Ideologies, Cults of Personality, and the Center of Gravity

By Daniel Riggs
Approx Read Time: 15 Minutes

If we hit the bullseye, the rest of the dominoes should fall like a house of cards; checkmate.

General Zap Brannigan

Abstract: The broad doctrinal definition of Center of Gravity (COG) currently allows an array of considerations for the strategic COG, including individuals, locations, ideologies. While this may appear to be a prudent allowance by doctrine writers, the full gamut of options can lead strategic planners to red herring target(s). This article examines the fallacies associated with an intangible strategic COG and advocates for the adoption of Dale’s Eikmeier’s COG definition. 

The Center of Gravity: Always Polarizing and Sometimes Poignant

The conflicts in the Middle East, a US presidential election, and current peer adversary trends reveal the Department of Defense (DoD) needs to be better prepared to compete in the information environment.  Pentagon strategists must understand it and develop the capacity to thrive in an environment where the ultimate showdown will not be at the Fulda Gap. A key consideration for strategic planning is how can the Joint Force improve the doctrinal footing and analytical tools to understand the multifaceted information environment? In Joint Planning, many consider the Center of Gravity (COG) one useful heuristic tool/ Ockham’s razor to cut through complexity and get to the heart of the adversary.

Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning states a COG is “a center of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action or will to act.” The COG contributes to operational design, assists with the Commander’s planning efforts by identifying key targets to maximize efficiency, and “helps to discern friendly and adversarial sources of strengths and vulnerabilities.” In theory, COG identification focuses planning, including subsequent resource allocation. If a COG is logically weak, the accompanying operational architecture is more likely to fail. Identifying the correct COG has similar consequences to buying the right car or choosing the right partner:  poor selection often results in burdensome paperwork and wasted resources. In this complex world, does this intended planning heuristic provide an adequate framework to avoid misdirecting strategic planners?

The expanding emphasis on the information environment (IE) requires strategic planners, often with minimal experience, to be effective in this notoriously complex realm. Planning doctrine can provide novices with principles and initial considerations to approach the information environment. Training in planning traditionally focuses on conflict in the physical environment, where students study the physical capabilities and vulnerabilities of the adversary (i.e., that which is measurable and observable) and plan against it. It is often examination of the various adversary military formations against one’s own formations.  By logical extension, many assume the IE be the same, where strategic planners compete in the IE by countering adversary ideas. Rather than the M1 Abrams tank versus the Soviet T-72, the information environment is considered a battlefield of ideas.

This thinking is understandable but faulty. How does an abstraction, in this case an idea, exert military power and how would we measure it? Most critically, how would we target this? If planners identify a Cult of Personality (CoP), an ideology, or “the will of the people” as an adversary COG, they are doctrinally correct, but this is problematic.

A complex environment does not necessitate the adoption of abstractions as strategic level COGs.  The following will examine the faults in identifying abstractions, including Cults of Personality (CoP), understood as a situation in which a public figure is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved, and ideologies, the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.

Different COGs at the Levels of War

Planners often analyze the COGs at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, as the process often unearths crucial information for the commander and planning staffs. Planners are taught to privilege COG because it provides a likely answer to what beguiles the commander, regardless of the level of war. Regardless of the operational environment, COG identification might help the infantry brigade find the tactical pressure point, the three-star command to discern the adversary’s strength at the operational level, or Pentagon planners to understand the strategic COG(s) across theatres.  At these different levels of war, COG is understood differently.  At the tactical and operational level, the understanding of a COG is often corporeal and accessible for targeting. At the strategic level, doctrine permits the loftiness of ideas or the national will to serve as a COG. Should this distinction exist?

This distinction might be driven by the thought that complexity (or perceived complexity) at the strategic level requires the full range of options to target, even if it is intangible. Perhaps the strategic realm requires this allowance to enable full creative scope for planners. However, the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq illuminate relationships between the levels of war. The perceived hierarchical distinctions of the levels of war often resemble ingredients that are mixed and baking together.

The inability to consider complexity at the tactical level via triple loop learning and as a function of strategic orientation is flawed. After all, the strategic private does not care where planners believes he/she is because he/she is affecting all levels of war. Simply put, all war is complex and different considerations should not exist for tactical, operational, and strategic COGs. An initial step in this grounding is the reformation of the current, expansive COG definition to ensure strategic planners do not detour into futility. 

Where the Problem Starts

The current COG definition permits a Camel’s nose to trespass under the planning tent and lead to an unhelpful opacity:  the amorphous to serve as a COG (e.g., “will of the people”). As Dale Eikmeier observes, the JP 5-0 definition is awkward, because it is “metaphor-based (e.g., sources of power, hub of power, and a point at which energy should be directed) and supported by inclusive lists of what can be a COG.” This broad list allows anything, corporeal, intangible, or perhaps a mix of the two, to be a COG. The current doctrinal definition lacks “qualifying standards” making it subjective and susceptible to biases, preferences, and/or dominant personalities. Just like in computer science without standards or a framework, garbage in means that there will be garbage out.

To correct this, Eikmeier suggests a characterization based on clarity, logic, precision, and testability. His revised COG, supported by universal intellectual standards, would be a primary entity (emphasis mine) that possess the inherent capability to achieve the objective (Eikmeier-3). “Entity” describes a discrete unit subject to empirical measurement and observation, not feeling or superstition (i.e., corporeal, not ethereal).  This definition demands that a COG must be able to perform the task.  This clarification focuses planning, instead of allowing efforts to spiral into vague ideas. Moreover, it is appropriate across the spectrum of conflict and prevents fallacies that develop from abstract COGs.

Fallacies that Develop from Abstractions as COGs

Numerous problems arise when planners apply the COG definition liberally and select an abstract COG. The first problem is that abstractions, ideologies, or CoP, predispose planners to viewing words (the tools which help drive and animate abstractions), as more powerful a weapon than they are. Rhetoric and propaganda are tools, but neither can pass Eikmeier’s “does/uses test,” which is a helpful instrument to negate ineffective COGs. The test states a COG must possess the intrinsic force necessary to perform the actions (i.e., critical capabilities) to achieve the ends, but requires (i.e., uses) resources to perform the action. An abstraction, like an ideology, is often a key part of any operation. However, without power behind them, they are useless. If words on their own had such inherent power, anyone on the margins of society emitting hateful rhetoric would be sitting in the seats of power, despite lacking the resources all insurgencies, political movements, and resistance need to survive. Rhetoric, ideology, and propaganda are necessary means, not COGs.

Game of Thrones illustrates this as the ambitious court advisor Little Finger remarks to Queen Cersei (in a threatening tone) that knowledge is power. Her guards seize him and put a knife to his throat. She looks at him and replies, “Power is power.” Cesei understands that unless knowledge has the inherent, in-born ability to alter the system, it fails as a COG.  

Additionally, an abstract COG(s) distorts perception by diverting attention from the adversary’s strength to something that is contingent on that strength. When a planner identifies an abstraction as the COG, he/she provides a type of cover and concealment for the enemy by attacking the less valuable pieces on the chess board. In a sense, instead of actually engaging the opponent, an ideology convinces one that shadowboxing in the corner is valuable. This can be a part of an adversary’s strategy to lure its opponent into a wilderness of mirrors. If one can convince an opponent to target an ideology that they define, the opponent remains within the frame constructed by the adversary. One side has already framed the rules of debate, mores, definitions, narratives, and conduct. Any subsequent attack to defeat the ideology means that one is occupying a predictable, managed, and expected stereotype that is easily defeated. One side can dismiss an opponent as a “wrecker,” “infidel,” “racist,” or “imperialist” if an opponent argues ideology. By choosing to attack an ideology, the planner is choosing to attack from a poor position.

Abstractions, by their nature, also add to distorted perception for planners. When considering ideology for instance, hordes of followers and a checklist of beliefs often come to mind. In a sense, an ideology lends many to conceive of the group(s), following them as a monolith. Just as dangerous if a few groups check off some criteria from the ideological list, planners can begin to group them. Such uncritical thinking led US strategic thinkers to conflate Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Sunni Muslims, use of terror tactics, and anti-Western sentiment with Osama Bin Laden’s violent Islamist movement. This overlooked distinctions, as well as the contempt and disunity between them.

Conceiving two groups as monolithic, often overlooks the presence of sub-groups and their divergent aims, as well as opportunities to exploit these differences. When planners place such prominence on an ideology or another abstraction, they assume a strong, unified hand. Instead, one should assume five independent fingers susceptible to manipulation, rather than something abstruse like ideology.

Abstractions distort the perception of unity as well as power. Abstract COGs, particularly ideology, tend to cause planners to view power as strictly hierarchical. Such misunderstanding assumes the power structure resembles a cult, where everything flows from the charismatic authority and the acolytes follow all orders. Ideologies can also prompt planners to overestimate the power of a single person or an individual’s charisma. This neglects the tensions, rivalries, and weaknesses within an organization/system and discounts the importance of resources the adversary requires to function.  Even with something as universal, hierarchically structured, and ideologically driven as say the Catholic Church, the removal of the current Pope would not mean the end of the Church or even a weakening of Catholic ideology. These fallacies all combine to prevent the effective weighting/triage of the adversary’s key resources/requirements (e.g., systems, people, resources, etc.). How the planners understand the power of these resources/requirements is key to ascertaining which one possesses the inherent ability to accomplish the strategic tasks of any group.

Finally, the use of abstractions as strategic COGs influence Western planners to a faulty heuristic: relying on logic and cognizance of comparative national superiority (i.e. comparing US to other countries via DIME resources). If one asks planners to conceive of ideology, it is inevitable they are going to look back to their formative Western education to recall techniques to consider philosophical abstractions and how ideas influence people. This means the way they will likely attempt to conceive of ideology in a Western mindset formed by the legacy and tradition going back to the Greeks. Logic and reason will undergird influence and debate, hearkening back to Socrates. Planners might even start with ideas from the realm of the forms and then vigorously present the idea with logic and insightful metaphors in order to sway the minds of the audience or at least cause them to pause and re-examine their beliefs.  

Like Ben Hur’s Messala responding to Sextus’ charge of how he will defeat the local insurgency: “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well I’ll tell you how…with another idea!!”

Tragically, Messala falls into a myopic trap and would fail the same as modern strategic planners would with targeting an abstraction. To Messala, the “other idea” to defeat the insurgency is the idea of Rome. If the Judean people recognize and appreciate Rome’s power, wisdom, and opportunities, it will drain the insurgency’s support.  He assumes the glory and example of Rome will be enough to defeat the insurgency (i.e., fighting an idea with an idea).

Given two reasonable arguments and respective options, the people of Judea should select the rational option; it would be foolish otherwise. He looks inwards for what motivates him and extrapolates his bias as the strongest means to convince the Judean populace: his own patriotism and rationality.  

Strategic military planners, undoubtedly motivated by a high degree of patriotism and operating by rationality, can be similar to Messala in this regard. After all, if people in Afghanistan or Iraq could have just been rational and recognized the great innovations (e.g., democracy) coming to their countries, they would have flourished. Identifying abstract strategic COGs is fallacious and a troubling heuristic that will lead to biased thinking and analysis.

If we take ideology, CoP, or another abstraction as the means to “focus” planning efforts, it is doomed from the start.  We still conduct military conflicts in the corporeal world. The realm of Platonic Forms is not where battles are fought, but in reality. Besides, what soldiers are prepared to engage in a debate on philosophical intricacies?  

Critical Factor Analysis (CFA) of Russia

One abstraction sometimes characterized as Russia’s strategic COG is Putinism:  the political system of Russia formed during the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Generally understood as the concentration of political and economic powers in the hands of “siloviks” (current and former military members), Putinism is also characterized and defined by the alleged CoP that helps animate and move this system. Based on this understanding, Putin and his CoP appears to conduct all instruments to play in mellifluous unison. Theoretically, if strategic planners target Putinism and the CoP that supports it, it would impede Russia’s expansionist agenda Putinism would assume place on the classic Eikmeier analogy of the “locomotive” that “moves the freight” (the “freight” being the other requirements) for Russia’s current geo-political efforts.

However, if this CoP is the COG, the proverbial freight will be static. Viewing Putinism in this way overlooks Russia’s realities, internal conditions, and pressures partly as a function of geography but more as a media function. Western media often depicts Putin as a figure that might as well be a “Dracula riding a Godzilla”. He is the modern Czar whose supervillain intellect and vision rival Lex Luthor and whose charisma exceeds George Washington. Putin undoubtedly delights in his portrayal as omnipotent and omniscient as it deceives the United States and benefits him. While an intriguing story, this assessment of Putin’s powerful CoP ignores the other critical requirements for Russia’s strategic objectives.

The comparative weakness of the CoP as a possible COG compared to a more corporeal entity is evident when one considers, which one better contributes to a single critical capability (e.g., annexation of historical lands) to further strategic objectives. Could Putinism (abstract) or the Russian military (corporeal) annex lands? Which of these has the inherent ability to do “the thing?” Even if the definition shifts from amorphous Putinism to Putin the man, the latter on his own cannot inherently do “the thing.”  Neither Putinism nor his CoP can seize Ukraine’s territory, but his military can.

Rather than assert a CoP cannot do “the thing,” a critical factor analysis illustrates that a CoP cannot sustain or achieve strategic goals, only serve in a supplementary capacity. Russia’s end states/objectives are understood as:

  1. Center of Influence in International Community/ Recognition as a Great Power
  2. Secure Country Against External Threats
  3. Competitive and Active International Russian Civil Society

A Critical Factor Analysis provides a better understanding of Russia’s strategic COG:

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(COG Analysis Image courtesy of the Author)

When one performs CFA, Putinism is unable to perform necessary tasks it requires to meet its end states. What emerges as the strongest candidate for the COG is the Russian foreign intelligence service, SVR RF. This should come as little surprise as Yevgeny Primakov, former head of the SVR RF and foreign minister, crafted and set into motion the current Russian strategy three years before Putin even assumed office in 1996. Primakov considered his former profession and beloved organization to be the prime mover and coordinator for the resurgence of Russia on the world stage. Even if planners use Social Network Analysis and replace Putinism with Putin, measuring it against major governmental figures and oligarchs, centrality measures may indicate others have a higher degree of influence, importance and abilities to achieve the goals of the Russian state instead of a faceless ideology of Putin himself.

The power of the Russian oligarchs, considered kingmakers since the 1996 Presidential election, is often understated. Beset by waning popularity and a tumultuous transition to democracy, Yeltsin did not turn to his own government resources, ideology, or civil society.  Yeltsin struck a deal with emerging Russian Big Business (e.g., oligarchs) under the condition of government support, establishing a norm that even Putin has to be careful not to disrupt. Approximately 7 people control 50% of the Russian economy, who are assumed to wield considerable influence in domestic and foreign policy. If Putin/Putinism looks to upset the applecart, the more powerful actors in society would remove him.

If planners attack an abstraction, in this case a CoP, as the means to win legitimacy, they misunderstand the enemy’s root strength, with implications for targeting. COGs must have the inherent means to accomplish the task or it fails for targeting purposes. Otherwise it will serve as a useful red herring for the enemy.

Center of Gravity: Use it Wisely

The COG can illuminate and improve analysis and targeting, but planners must understand strengths and limitations. As Eikmeier notes, “what planners need are tools that help them to make sense of a complex OE and develop an acceptable level of understanding [and use COG] to improve understanding, focus planning, improve efficiency, and is not a disaster”. The current definition tolerates anything to occupy planning efforts instead of focusing on changing conditions and behaviors by targeting entities that animate adversarial ideologies. It should be assumed that adversaries of the U.S. develop strategies to alter the information and operational environment by changing physical conditions and institutions, not operating as a beleaguered press secretary or a debater.  

COG, for any of its criticisms, can help us in ambiguous environments as long as we don’t couple the problem by targeting ambiguity. Military planners are intellectually astute, but to compete in the information environment, they will need to be like Fast Eddie Felson playing three-cushion billiard, not pool, against Fendley: remember the principles of what they do right and apply them to dominate the game, after a brief period of confusion.   

Daniel Riggs is currently a SWCS Design and Exercise Manager at 5th BN, 1st SWTG (A) at Fort Bragg, NC.  He has completed Psychological Operations deployments to INDOPACOM and CENTCOM. He holds a M.S.c in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before joining Psychological Operations, he served as an Infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division deploying to Afghanistan in 2010. He can be reached at Daniel.p.riggs@socom.mil or through his personal website, www.thedanielriggs.com.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image at the following link and meets Google’s Creative Common License.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
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