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The Center of Gravity Fad: Consequence of the Absence of an Overarching American Theory of War

March 8, 2001

We Americans love our fads. As children we all have at least some memories of various fads that have come and gone: hula hoops, skateboards, tie-dyed jeans, pet rocks. Yet, our predilection toward fads is not limited to our purchases at the toy store. As we grow older, fads take on greater sophistication, such as joining the office rush to buy the latest Pentium computer or drink the newest microbrew beer.

Having attended several military schools in recent years, from Fort Leavenworth to Norfolk to Carlisle, I have observed a fad among students and graduates of these institutions: the tendency to define “center of gravity” as being everything from the military to national will to logistics to youname-it. It has almost become stylish to see who can come up a unique center of gravity for a given scenario. In fairness to all of us who have engaged in such discussions, the modern seeds of this doctrinal cacophony were initially planted in the Army’s capstone manual, Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, and later developed roots in the joint doctrinal capstone manual, Joint Publication 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations.

FM 100-5 defines the center of gravity as “the hub of all power and movement upon which everything depends.” Unfortunately, the doctrine writers added this statement: “Several traditional examples of a potential center of gravity include the mass of the enemy army, the enemy’s battle command structure, public opinion, national will, and an alliance or coalition structure.” Although Joint Pub 3-0 provides a better discussion of center of gravity, it too potentially muddies the water when it states, “[A]t the strategic level, centers of gravity might include . . . an alliance, national will or public support.”

The lack of a universally understood definition of center of gravity is only the tip of the iceberg. In reality, our current “center of gravity fad” is symptomatic of a larger problem: the absence of a joint, universally accepted theory of war. We continue to rely heavily on land warfare theorists such 2 as Sun Tsu, Clausewitz and Jomini, who defined warfare in largely symmetric terms. Where is the theory that also pulls in the relevant ideas of Douhet, Warden, Corbett and Mahan? A theory that pulls the domains of land, sky and sea into a comprehensive whole? Or, equally relevant, a theory that includes the new fourth domain, cyberspace?

The absence of an American Theory of War has also contributed to our current lack of a basic framework for synchronizing all elements of national power at the strategic level. The Jominian geometric framework that addresses the line of operations that begins at the base of operations, passes through various decisive points, and ends at the objective is still useful for operational artists to design campaigns within a theater or area of operations. However, what model exists to guide the strategic artist in planning and executing a national or theater strategy that wields all elements of national power?

Using the “center of gravity fad” issue as a springboard for discussion, I address in this essay the elements of the current debate as I see them. Then I discuss the dilemma in which strategic planners and leaders find themselves because of the lack of an overarching framework for campaign design and propose a possible “strategic geometry” for their use. Ultimately, however, I believe that the central issue with which we must come to grips as a military is to develop a comprehensive American Theory of War. Current joint doctrine discussions are stymied largely by the lack of such a theory.

My intent in writing this essay is to stir debate on these important issues. Frankly, I do not have all the answers, just a number of questions for those of us in the military profession to grapple with. If this paper causes one other soldier, airman, sailor or marine to think about our lack of an overarching theory of war or the need for a “strategic geometry” to guide strategic artists, I have been successful.