30 December 2021

Newton’s Gravitational Pull and Modern Warfare Ritualization

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Original blog can be found here:

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.”

fter the systematic linkage of desired future end states to strategic intent and recognizable ‘problems’ paired to existing institutional solutions, NATO-OPP and JPP processes continue operational design by directing staff to identify and analyze ‘centers of gravity’ or ‘COG.’ Joint planning defines a COG as: “the source of power or strength that enables a military force to achieve its objective and is what an opposing force can orient its actions against that will lead to enemy failure.”[1] Joint planning expands what a COG might be from clear entities (a leader, a force, a capability or function) to abstract concepts such as national will, beliefs or ideas. NATO-OPP restrains their COG definition to something that “is always an entity” and must therefore remain identifiable and actionable through quantitative, analytical and objective constructs.[2] The COG is a conceptual model employed in modern military decision-making methodologies such as NATO-OPP and JPP in order to apply military theory to how complex warfare in reality is occurring. COGs were first conceptualized by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and would in the last two centuries of warfare gradually entrench in Prussian, Russian, and later still Anglo-Saxon military doctrine and practices.

COGs are foundational models in all versions of modern military decision-making, applied to linking desired ‘end states’ and objectives to desired effects of military tasks so that by targeting adversarial COGs and protecting friendly ones, a military force can systematically build elaborate ‘input-output’ formulas of missions, tasks and effects that should accomplish broader objectives. For such a powerful strategic tool for accomplishing desired outcomes in complex security contexts, one might see COGs as a conceptual model also move out of security affairs and into industry, academia, and other non-warfare applications. Yet this is hardly the case. Few of the popular military models as well as theories are used in any commercial or academic/scientific applications outside of military and security organizations, with ‘center of gravity’ itself being a Newtonian metaphor adapted from the theoretical work of Clausewitz and others.[3] There appears to be institutional fixation by military forces alone in seeking COG modeling as the metaphoric device of choice in structuring decision-making in war that does not extend into fields of medicine, law, social sciences or finance.[4]

In the modernization of military theory and doctrine, theorists sought to define warfare in a natural science context, where there is an orderly ‘nature of war’ governed by laws, principles, or fundamental concepts that, once located in isolation/reduction, can be converted into universal formulaic expressions and applied to any conflict in time and space. Such laws of physics provide certainty, regularity, and a promise of risk reduction, increased efficiency, and some manner of prediction; military theorists would share an epistemological choice to frame warfare in objectivity and natural science rendering to extend the laws of gravity to pull and shape humans engaging in organized violence. Newtonian physics, mathematics and early natural science developments would influence the growth of military professionalization over the last four centuries; militaries would pluck metaphoric devices and models from many different natural sciences to graft upon theories of war.

Today, modern military doctrine features models and metaphors taken from biology, geology, physics, psychology, sociology, complexity theory, systems theory, astronomy, and elsewhere. Often, they are stripped of their origins, detached from the theoretical constructs or otherwise recycled into what is a ‘Newtonian Styled’ military frame for warfare understood objectively through physical domains and natural science modeling. Gibson, citing Kissinger, articulates this with:

Kissinger writes that since 1945, American foreign policy has been based “on the assumption that technology plus managerial skills gave us the ability to reshape the international system and bring domestic transformations on ‘emerging countries…’ ” The West, in Kissinger’s view, had been committed to this hard epistemological work since Sir Isaac Newton first formulated his laws of physics… The West is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data- the more accurately the better. Cultures which have escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer…[and] are therefore totally unlike the West and its leading country. Those who are totally unlike us and live in their own delusions are conceptualized as foreign Others. The foreign Other can be known only within the conceptual framework of technological development and production systems.[5]

COGs are used today in modern military decision-making due to efforts to produce a modern scientific-based methodology to understanding and acting in warfare on behalf of Westphalian derived nation-states. Western European society, coming out of the significant ideological conflicts that had plagued Europe through the Seventeenth Century, established a Weberian World Order “with the rational-legal nation-state as the center of gravity.”[6] Nation states would henceforth wage war between states, using formal military instruments of power while seeking formal declarations of war and strategic closure through some ceasefire and metric of victory against a framed enemy force.[7] The ‘COG’, as defined by Clausewitz, inspired indirectly through Newton by Aristotle, thus these ideas have been part of western society for a very long time. [8]

Aristotle’s notion of hierarchical model of concepts divided into mutually exclusive categories would inspire not just Clausewitz, but most of western society as they industrialized and modernized out of an earlier Feudal Age. It was the rise of natural sciences in the European ‘Age of Enlightenment’ where war theorists such as Clausewitz would draw models and metaphoric devices from to describe a science of warfare from would be implemented by militaries, particularly by World War I with such pronounced effectiveness that subsequent wars could no longer escape the pull. Militaries in the Twentieth Century raced to codify these ideas into set maxims, rules, laws of warfare and doctrinally defined models that could produce sequential, systematic methodologies for executing warfare scientifically.

The establishment of formal military doctrine was done to pull what was previously a Feudal Age amateur, pre-scientific military into the modern era. [9] It seeks to accomplish the distribution and reinforcement of war knowledge so that such goals of uniformity, reliability, repetition, and craft mastery could be accomplished. This professionalized military doctrine would be composed in the language of scientific methodology as well as the assimilation of classical mechanics concepts and metaphors into war-oriented methods. The military would draw from natural science theory to erect parallel military theories on warfare that echoed similar scientific models, methods, and shared language (with metaphoric devices intact). The birth of ‘military science’ thus began in the Age of Enlightenment and was enhanced through the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.[10] What we use today for nearly every organized military action including JPP and the NATO-OPP are a direct extension from these desires to professionalize and render scientific a process for the application of organized violence.

Yet COGs may be a symptom (and quite popular component) of a perceived problem that Joint and NATO forces are attempting to overcome in that while previous conflicts seemed more compatible with ‘COG’-like descriptors, recent security challenges appear to reject such modeling. For militaries, COGs operate off a ‘classical mechanics’ construct offering a reductionist way of treating complexity in war. These in turn become the pseudo-scientific efforts of modern militaries to create laboratory conditions for rationalizing how war is supposed to occur. Returning once more to Kissinger, militaries are “deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data- the more accurately the better.” [11] An exclusive orientation toward the environment is outward facing, meaning the Department of Defense will tend to describe the system without self-reflection or contemplation on how they view reality, how they interact with it, and what tensions might exist between their own belief systems and alternative ones.[12] All of war (or at least the relevant bits) can be decoded into mathematical equations ultimately, and even wickedly complex ones need only be solved using sophisticated design means through advanced technological and knowledge management efforts.

COGs thus really are a conceptual model constructed through select war theories relating to overarching philosophical beliefs the military (and politicians) embrace about reality where organized violence occurs. The mathematical, physics-oriented and rationalization that universal rules and principles such as COGs existing at various levels of war in all conflicts (universally, timelessly) demonstrate a modern military stance that one might “reduce war to a complex equation to be resolved by a technoscientific priesthood.”[13] NATO’s COPD BV3 doctrine even defines military doctrine as: “fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives.”[14] Doctrine does not just provide the guidelines and generic framework to apply to a wide range of security challenges; it is firmly standing upon universal, proven and objectively measurable rules that govern all warfare in any context. Modern militaries need only to collect, analyze and decide faster than adversaries to apply the precise formulas that must lead to battlefield success. The rise of computer modelling and systems analysis during the Cold War (including the Vietnam War that would itself generate contemporary Joint and NATO planning doctrine, strategy and the methods and models it would prefer. This would in turn create a way of understanding modern warfare that “was therefore frequently biased towards those elements which could be quantified.”[15]

By reducing all wars down into finite, measurable “principles” or sequenced rules, the entirety of all conflicts can be reassembled into dynamic complexity yet still regulated and controlled like a complex engineering feat instead of a disruptive, irrational, and learning system of opposition and competition. NATO-OPP and JPP feature not just an emphasis on problem-solution orientation within a single paradigm but continue to demonstrate an ‘ends-ways-means’ logical construct[16] on how all activities in war (those designed, planned, experienced) ought to behave or express. COGs permit the continuation of this highly analytic mode of decision-making and planning; This illustrates what is termed a positivist epistemology (breaking things into simpler parts and isolating core laws, rules to apply to reassembled wholes). Military thinking is dominated by this particular fixation on rendering all complex systems into closed, isolated and mathematically controllable (predictable) machine-like behavior.[17]Norbert Wiener inspired cybernetics theory (during World War II) as a new ‘science control and communications’ that would rapidly gain in popularity in the 1950s-1970s, influencing nearly all military decision-making and organizational form in the Vietnam War and afterward.[18]

The power of isolation in natural science applications is appealing to military intellectuals that want warfare to express similar properties to that of physics, chemistry, geology, or mathematics. “Zoology, botany, and chemistry are the paradigmatic sciences for those subscribing to such an approach to social scientific knowledge; the ultimate taxonomy is the Holy Grail they are after.”[19] Isolate, categorize, and connect things to other things in a hierarchy of knowledge. Indeed, many phenomena in warfare do feature ample characteristics where isolation-oriented logic works perfectly. Yet isolation is applied in hard science so that a physicist considers what is relevant based upon knowing precise information about something at one point in time, so that one can then extrapolate that knowledge to all things everywhere in every time.[20] Once the characteristics of one oxygen molecule are measured and understood, that information can reliably be applied to every other oxygen molecule in the known universe.

This organizing logic works in natural science, but the military is unique as a profession to expect natural science reasoning to extend into the socially complex world of human conflict and the application of organized violence for political, social, or ideological needs. Bousquet remarks: “it is also quite obvious that no social machine treats individuals as ‘cogs and levers and rods’ more completely than the military (an institution with which Wiener refused any association after the war).”[21] Yet complex adaptive systems do not have COGs except for when we attempt to oversimplify our understanding of them by imposing such natural science constructs upon them. “A complex adaptive system”, as complexity scientist John Holland states, “has no single governing equation, or rule that controls the system. Instead, it has many distributed, interacting parts, with little or nothing in the way of central control.”[22] The Clausewitzian COG construct violates complexity theory in part because in the nineteenth century when the Prussian was framing his theories on war, he could only draw from natural science inspiration in Newtonian physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics and other disciplines. That this natural science metaphoric device features so prominently and foundationally to both JPP and NATO-OPP (and all other variations) despite modern military doctrine also acknowledging complexity theory should give the military institution pause. They should reflect on why this is, and what benefits and limitations it in turn provides for considering security force/context management in an increasingly complex, dynamic world where war is no longer “localized [clusters] of tactical action.”[23]

Military expectation that increased control and prediction would make complex security contexts ‘solvable’ for a wide range of military activities (from peacekeeping to nuclear war) to occur is dependent upon these sequential, logical orders to lead to pre-determined effects. By focusing on ‘solution-problem set’ relationships, Joint and NATO staffs, intelligence analysts and leaders appear to infer that most all complex security challenges that matter might be ‘solved’ through engineering and natural science terminology.[24] If everything worth understanding (or essential in achieving national goals) in war could be broken down into mathematical equations, one need only crunch numbers better than the enemy to win any battle or war.

Yet the last two decades of conflict where NATO forces, Joint and Allied partners have conducted military operations with the greatest technological and resource overmatch in human history have largely been tactically exceptional and strategically frustrated. Whether one looks to Iraq, Afghanistan, non-proliferation/containment of nuclear weapons, cyberspace, trans-regional terror, proxy surrogates or adversarial near-peer rivals, the many setbacks, failures, or uneasy stalemates indicate that positivist, reductionist and purely analytical models, theories and methods are insufficient (and possibly counter-productive) in the complex security challenges of today.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Joint Publication 5–0: Joint Planning, IV–22.

[2] Ministry of Defence, “AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations (Edition A Version 2),” 3–9.

[3] Although arguably today numerous commercial enterprises employ military planning concepts, the origins of their usage frequently come from military professionals exiting defense organizations and bringing with them these concepts to apply in business settings. These tools are considered ‘military grade’ and valuable largely on the expectation that a business might ‘wage war’ against their competition to gain advantage in a commerce context instead of the application of organized violence.

[4] This is not to say that other professions do not recognize gravitational metaphors; rather there are few examples of another profession outside the military placing such emphasis upon COGs in how they understand reality. Militaries devote volumes arguing about what most other professions ignore. See: Paparone and Davis Jr., “Exploring Outside the Tropics of Clausewitz: Our Slavish Anchoring to an Archaic Metaphor”; Dale Eikmeier, “Modernizing the Center of Gravity Concept — So It Works,” in Addressing the Fog of the COG: Perspectives on the Center of Gravity in US Military Doctrine, ed. Celestino Perez (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012); Kurt Vandersteen, “Center of Gravity: A Quest for Certainty or Tilting at Windmills,” in Addressing the Fog of the COG: Perspectives on the Center of Gravity in US Military Doctrine, ed. Celestino Perez (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012), 33–64.

[5] James Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, First Edition (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 15–16.

[6] Anders Sookermany, “On Developing (Post)Modern Soldiers: An Inquiry into the Ontological and Epistemological Foundation of Skill-Acquisition in an Age of Military Transformation” (dissertation for the degree of Dr. Philos, University of Oslo, 2013), 10.

[7] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War, First Edition (New York: William Morrow, 2019), 28–33.

[8] Lyn Robinson and Mike McGuire, “The Rhizome and the Tree: Changing Metaphors for Information Organisation,” Journal of Documentation 66, no. 4 (2010): 604; Paparone, “On Metaphors We Are Led By”; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine”; Ben Zweibelson, “Gravity-Free Decision-Making: Avoiding Clausewitz’s Strategic Pull,” Directorate of Future Land Warfare, Australian Department of Defence, Army Research Papers, no. 8 (2015): 60.

[9] The term ‘amateur’ is used here in a precise way that is not intended to be pejorative. Earlier military models and belief systems placed elite, wealthy ruling classes as charged to lead militaries and generate most strategies, decision-making and praxis toward war. Military education, training, promotion and status was irregular and without standards; nobility assumed positions of leadership by birthright while armies often combined paid foreign mercenaries with conscripted farmers or serfs outside of key agricultural periods in limited, ritualized conflicts. Doctrine and academies did not exist in any modern sense, while ideological and cultural values often directed warfare as well as conduct within such conflicts.

[10] Boisot and McKelvey, “Integrating Modernist and Postmodernist Perspectives on Organizations: A Complexity Science Bridge,” 418; Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in Understanding the Practice of Warfare.

[11] Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, 15–16.

[12] Martin, “A Tale of Two Design Efforts [And Why They Both Failed In Afghanistan],” 8–12.

[13] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 88.

[14] Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, “Allied Command Operations Comprehensive Operations Planning Directive COPD Version 3.0,” K-3.

[15] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 94.

[16] Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” 81–85.

[17] Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design; Robert Chia, “Teaching Paradigm Shifting in Management Education: University Business Schools and the Entrepreneurial Imagination,” Journal of Management Studies 33, no. 4 (July 1996): 410; Gharajedaghi and Ackoff, “Mechanisms, Organisms, and Social Systems,” 290–91.

[18] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 94; Bousquet and Curtis, “Beyond Models and Metaphors: Complexity Theory, Systems Thinking and International Relations.”

[19] Haridimos Tsoukas, “Refining Common Sense: Types of Knowledge in Management Studies,” Journal of Management Studies 31, no. 6 (November 1994): 764.

[20] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” 991.

[21] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 82.

[22] John Holland, “Complex Adaptive Systems,” Daedalus 121, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 21.

[23] Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan, “The Leavenworth Heresy and the Perversion of Operational Art,” Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 56 (quarter 2010): 110.

[24] Monk, “End State: The Fallacy of Modern Military Planning,” 28; Chia and Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action, 21–29; Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy.”

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