By Colonel (re'd) Pat Stogran
In my last article I talked about Manoeuvre Warfare (MW) as espoused by the former professor of the Marine Corps University, William Lind. I contrasted strategies based on manoeuvre to that of attrition, a “grinding” approach to battle aimed at wearing down the enemy’s combat power, a graphic example of which resides in the suicidal charges over the parapets that characterized World War One. To gain a better understanding of the art of manoeuvre, in this article I will pull apart one of the three “filters” Lind suggests defines MW, the theory of the “focus of efforts.”
The focus-of-effort filter, as Lind calls it, has been manifest in German military doctrine as schwerepunkt, which literally translates as centre of gravity (CofG). In his magnum opus On War, the famed military theorist and Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz referred to the CofG on the battlefield many times with varying degrees of detail and nuance. He stated that a CofG is the point where enemy forces are concentrated most densely and where a deft attack would lead to the defeat of the enemy. Clausewitz advocated striking the enemy’s CofG with one’s own CofG, so it is understandable if some readers see that as the antithesis of the other MW filter Lind postulates of “surfaces and gaps.”
Many academics have made a career interpreting what Clausewitz really meant by the term and many a staff college paper picked up on the rhetoric. The debate was wide ranging. On one side it was argued that the CofG should be considered the aspect of a force, organization, group or state’s capability from which it draws its strength, freedom of action, cohesion or will to fight. Manoeuvrists, eager to conform to their core beliefs and the surfaces-and-gaps filter, stretched the interpretation of Clausewitz’s meaning as a critical vulnerability that, if attacked effectively, would lead to the defeat of the enemy.
Clausewitz also described the CofG in terms of cohesion, and asserted that in war moral elements are among the most important. Napoleon too is often quoted as having said that “the moral is to the physical as three to one.” Therefore, we must be careful not to restrict our understanding of Clausewitz’s definition of the CofG to the physical domain.
In Clausewitz’s time, commanders-in-chief such as Napoleon achieved concentration of force by the concentration of men due to the exceedingly short range of the weapons of the day. Consequently, there would have been less of an operational level of war separating the strategic and tactical, and the bonds of physical and moral cohesion were much, much shorter and interdependent in those days than they are today. This would have limited the options to break them in battle, and would naturally lead even the most gifted intellectual to the erroneous conclusion that Napoleon’s success was founded more on attrition than manoeuvre.
I believe that there is a very good reason for the manoeuvre warrior to remain faithful to Clausewitz’s expression of the CofG as strength rather than construe it as vulnerability. If I use the metaphor of a sport like hockey, before a game it is a useful exercise to consider the strengths that both teams bring to the ice, not only the opponent’s. By considering relative strengths in terms of capabilities and absences thereof, a team can make a game plan to focus on opportunities that might arise from an overmatch in one’s favour or to exploit weaknesses identified in the opponents. Conversely, a team can create a strategy to mitigate the threat posed by mismatches of capabilities that favour the opponent.
The exact definition of CofG that consumed manoeuvre pundits therefore is not as important as how the relative strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are considered in the formulation of a campaign plan. This, of course, is a highly subjective process, but I submit it is the essence of what is known in the military profession as command genius and should be fundamental consideration in military estimates for campaign design as I described in earlier articles.
Napoleon was inordinately successful at shattering the moral cohesion of his enemies and imposing his will upon them by orchestrating a clash of CofGs; however, when you enjoy an overmatch in combat capability relative to the enemy, a strategy based on pitting strength against strength can be an approach that even the most devout Manoeuvre Warrior would be inclined to adopt.
A clash of CofGs worked a century and a half later in Gulf War One when coalition forces slammed headlong into the Iraqi Republican Guard. The vastly superior combat power of the former based on the presence and capabilities of American forces virtually annihilated Iraqi cohesion at every level. Coalition Commanding General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf was acclaimed as somewhat of a manoeuvre god for the way the ground forces under his command ultimately joined battle with Iraqi forces. A strategy based on brute force and ignorance is often easier to effect than one of manoeuvre which is why, I believe, it is often the default setting in a commander in chief’s battle scheme. In the absence of a distinct overmatch, however, a strategy based on attrition can be doomed to be defeated.
CofGs can and should be derived at every level of war: tactical, operational, and strategic. In an engagement at the tactical level it is often pretty simple to determine the enemy’s CofG. It manifests itself physically such as a machine gun pit or a mobile reserve that the friendly force commander must deal with, not only in order to accomplish the mission but to survive. CofGs at higher tactical, operational and strategic levels of war can be more esoteric or obtuse. In the majority of the staff college exercises I participated on the CofG at the national level invariably was narrowed down to the will of the people. As a clash of wills, our notional campaigns would often boil down to breaking the will of the enemy while preserving that of Canadians.
I believe that in Kandahar, Afghanistan, senior management in the Canadian Armed forces relegated the concept of CofG to the realms of rhetoric and proved themselves incapable of realizing its relevance in the defeat of the enemy. In 2006, journalist Adam Day of Legion Magazine interviewed the deputy commander of the Canadian task force who, in describing Canada’s plan for the campaign, said, “The will of the Canadian people is our centre of gravity. So, define centre of gravity as our strength. If our strength fails, we lose.”
Day says he found this amazing, so he asked the Colonel Fred Lewis, “How does a military force bolster or maintain the will of the Canadian people?”
Lewis’s reply was equally amazingly. “Yeah, you know, that’s the 64-million-dollar question. It is a hard thing to do.”
It goes without saying that Canadians were hugely behind our intervention in Afghanistan and there was no need to bolster their will — in the beginning. It was painfully obvious to me, however, that the spillage of Canadian blood was going to weaken Canada’s CofG in the war against the insurgents, and that the logical deduction in the military estimate should have been that force protection was of paramount concern. The main reason I chose to leave the military and become the Veterans Ombudsman was that we had defaulted to a flawed scheme of manoeuvre, and that, sooner rather than later, Canadians were going to get sick and tired of the number of casualties we were enduring. Needless to say, our resolve disintegrated and our government abandoned the people of Afghanistan.
If Canada ever hopes to accomplish anything of any significance by our intervention in the Middle East other than bragging rights for having been there, then I submit that manoeuvre theory is relevant. As such, a thorough CofG analysis is warranted and worth re-evaluating on a regular basis as a campaign unfolds.
So the question of the month for my readers is: What do you think the CofG might be for the Canadian Armed Forces in Iraq today, the physical and moral sources of our cohesion in our war against ISIL that afford us our freedom of action and fuel our will to fight? What are the possible CofGs of ISIL?
Next month I intend to delve a little deeper into the analysis of CofGs with a view to discussing how it lends itself to the application of manoeuvre warfare theory in campaign design. As usual, the reader who offers me the most insightful thoughts or ideas will receive a free copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans. Until next time.