61).

Commanders may describe an operation along lines of operation, lines of effort, or a combination of both.  Irregular warfare, for example, typically features a deliberate approach using lines of operations complimented with lines of effort … with this approach, commanders synchronize and sequence actions, deliberately creating complementary and reinforcing effects.  The lines then converge on the well-defined, commonly understood end state outlined in the commander’s intent.

The concept of lines of operations and lines of effort appears many more times in FM 3-0.  If FM 3-0 represents an advancement over the Clausewitz doctrine of a unitary CoG, then what are we to make of this notion of COIN as “armed social science”?  This view certainly doesn’t cohere with Osama bin Laden’s summary of the psyche of the population in this part of the world: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”  Similarly, we have claimed that the Anbar campaign was won because the U.S. was the strong horse.

The seeds of this view are actually contained within FM 3-24 itself.  In Section 1-159, we read that “COIN is an extremely complex form of warfare. At its core, COIN is a struggle for the population’s support. The protection, welfare, and support of the people are vital to success.”  In Section 5-42, we read that “Essential services address the life support needs of the HN population. The U.S. military’s primary task is normally to provide a safe and secure environment.”  In Section A-60, we read that “Whatever else is done, the focus must remain on gaining and maintaining the support of the population. With their support, victory is assured; without it, COIN efforts cannot succeed.”

True enough within the right context, statements such as these give ammunition to those who see COIN as “armed social science,” and allow theoreticians such as Sarah Sewall to focus in on a singular CoG, that being the population.  Gaining their support is key, and kinetic operations are secondary or even tertiary in importance.  It is a small next step to the claim that restraint in military force in the key to winning the population.  How Sewall expects to provide security for the population without kinetic operations against the enemy remains a mystery.  After all, “armed social science” is more like U.N. “peace keeping” missions that routinely fail to keep the peace than it is the actual campaign in Iraq.

The security plan for Iraq, however, is in many ways modeled after the Anbar part of that campaign, in which military force was the pretext to the successes with the tribes, neighborhood muktars, and heads of households.  It might be countered that the focus on lines of operations (kinetic) and lines of effort (nonkinetic) represents a more tactical focus, but in the end, theory bows the knee to tactics and logistics because all counterinsurgency is local.

National unity, political reconciliation, fair participation in the political scene and infrastructure and services are all significant actors in whether the more local lines of operations have lasting effect.  But if FM 3-24 represents the softer side of COIN, FM 3-0 seems to see COIN as the multifacted complexity that it is.  Rather than see a singular, unitary CoG in COIN, FM 3-0 seems to view an insurgency as a loosely coupled and dynamic machine, or even organism, which has no tipping point, thus requiring in response parallel lines of effort that target different aspects in different ways and with different means – sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially.

No astute observer of the campaign in Iraq – especially in Anbar and subsequently in and around Baghdad during the security plan - seeing the high number of intelligence driven raids, heavy use of air power, and kinetic operations against foreign terrorists and indigenous insurgents, can claim that kinetic operations have taken on a secondary or tertiary role to anything.  In other words, when the successful practice in the field doesn’t comport with the theory in the books, only the disconnected theoreticians can continue the mantras.  It was time to update doctrine to recognize the nature of the gains in Iraq.  By so robustly enveloping lines of operations and lines of effort within its pages, FM 3-0 may represent a significant advancement in military doctrine over FM 3-24.




You are currently reading "Center of Gravity versus Lines of Effort in COIN", entry #978 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Department of Defense,Featured,Iraq,War & Warfare and was published March 3rd, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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