Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Basics of Operational Art: Centers of Gravity

Whatever game you use to get your operational level of war fix, there is a need to understand the basic concepts of fighting at this level.

I'm currently playing The Operational Art of War IV (Matrix/Slitherine) and in this Cold War scenario ("British Army of the Rhine 1990") I'm in the perilous situation of an under-prepared and outnumbered NATO force. The Soviets just sent their advance guards through the border and I'm to hold them at the Weser River. A huge frontage that favors mass and maneuver.

This brings up the very basic concept of center of gravity, the "characteristics, capabilities or locations from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength or will to fight" (Joint Publication 3.0).

In the screenshot above, you clearly see that my meager troops (grey, brown and black icons) can't afford to hold Hannover or Braunschweig. It would be very easy for the Soviets to just encircle these cities. A center of gravity of the enemy is indeed his capability to maneuver at will through those plains.

A wide view of the area of operations. Note the Weser River in the left, with all the objectives I need to hold.
The problem I always have with the concept of center of gravity is that for the most part, any enemy deployment or plan of action is robust, with built-in redundancies that preclude a systemic failure that will collapse its structure in just one stroke.

Indeed, the old FM 100-5 recognizes that the search for centers of gravity should be continuous, as they do change through the battle.

I am just starting the scenario and the collapse of the thin front line is evident. I'm barely managing a withdraw right now. But, the cavalry units on my right flank have found that they can move and seize enemy routes of supply. That's the only enemy center of gravity that I can challenge right now.

Belgian troopers are red on white icons.

There is hope ...



Paolo said...

WOw! Ok, now you got me enthralled! :D

What publications do you suggest to read to get a handle on Strategic Thinking?

Chris said...

Would like to read more about this JC. Keep the posts on this scenario coming!

kevinkin said...

Just a PDF of the concepts:

Paolo said...

Thanks MrKevinkins. :)

Mike said...

Center of Gravity analysis is more than 'which unit is doing me damage right now' and I disagree that it will change from turn to turn. Generally, its one center of gravity that you identify to be decisive to the enemy strategy.

This article spells it out really well:

First try to understand the enemy. Identify the enemy end-state (what are they trying to accomplish), ways, (how will they accomplish it), and means (resources to accomplish it)

JC said...

Mr. Kevinskins, awesome link and thanks!

Mike, nowhere I said or implied that I intended to identify which unit is doing me damage right now. It's the enemy, as a system proposed by Bertalanfy, who is hurting me as a whole. And by the way, why bringing "enemy strategy" into this operational level discussion? I am trying to succeed in this operation, not defeating the Red Army as a whole.

A static center of gravity is something that may exist, but good luck spotting/challenging it through the fog of war and within the means of an adaptive enemy. And I disagree that the article makes your point about CoGs being static. After all these years of bloodshed, unfortunately ISIS 2.0 or Al Qaeda 3.0 are a distinctive possibility. Those bloody bastards will come back one way or another until we find a better CoG.


Mike said...


"Mike, nowhere I said or implied that I intended to identify which unit is doing me damage right now. "

but you said...

"the cavalry units on my right flank have found that they can move and seize enemy routes of supply. That's the only enemy center of gravity that I can challenge right now."

That's not a center of gravity.

you also said

"And by the way, why bringing "enemy strategy" into this operational level discussion?"

Then how do you plan on doing center of gravity analysis? The fundamentals of doing a center of gravity analysis revolves around understanding the enemy capabilities and vulnerabilities - tied to their objectives or ends.

JC said...

Oh, dude ...

You just remind me why I don't write that much anymore.


JC said...


I could be writing another blog post right now.

But your comments rubbed me the wrong way, not because I don't like to be challenged (I'm a scientist and that's what scientists do) but because you fail to extend your arguments beyond that article you cited.

1) Don't use the word strategy so loosely. It confuses people and puts what you want to say in a very bad light. Strategy, as understood in the professional military lingo has nothing to do with the scenario I'm playing. Use anything else, but not strategy. Theater-wide (low level strategic level) I can't care less what the Soviets are doing. In this area of operations (mid-low level operational level), is where I have to respond to my superiors.

2) Either my writing is incomprehensible or you are not actually reading what I write. I will say it again, I never said or implied anything about an ENEMY UNIT doing me the most damage. A supply route is not an enemy unit.

3) I'm really surprised of your quick conclusion that supply is not a center of gravity. Me seizing just a few of course will not be the key to victory. But the thing you can't see is that if I can hold that enemy flank, the enemy's freedom of action, capability for simultaneity and depth (the next concept I wanted to explore in the series) will be challenged.

If you think that you can sit and watch the enemy advance guard and come up with a complete and definitive center of gravity analysis you are wrong. I will repeat it again, centers of gravity change within a fighting organization, many times during a battle. CoGs analysis is a continuous process and needs to be re-addressed frequently. Why? Because the very definition of fog of war is not knowing enemy means and intentions.

Last but not least, the concept of CoG has all the dangers and pitfalls of physical analogies put into the breathing, living and evolving world of battle. Such dangers have been many times addressed by Richard Simpkin in "Race to the Swift". How cool it would be to find a handful of enemy vulnerabilities, knock them out and see all the house of cards come down ... Sometimes I wish military thinkers would stop enshrining Clausewitz and his highly convoluted, poorly translated and full of self contradictory "On War". At least they should read it in German.


Mike said...


Not going to argue on the internet with you.

Laughable that you're blaming me for not writing another blog.

Would love to chat on TS with you.