In Book 4 Clausewitz puts battle at the heart of war…
“since the essence of war is fighting, and since the battle is the fight of the main force, the battle must always be considered as the true centre of gravity of the war.” [4.9]
There’s little doubt that “the battle” – the clash of armies at a particular site over a limited time period – was the center of gravity during the Napoleonic Wars. But this idea doesn’t hold for modern conflicts. Battle, where it occurs, may be the most dramatic event, but it is not the center of gravity.
What does “center of gravity” mean? I take it to mean the situation where the outcome of the campaign or war is ultimately decided. In the First and Second World Wars, the center of gravity was the use of resources. The nations that won were those that most effectively mobilized, coordinated and utilized their human and material resources.
In insurgencies, the center of gravity is the people and politics. The insurgent tries to gain the allegiance of the people, and establish alternative governments in “liberated areas”. The counter-insurgent seeks to isolate the insurgent from the population, and to boost the legitimacy of the authorities. In a counterinsurgency, military action is a subordinate aspect of overall operations, and – as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland – the military may be used for purposes other than attacking the enemy, e.g., securing the population, developing infrastructure.
In modern conventional war there is arguably no “battle”. Combat is characterized by a flow of fighting, the tempo of which rises and falls in different places and at different times. Military action is directed less against the enemy’s “main force” (his frontline combat formations), more against his headquarters, communications, supply lines and intelligence systems. The aim is to destroy the enemy’s ability to think, decide and act. Here the center of gravity is the network of decision-makers, machines and infrastructure that animates a military force.
Even if battle is no longer the be-all and end-all, Clausewitz’s center of gravity concept is a useful one. It’s something that politicians and commanders should ponder as they prepare for war: “in this conflict, what is the center of gravity – the situation where the outcome will be ultimately decided?”.