2010/01/12

Schwerpunkt and "center of gravity"

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Years ago I've read von Clausewitz' "On War" in the German version (cut by the publisher; apparently some chapters about 19th century regulations and such matters of little interest were omitted).

Ever since I've been irritated by the use of the term "center of gravity" (Schwerpunkt) in (American) English military theory writings. It's being used with the meaning of "critical vulnerability" instead of as "great accumulation of power for the best chance to win an important battle".

It's OK to invent a new concept, but please name it accordingly - and don't misuse an old, famous and established term for it. Most importantly, don't link your concept to a respected theorist because that's an illegitimate move that exploits that author's credibility.

Again and again I discussed these points with little effect. The new meaning of the term was long since established in English-language literature and people stubbornly kept linking it to von Clausewitz.


Well, it turned out to be a double surprise because my position was long since official doctrine - in the U.S.! The USMC acknowledged this in its FMFM-1 "Warfighting" field manual (1989):

(...) Sometimes known as the center of gravity. However, there is a danger in using this term. Introducing the term into the theory of war Clausewitz wrote (p.485): "A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated the most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow; furthermore, the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity." Clearly, Clausewitz was advocating a climatic test of strength against strength "by daring all to win all" (p. 596). This approach is consistent with Clausewitz' historical perspective. But we have since come to prefer pitting strength against weakness. Applying the term to modern warfare, we must make it clear that by the enemy's center of gravity we do not mean a source of strength, but rather a critical vulnerability.

in a footnote that was in reference to

Therefore, we should focus our efforts against a critical enemy vulnerability. Obviously, the more critical and vulnerable, the better.

Invent a new name for it, damnit! The mis-use of that term and the wrong attribution to CvC are bad for military theory.

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The latter quote deserves a comment itself as well: It is misleading.

Military history has few examples to offer for enemies who were defeated by a hit on their critical vulnerability. Strengths can be reduced, but they rarely whither away just because some weak spot elsewhere was hit.
One example: You can deal with near-defenceless support troops first, but at some point you'll need to deal with enemy crack combat troops.

The manoeuverist approach of dealing preferably with enemy weaknesses is therefore incomplete even if we use a tunnel vision on the offensive.

It's on the other hand of course a great idea to aim at targets with a favourable value/defensibility ratio in order to turn the almost unavoidable later conflict with enemy strengths as (favourably) unfair as possible.


edit 2010-01-17:
There's a reason why the U.S. and the British army were able to warp the meaning of the term. Both use "unity of effort" as a stand-alone hallmark in military theory. The German military doesn't stress unity of effort - it uses the concept of Schwerpunkt which serves an almost identical purpose. The British and Americans don't really lack a concept by skipping Schwerpunkt; they have "mass" and "unity of effort" as substitutions for the original purpose of the Schwerpunkt concept.

The closest anglophone equivalent of Schwerpunkt is "main effort".

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3 comments:

  1. Sir, my own personal intrepretation of what schwerpunkt and nebelpunkt mean: are main effort and supporting effort. Which correspond to Ch'i and Cheng.

    http://www.chetrichards.com/modern_business_strategy/richards/chi_and_cheng/boyd_chi.htm

    Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are as inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away but to return.

    If I'm guessing correctly: What was the center of gravity that was attacked by Bin Laden's nebelpunkt 911 attack?

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  2. There's no such thing as a "Nebelpunkt". "Nebenschauplatz" (location with activity of secondary relevance) would make sense.

    Schwerpunkt is unrelated to indirect or direct tactics; it's the idea behind what's known as "the principle of mass". You better be strong enough at the decisive place, because attempting to be strong everywhere is a poor course of action. Schwerpunkt thus calls for setting up your strength for maximum probability for a local victory at an important place of your choice.

    Schwerpunkt is about the positioning of your own forces while their employment - diret, indirect or whatever is another issue.

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  3. During my readings on EBO (effect based planning) it has angered me too how much they miss use the center of gravity definition.
    Sometimes they talk about multiple COGs and what effect they will have. But in my Sun Tzu And Clausewitzan world, a real COG is more like the human brain or heart. Shooting your opponent there will have a real COG effect.
    But in EBO they are talking about COGs that can be thought of as the fingers, hands, bones etc.
    However, I am a true believer in the definitions of a Strategic, Operational and tactical COG.

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