Small Wars Journal

Design Versus the Center of Gravity

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When FM 100-5 reintroduced the center of gravity (CoG) concept in 1986, it claimed it was the “essence of operational art” (p. 10).  Today a claim can be made that ‘design’ is now the essence of operational art.  Nevertheless, the center of gravity concept is still the powerful analytical tool doctrine describes.  Rather than design replacing the center of gravity, design has an expanded the center of gravity’s role in the application of operational art, operational design and the expression of an operational approach.  Therefore the issue isn’t design versus the center of gravity.  It is how they complement one another and understanding where and how they fit in operational art, operational design and development of the operational approach.

Center of Gravity’s Role in Operational Art

Operational art is an umbrella term for a cognitive process used by commanders assisted by the staff to “describe how the joint force will employ its capabilities to achieve the military end state” (III-1). Operational design is joint doctrine’s methodology to conduct and apply critical thinking and reasoning necessary for the application of operational art.  It is the practical, ‘how to’ of operational art.  Operational design helps commanders by providing a method to reduce the uncertainty of complex environments, provide understanding of the nature of the problem and enables them to construct an approach to solving the problem and achieving the end state.  The end result of a commander’s use of operational art assisted by operational design is an ‘operational approach’ which is a broad description of the actions forces must take to achieve the desired end state. The operational approach is the commander’s initial intent and planning guidance to the staff that begins the detailed planning process.  In simple terms operational art (conceptual planning) uses design, a method to produce an operational approach or solution to the problem.

The center of gravity is the link that enables the commander to connect his situational understanding derived from design to the practical, ‘what are we going to do about it’ in the operational approach.  While design assists in the identification of the problem, the center of gravity concept provides insights into how to remove the problem.  Together, the problem identification and how to remove it are the complementary results of design and the center of gravity processes and form the basis for the operational approach.

Center of Gravity and Design 

Design in joint doctrine, has three components:  understanding the environment, defining the problem and producing an operational approach.  Commanders and planners analyze each component using a series of four basic questions.  The answers to these questions then provide understanding, identify the problem(s) and point the way to an approach to solving the problem.  The essence of operational design is in the four questions listed here. (Credit for developing the four questions goes to LTC Celestino Perez.)

1. “What is going on in the environment?”  This question prompts planners to capture the history, culture, current state, and future goals of relevant actors in the environment.  This is part one of understanding the environment.

2. “What do we want the environment to look like?”  This is part two and prompts planners to review higher level intents and missions and posit a desired future state of the environment.  Knowing how the current environment operates by using a systems perspective and how we want the environment to be provides understanding of the environment and the information needed to answer the third question.

3. “What is the problem(s) that is preventing movement from the current state to the desired end state?”  The answer to this question tells planners what the problem(s) is and where – conceptually – they should act to achieve the desired state?  Problems can be thought of as obstacles or adversaries that stand in the way of achieving the end state.  This is the point where some become confused and argue that design’s problem statement replaces the center of gravity.   The problem(s) is not the center of gravity; rather it defines the adversary and its system and sets up the center of gravity identification and analysis process of that adversary system.  Planners and analysts using a systems perspective study the adversary/problem’s system to determine its CoG.  More simply, design’s problem identification defines for commanders and planners the system in which to look for a center of gravity.

4. The last question, “How do we get from the current state to our desired state?” prompts planners to envision what combinations of actions address the problem(s) through its CoG(s) and related critical factors and help achieve the desired end state.

Center of Gravity and The Operational Approach

(The term “Operational Approach” depending on its context can have two meanings.  In the context of Design it is a concept of how to solve a problem or commander’s vision.  When discussing the “Elements of Operational Design” it is either a direct or indirect approach to attacking a center of gravity.)

Once commanders and planners agree on the problem they need a way to address it.  The operational approach is the broad outline and provides the commander’s guidance on general actions usually expressed as missions or tasks that will produce the conditions that define the desired end state.  Think of it as what needs to be done, not how to do it.           

The operational approach is a conceptualization that starts by asking what action will solve or manage the problem/adversary.  The center of gravity and critical factors analysis of the adversary will suggest requirements and vulnerabilities that suggest where to act and offer possible solutions or courses of action.  This analysis feeds the details that shape the commander’s guidance and intent.

As with the other components of operational art there are no prescribed formats.  However, joint doctrine suggests that the operational approach should include a concise description of the environment, a clear statement on what the problem or problem set is, an approach to resolve the problem and lastly any other specific guidance (III-14).  Developing an operational approach requires a continuous dialogue between the commander and the staff starting at the initiation of planning and continuing through mission analysis.  It also requires data and analysis from the staff that includes termination, end state and centers of gravity.

A technique for developing an operational approach is to:

1. Identify the problem or problems set and then view it as an adversary system.

2. Determine the adversary system’s center of gravity (CoG).

3. Identify the CoG’s critical requirements then critical vulnerabilities.

4. Create lines of operation or effort based on the critical requirements and critical vulnerabilities

5. These lines of operation or effort can become actions, missions or tasks. 

Design and the centre of gravity concept should be viewed as complementary part that together help commanders in the application of operational art and the development of campaigns and major operations.  By helping to identify the problem and the adversary system in a complex environment, design contributes to effective CoG identification and analysis.  The CoG analysis in turn informs the commander of the adversary’s strengths, requirements and vulnerabilities.  These requirements and vulnerabilities then provide insights into where and what actions to take. 


About the Author(s)

Colonel Dale C. Eikmeier retired from the Army after 30 years of service as an air defense artilleryman, joint planner, and strategist. Assignments include duty in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Campaigns include Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He has taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army War College, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences, a Masters in Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.


frumious bande…

Thu, 03/29/2012 - 9:11am

Design and center of gravity analysis are indespensible tools to effective planning at almost every level of war in the current conflict. Unfortunately, it is rare that commanders and staff planners, especially at the battalion and regimental (brigade) level, have a proper understanding of complexity theory, decision theory, and exposure to thinking in systems to be able to engage in Design effectively or to even realize that they should be doing it at all. The professional education of officers, starting at the Lieutenant level needs to routinely require us to focus on these concepts. As a Marine Corps Captain, the only reason I have ever even heard the terms "complexity theory," and "decision theory," is because one or two senior mentors (who aren't the norm) have steered me in that direction. I think we low-ball our expectations of what company grade officers are capable of understanding and by doing so, we fail to create the foundation of understanding in some crucial concepts early enough to prepare them for what they need to know when they reach the field grade and senior ranks.