Schwerpunkt and low force density campaign theory

I mentioned in my previous post that I didn't cover the the Schwerpunkt topic comprehensively, especially not in light of what I wrote about modern low force density campaign theory. This post shall change this.

First, about Schwerpunkt. The German Schwerpunkt concept goes back to Carl von Clausewitz who used his misunderstanding of Newtonian physics as an analogy. The Prussians of his time had been defeated in 1806 in the parallel twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt by Napoleon's army. They couldn't stop wondering if they had won the war if they had combined both armies on the army led by Napoleon personally and kept the other one busy with weak forces.
CvC did cast this idea into the Schwerpunkt concept: You better combine as many forces for a war-deciding battle as possible while having elsewhere only enough strength left to avert disasters.
This German concept was later adapted by the German (post-1871) armies as a guidance for military leaders from squad (machinegun as Schwerpunkt weapon of the squad) to high command. It's also common language in the civilian world, always with the same meaning of having a focus of resources and highest priority on what's deemed to be most important.

The American concept of a "center of gravity" (translated: Schwerpunkt) did lend the same word for fashion reasons, but grew actually into describing the part of the enemy which if you break it means his defeat. They think about a critical vulnerability. They describe the massing of forces for decisive actions with the terms "main effort", "economy of force" and "mass" instead. And that's why I keep writing "Schwerpunkt" in English blog posts when I mean CvC's Schwerpunkt instead of translating it to "centre of gravity".

Schwerpunkt is a valid and widely applicable concept, but it's not an "I win" button. It's more like a spice; there are times when to apply it and times when you shouldn't.

It is most applicable in its original form (instead of merely as a philosophy to explain the need for prioritization) as a battle-winner. The 'bigger battalions win battles'. I disagree in the context of modern technology AND low force density campaigning, though. Some previous thoughts about this were in the post about shaping operations.

To go into battle without knowing the outcome means to have failed to win before the battle. And by "battle" I think of the clash of thousand of soldiers, NOT harassing fires on a platoon strongpoint as it's become fashionable lately.

We shouldn't expect World War-esque front lines in future warfare, except maybe when low-skill armies face off as in the Iraq-Iran war. A conflict between India and China could have a "front line" of mountain outposts, but in Europe we should expect at most militias or infantry units holding settlements in a kind of hedgehog positions zig-zag line, if not mosaic. This is also what we see in Syria.
A mechanised brigade or armoured recce platoon could easily penetrate or infiltrate through the gaps between such positions forth and back. It would take very mobility-degrading terrain (hilly woodland, mountains, swamps, rivers) to prevent this.
The old functions of a continuous front line of securing flanks and rear should thus not be expected and much less taken for granted.

This offers opportunities for small, highly mobile and agile units (akin to armoured recce companies) which are in radio contact (listening 24/7, emitting sporadically) with friendly forces if not their area command (corps HQ) (2009-09 The square trick). These could be most important as an shaping effort in what was known as Kleiner Krieg at CvC's time; raids, sabotage and ambushes in the 'rear' area mostly. They could also provide the answer to organic armoured recce's resource problem.
The supply dependency and huge share of non-combat forces in modern high-end land warfare elevate this potential beyond anything ever seen in my opinion. Decisions could be sought and achieved by this kind of campaigning while few brigades maintain a deterrence against an hostile all-out advance.

Such a theory for land warfare campaigns with regular forces would have little use for a massing of forces for a decisive battle. Instead, the priority would be on the shaping efforts of the many dispersed small units. CvC's self-evident assumption that massing of forces would maximise the odds for "victory" would be turned upside down due to radio communications, large share of support troops (including air war assets such as SAM batteries and airfield crews) and absence of front lines' functions and low force(s) density (troops per sq km or frontage km in the theatre).*
Another, conflicting, approach might maximise the odds for "victory" instead. The independent and in themselves weak and dispersed forces were understood by CvC as being not helpful for winning a decisive battle and merely the price to be paid for averting disasters far from the main force. Nowadays they could instead ensure the opponent's defeat without a decisive battle happening at all.**

The (small) manoeuvre units described previously could still apply massing and Schwerpunkt at times, combining for battalion-sized raids in what RAND called "swarming". This would be an application on the tactical level, and there are many other valid uses for it. I'm merely pointing out that under some circumstances even an upside-down approach might make more sense than an application of the classic CvC Schwerpunkt.
Schwerpunkt is a valid and widely applicable concept, but it's not an "I win" button. It's more like a spice; there are times when to apply it and times when you shouldn't.


(other related posts were linked elsewhere in this post)

*: You may want to read Leonhard's "The principles of war in the information age" about his take on the obsolescence of "mass"ing forces for another take.
**: This goes counter to the instinct of Western senior officers as much as the thought of independent squad manoeuvres was most alien to pre-1915 officers. Our senior officers would rather prefer to be in 24/7 control down to all small units, and would not want to accept high risks for small parties as a risk management approach for the whole force. Efforts such as the Distributed Operations concept were largely given up.


  1. Really nice topic, thank you!

    IMHO one has to dicuss CvC in the Prussian context: Small country with small population and weak economy, a war had to be short and decisive as the Alte Fritz put it.

    Therefore the destrcution of the enemy military force was a principle theme, always have a plan to attack if the enemy does not. A clear Schwerpunkt helped a lot. A war of attrition was considered only the second best option.

    CvC perfectly understood - he fought in Russa and know something about the war in Spain - that under different general conditions different modes were possible.

    Today we in central Europe are in a different position (technology, economy and landmass) than Prussia when discussing a land war and as defender can very likely use a Kleinkrieg approach again.


    1. The first Silesian War and the war of 1870/71 especially with the battle of Sedan would be considered preferable over equivalents of the Seven Years War by any country, big or small.

      I mentioned it in the text already; I think Jena-Auerstedt was the central experience behind the Schwerpunkt concept. Spain was the reason why CvC didn't think his book draft was finished content-wise.

  2. "The first Silesian War and the war of 1870/71 especially with the battle of Sedan would be considered preferable over equivalents of the Seven Years War by any country, big or small."

    Yes the destruction of the army of the opponent is the most direct appraoch. However, this may come with a very high price when going wrong.

    August/October 1914 was a desaster due to the attempt to attack and destroy French armies with too weak own forces. A eastern strategy, i.e. a three year campaign, without the focus of very short war would have been much much more solid.

    If you read CvC's comments on the SYW then it was very clear for him that a war of attrition was the best Prussia could get in 1756, to launch a war in autum is a clear sign that they were in a dire situation.

    Only when the Austrians made a severe mistake and retreated to Prague there was a small window of opportunity to destroy the whole field army and turn the war into something like the FSW. Therefore, the Prussian King gambled high and lost high at Kolin.