The Art of War for Dummies
by Jeff Huber
Military precision is to precision what Kenny G is to jazz. So it is that the art of war—known as operational art in our war colleges—has a language so vague that it’s useless.
Take the term center of gravity. Everyone concurs that it is a vital concept, but nobody agrees on what it means. A Marine will tell you there can only be one center of gravity, but that's because Marines can only think about one thing at a time. An Air Force pilot will tell you a center of gravity is anything he can bomb, so you need to buy him a lot of expensive bombers so he can bomb everything. A naval aviator will tell you the center of gravity is always an aircraft carrier, even in land warfare. If you ask an intelligence officer what a center of gravity is he'll tell you it's classified, and if you ask an Army general he'll start breathing through his mouth.
No wonder we can’t find our way out of Iraq or the Bananastans with a map and a flashlight. Our operational art vocabulary reached its culminating point a long time ago. We need a new dictionary of war.
Military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz described the center of gravity (Schwerpunkt) as "the point against which all our energies should be directed.” Successful undertakings in any field of endeavor focus on an objective. War, the gravest of human undertakings, can be no exception. It's not by accident that our present wars stumble from sand trap to precipice to strategic abyss. The objectives our military and civilian leaders give us are jingoisms designed to prod our irrational fears (if we leave, they will follow us here on their flying carpets) or to arouse our juvenile sense of national virility (If we leave, they will call us girly men).
The asset that can achieve our objective is our center of gravity; the enemy asset that can thwart our aim is his. The more specifically we can define objectives, the more accurately we can identify centers of gravity and focus our efforts. The more vague or imprudent our objective becomes, the more counterproductive our efforts will be. "To establish a stable democracy," for example, doesn't easily translate into military action.
Centers of gravity can change over time, space and levels of war. Folks who can spell their names will catch on to the concept of time and space movement easily enough. Next week’s siege of al Kaboom will have different centers of gravity than today’s air raid on the terrorist camp that’s camouflaged as a wedding chapel.
Coming to grips with levels of war isn’t the Vulcan chess tournament seems at first: the basic levels of war are the tactical, the operational, and the strategic. The tactical level is where force on force combat occurs. The strategic level is where armed force achieves a war's political aims, and the operational level coordinates the tactical and strategic levels.
Strategic centers of gravity are always political leadership. Common military wisdom deems that popular support or national resources or the media can be strategic centers of gravity, but common military wisdom is all too common and none too wise. Population, resources and so on may be critical factors—strengths, weaknesses or critical vulnerabilities—but they are only important as they affect political leadership. The population may influence leadership with its vote or by storming the palace, but it is your enemy’s leadership, not its angry mob, that can produce the political behavior you want. The overarching strategic importance of political leadership makes you want to think very, very hard before you charge off with a goal of regime change, as our Mesopotamia mistake so vividly illustrates.
Tactical and operational centers of gravity are always some aspect of armed force, the thing that can physically accomplish the military objective. For the U-boat skipper whose mission is to sink an Allied supply convoy, the enemy tactical center of gravity is the convoy's destroyer escort. Operational centers of gravity will normally be large units or a collection of forces, like a mechanized division or an air defense system. Things like training, morale, material readiness, command and control and so on may be critical factors, but only as they directly contribute to the effectiveness of the center of gravity, and they are almost never the center of gravity themselves.
Centers of gravity may be massed or dispersed. An armored division makes for a relatively dense center of gravity while guerilla forces are usually so dispersed that they do not present an operational center of gravity at all. That’s why conventional forces can often be defeated swiftly and decisively, while there’s really no such thing as defeating an insurgency.
Massed centers of gravity tend to accumulate critical factors—most notably critical vulnerabilities—that can be exploited through maneuver warfare methods that produce results exponentially greater than the effort expended. An armored division’s reliance on fuel and passable terrain can constitute a critical vulnerability. Air interdiction can sever these essentials from the division, perhaps defeating it even before our ground forces make direct contact.
Those pesky insurgents are a different matter. The only real winners of guerilla wars are the players with a home field advantage. The closest an away team can come to not losing is to stick around long enough to join the local gene pool, and as Sun Tzu warned, "No nation ever benefitted from a prolonged war." It's little wonder that security analysts at the globally respected Rand Corporation recommend we conduct our counter-terror strategies with "a light U.S. military footprint or none at all."
Not only have the asymmetric wars we're fighting reduced us to linear attrition warfare methods (keeping score by body count), we've actually reverse-maneuvered ourselves: escalating our efforts makes things exponentially worse when we create multiple new evildoers for every one we attrite.
Part II will describe how our Iraq and Bananastan fiascos violate the principles of warfare and what awaits us on the far side of the Khyber Pass.