A Modest Critique of: "Three Approaches to Center of Gravity Analysis: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"
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Photo: Jefferson S. Heiland

A Modest Critique of: "Three Approaches to Center of Gravity Analysis: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"


When one considers an objective approach to the very nature of an adversary’s military plans — let's say,  his strategic and tactical operations — first and foremost one should understand one’s own country in terms of military cohesion. To place such an idea within a more profound context of a unified military doctrine, I will quote Machiavelli on military principles and self-knowledge: “First, one learns to know one’s own country, and one can better understand its defense; then, through the knowledge of and experience with those sites [its geography and topography], one can comprehend with ease every other site that it may be necessary to explore as new.”[i]

Now, an astute reader may ask what this notion has to do with  so-called Center of Gravity Analysis (COG) in interpreting a perceived enemy’s objectives? Or, to quote Daniel J. Smith, Kelley Jeter, and Odin Westgaard, authors of Three Approaches to Center of Gravity Analysis: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing in Joint Force Quarterly #78, “as a fundamental planning factor in joint military doctrine, its proper identification has been considered crucial in successful attainment of desired objectives”—that is, from a so-called joint unified military command, this team of thinkers is self-assured they have been able to identify the objective, if not the subjective, aspirations of the enemy’s focus on the battlefields of Iraq and the Levant, which would include the country of Syria as well.       

However, my contention, which I will address in the following discussion, is that the United States does not in itself actually have a total unified military command, which would include the various military command operations. This team of strategists whose ideas I am critiquing falls far short of their objective in understanding the terrorist organizations that have plunged the Middle East and beyond into chaos, because they have not recognized basic weaknesses in overall U.S. military forces which are divided in the first place. Essentially, the United States lacks doctrinaire and joint military forces which affects their perception of an actual or perceived enemy.  Apparently, Alexis De Tocqueville's enduring observation of American popular democratic armies and their “essential features” still applies: “Military service being compulsory, the responsibility is shared equally and indiscriminately by all citizens. That also is a necessary result of the social conditions and ideas of these nations. Their government may do more or less what it likes provided that its orders apply simultaneously to everyone. Resistance usually results from the unfairness of a burden and not from the burden itself”[ii]  On July 1, 1973, the American Volunteer Army became a military force within the government laws of the United States, and the Draft was eliminated. But the Army had started working on developing the all-volunteer force well before that. In April 1971, Project VOLAR, for "volunteer Army," was implemented at select Army posts across the country, July 2, 2013. 

The astute reader again may inquire, What does this information about the U.S. Military have to do with creating an American unified command center intent on understanding and destroying the so-called “Center of Gravity” of a known enemy?  Because it is the very fact that the authors of ”Three Approaches to the Center of Gravity” are determined that a joint U.S. military command work together in harmony, utilizing a concrete analysis doctrine to identify and destroy an enemy in  time of war. However, let us examine the “unfairness of a burden” in the way some critics have viewed the various U.S. Military forces within its past and contemporary history.

We take it for granted, for example, that the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines have always worked together as two unified military forces during the contemporary history of the United States, but this is not the case. Concerning differences between the United States Army and the Marines, populist military historian A. Scott Piraino suggests, “The myth of the Marine Corps as a second army began in WW I. When the United States entered the war in 1917, over two million U.S. Army soldiers were deployed to France along with one brigade of marines, about ten thousand strong. Despite being a tiny fraction of the American forces fighting in WW I, the Marines managed to make a name for themselves at the U.S. Army’s expense.”[iii]

As Piraino correctly points out, “Today all Marines in basic training are taught that German soldiers in WW I referred to them as 'Devil Dogs;. H.L. Mencken, an American writing in 1921, clearly states, 'The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes…Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it.' ”[iv] 

Thus, the myth of the U.S. Marines being the most courageous, the most ambitious on the battlefield creates division and bitterness among the ordinary foot-soldier, not to mention the NCOs and the professional officers of the U.S. Army. Going further into detail, Piraino declares, “The United States Marines pride themselves on being better than the US Army. They are harder, more gung-ho, and they possess some magic that enables them to do things the US Army can’t do. If this is not true" — as recent events in Iraq suggest — " then there is no reason for a separate Marine Corps.”[v] 

Even a President of the United States, Harry ("Give 'Em Hell") Truman, once attempted to create a Federal government bill to unify the separate service bureaucracies. That effort for a unification bill before Congress was defeated. As Piraino comments,  “The Commandant of the Marine Corps even made an impassioned speech before Congress to plead for his separate service. It worked. Congress rejected the Truman administration’s unification bill, and instead passed the National Security Act of 1947. This Act guaranteed separate services, with their own independent budgets, and was a victory for the Navy and Marine Corps.”[vi]

Indeed, the solution would clearly be: Merge the Army and Marine Corps into one unified service. Not only would Defense spending be allocated more fairly and logically in terms of a fiscal burden split between the two military forces if their training, logistics, administration, and headquarters were merged. Also,  since the now crippling competitive budgets of both services would disappear,  most likely the rivalry between the Army and the Marine Corps would eventually die. 

However,  there are real cognitive obstacles to the so-called “Center of Gravity” analysis from the point of view of observing the U.S. military forces, especially U.S. Marines, as Andrew Dyer notes, a “new report from the RAND Corporation analyzed survey data from thousands of active-duty military members and found Marines more likely to be heavy drinkers, use tobacco and engage in riskier sexual behavior than the sailors, soldiers and airmen of the other branches. RAND found that incidents of binge drinking and hazardous drinking among Marines was almost double Air Force figures.”[vii]

So it is not the so-called ‘Center of Gravity’ we should seek in our own armed forces or that of the enemy, but rather any structural weaknesses inherent in a military force and its leadership in general. In showing the disunity of two key U.S. Military forces, I have attempted to describe the “unfairness of a burden” and not the burden itself in terms of military zeal and national sacrifice.

In their essay about a unified U.S. military command, authors Smith, Jeter, and Westgaard stated, “Currently, the definition of Center of Gravity and the process for determining it are outlined in joint doctrine, specifically in Joint Publication (JP) 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 3-0, Joint Operations, and JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, as encompassed in the Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP) within those publications. Speculation on proper COG determination has given rise to other COG methodologies, which have both questioned and challenged established doctrine for COG determination,”[viii] which is the main thrust or definition of their working paper's flawed analysis.

Scrutinizing the three methodologies — The Eikmeier COG Methodology , Godzilla COG Methodology and Critical Factors Analysis COG Methodology—  the authorial triad's assessments and methods of analysis an opposing military threat like ISIS or the deepening insurgency in Afghanistan, is articulated with some broad phrases or statements, without mentioning how to assess as well the U.S. Armed Forces and those of their allies in terms of not only strength, but more significantly, any inherent weaknesses that would have to be studied and ameliorated prior to the friction of war with such enemies.  

It is my unrelenting belief that in any war, be it a small war, an insurgency war, a regional war, up to and including a world war, the 'center' is the Coup d'œil, meaning the thrust at the weakest point of the enemy is the final expression of knowing your enemy.  The total idea and correct decision is brought about by a deep analysis of not only the enemy’s military forces and its center of command operations, but also by understanding the vast history of the adversary’s social and class values, which then and only then can Coup d'œil, the mental eye of the thrust in destroying an enemy,  be achieved.   As Baron Karl von Clausewitz eloquently posited, “If we strip this conception… it amounts simply to the rapid hitting upon a truth which to the eye of the ordinary mind is either not visible at all or only becomes so after long examination and reflection.”[ix] Alas, the team of authors of “The Three Approaches to the Center of Gravity” failed to appreciate that process in their study of military theory and military analysis.

1. The Eikmeier COG Methodology

This is the first concept of how the three above-mentioned methodologies sees the way to defeat an enemy: how the "Center of Gravity"  “provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act,”[x] and gives six steps to define the means and ends of an adversary’s military strategy, as if an American football game. Now, American football is much different from International football (soccer) as the ball is carried or thrown in the air to achieve a touchdown against an opposing team — the game’s strategy and tactics are based primarily on brute forces, with the coach on the sideline and the quarterback being the main leadership of the plays to be made. The other team members have little input in the way to confront the opponent, and the game itself should be understood as a game of attempting a quick score with the quarterback getting much of the acclamations.  In International Football the game is one of art and sports science, combined with an understanding of each team’s relationship to the community from which the football team emerges, which involves all the footballers to work in unity if they are to be victorious. The Eikmeier COG Methodology usage of the American football metaphor or analogy should give the reader some indication of intellectual limitation of their lack of understanding of strategy and tactical observation of an enemy in which war is not an American football game.

The Godzilla COG Methodology

2. The Godzilla COG Methodology puts forth how the enemy’s operational objective can be determined, meaning its critical strengths for achieving that objective are identified. Then the adversary’s strengths are removed and examined one at a time. Through a series of empirical processes, after each strength is verified and removed to find the “sole strength”, then the so-called “Center of Gravity:” is identified or understood. It's a process of subtraction and subsequent identification. Physical or moral potential/power of an enemy’s status are also evaluated, for instance, in the case of ISIS and strict or traditional Sharia law regarding the citizenry of Iraq and Syria. However, there's no mention of understanding the culture, the secular population, or even the various national minorities of these countries to comprehend the overall social and class cohesion of these countries.

3. Critical Factors Analysis COG Methodology

This is a series of lists of short or cryptic commentary to identify ISIS’ leadership capability, its sources of funding, including their lack of or actual procurement of military hardware and if an actual ISIS army can exist in the full sense of the word. 

In conclusion, here's the outcome of the three authors' paper in pursuit of “the Center of Gravity” on how to find the main strength of an opposing enemy  —  so as to not only identify that source, but then destroy that military force and all its operations. Using the Eikmeier COG application, the authors identified ISIL leadership as the strategic Center of Gravity, with the ISIL fighters as the operational Center of Gravity. The Godzilla methodology determined that the ISIL fighters are the COG. The Joint Operations Planning Process (JOPP) method identified the ISIL ideology as the strategic COG, with the ISIL fighters as the operational COG. As evident, all three methods yielded similar results for the ISIL fighters as a COG, with differences in the identification of the strategic COG.” [xi]   

What the above summary statement reveals is in fact, there is no final unanimity or unity of classification in identifying the strategic COG (Center of Gravity) among the analysts. which ironically mirrors the disunity of a non-existent unified military command among the U.S. Armed Forces in the most subtle of studies, that of military theory which is shaped by the hard and “long examination and reflection” which brings forth the brilliant mental eye of discovery an enemy’s intentions. 

Having perused the esteemed authors' overview of the entire ISIS military and its leadership as the above analysts see it, through various mysterious, perhaps even mystical means which they do not specifically outline even in the most vague of terms, they finally do admit this does not mean they understand all the “critical strengths” of ISIS.  They then almost rather smugly conclude that the COG identification criteria as outlined by the Godzilla method, the substantial army that ISIS has amassed is its center of gravity. I would disagree, stating the opposite, in that their analysis of interpreting and identifying an enemy force purely on charts, diagrams and arm-chair analysis reveals their own center of gravity has fallen apart.

[i] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 59.

[ii] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: Penguin Books, 2003)758.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[ix] Sun-Tzu & Karl von Clausewitz, Series Introduction by Caleb Carr & Introduction by Ralph Peters (The Book of War Sun-Tzu The Art of Warfare & Karl Von Clausewitz On War (New York, The Modern Library, 2000), 300.

[xi]  Ibid.

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina