Everyone knows how important it is to attack and destroy the enemy’s centre of gravity whilst preserving our own centre of gravity from enemy attacks. But, despite all the intellectual arguments about the centre of gravity and the numerous approaches to determining this critical factor, strategists and commanders continually seem to get it wrong, especially during counter insurgency (COIN) operations.
Clausewitz in his work “On War” considered the centre of gravity to be "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends...the point at which all our energies should be directed". If the enemy’s centre of gravity is attacked and destroyed, he will lose his will to fight and thus be emasculated – the perfect time to direct all our energies and resources against him to ensure his total destruction.
This belief held true when massed armies faced one another on the battlefield. The modern battlefield has, however, changed somewhat and whereas the centre of gravity remains very important, it can no longer be viewed as a central point upon which the enemy’s success or failure hinges.
One of the aims of war is to annihilate the enemy (the other is to exhaust the enemy) but it seems that annihilation is not politically correct nowadays. It seems we would rather opt for a ceasefire – so much more politically correct - and besides, it protects the human rights of the enemy – regardless if he cares about our human rights or not or subscribes to the Rules of War, the Geneva Convention or any other rules or laws.
But, allowing the enemy to retain his forces and strength by means of a ceasefire simply gives him the opportunity to rebuild his forces, re-establish his perceived centre of gravity and thus prolong the conflict.
During the initial phase of a revolution, the role of intelligence is critical in identifying and confirming the mobilisation of the masses prior to the commencement of the armed struggle phase. If the revolutionary leadership is not identified and neutralised at this early phase, the struggle will most certainly develop to the insurgency phase. However, early on in this phase, the leadership is the centre of gravity. But once the revolution has progressed to the phase of armed struggle and insurgency, their elimination will, in many instances, simply make them martyrs.
Nevertheless, as the revolution develops, the leadership requires two vital elements to sustain its efforts: manpower and finances. I therefore believe that the COIN scenario does not have a single centre of gravity but rather a trinity consisting of the insurgent leadership, the people and finances. This complicates the identification and destruction of the centre of gravity as countering an insurgency requires a multi-facetted approach and not a “fix bayonets and charge” or a “shock and awe” approach.
The “trinity of gravity” is, additionally, given credence by certain members of the media who will often propagate the aims and desires of insurgent forces in a manner which leans towards sympathetic support.
The decades-long war in Angola serves as an example: The rebel force UNITA was led by the charismatic Dr Jonas Savimbi, a dedicated Maoist but who the media had turned into a “Christian” who was working for a “democratic” Angola. Savimbi was the media’s darling.
To sustain his war for “democracy”, Savimbi and UNITA resorted to the illegal mining and selling of diamonds to obtain funds to keep the war going. This financial powerbase allowed UNITA to purchase their hardware and pay troops in the field. Additional to this, UNITA denied these funds to the government and furthermore attempted to block oil leaving Angola (part of the Govt of Angola’s economic base) thus slowly bleeding the government to death on the battlefield.
The local population were, especially in areas under UNITA influence, the feeder for troops for operations as well as giving UNITA forces safe passage, intelligence, logistical support and succour. Those who did not give this support suffered the consequences.
This posed several strategic questions: What was UNITA’s centre of gravity? Where was it located? How did it operate? What would the result of its destruction be?
In short, there was no single centre of gravity but rather a trinity of gravity. This, in turn, led to a multidimensional strategy aimed at:
1. Attacking and disrupting UNITA units. These actions consisted of guerrilla warfare, mobile warfare and heliborne operations aimed at giving the enemy no respite. Not only did this cause enemy casualties but also significantly lowered morale to the point where rebel troops started deserting. Maximum employment of human and technical sources were used to determine where the enemy was, how he was organised, etc, thus effective plans could be laid to attack and destroy him.
2. Influencing the local population to reduce their belief in and support to UNITA. This was achieved by establishing clinics, providing clean water and giving protection to them. To use Mao Zedong’s view, albeit in reverse, we removed the "water” and the “fish” had nowhere to go. The locals were also treated fairly and their property respected and not damaged. This became very apparent when towns and villages were retaken from UNITA – the locals came begging for assistance, something that was then given to them.
3. The prize was not the elimination of Dr Savimbi but rather the taking and holding of the diamond fields, thus denying the rebels their source of income. (If Savimbi’s field army was destroyed, he would anyway lose his ability to gain support). Without income from diamonds, the rebels were unable to replace captured or destroyed equipment.
When these three strategic objectives had been reached, the rebels were forced to sue for peace. Sadly though, the Angolans were, in turn, forced by the international community to merely opt for an unconditional ceasefire and not the destruction of the rebel forces. This resulted in the rebels being able to rearm, reorganise and go back to war. When this conflict restarted, Dr Savimbi again became the initial single centre of gravity and it was only with his death that the war finally ended but at that time, his influence had waned and he did not have the economical muscle or the support from the local population he once had.
The same situation was prevalent in Sierra Leone – no single centre of gravity but rather a trinity.
Therefore, to quote Clausewitz, the “hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends...the point at which all our energies should be directed” should not, in the COIN situation, be seen as a single point but rather as a trinity.
If strategists misunderstand or misjudge the concept of “centre of gravity”, the conflict will be simply be prolonged and thus give the enemy the time and space he needs to achieve his goals.