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Concepts and Doctrine

The Centre of Gravity: A bridge between maritime and air environments

Can strategy be universally applied in multiple theaters of war?  Can we apply similar strategies in both maritime and air environments?  Consider the use of a “Center of Gravity”, canonised by the 18th century Prussian General and military strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz and its potential application to land warfare along with “Concentration of force”, a well-known principle of war.  We shall build on the applicability of these terms within both maritime and air environments in searching for a cohesive strategic thought that permeates time and environment.  We will consider maritime thought through the thinking of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century naval officer and historian and move forward into the 20th century through the lens of the air power theorist USAF (Ret.) Col. John A. Warden III.  Through this essay, we shall discover that the concept of concentration of effort onto the enemy’s center of gravity formed the basis of these three theorists’ postulations on achieving strategic effect.  

Colin Gray postulated a general theory of strategy linking action and policy1.  Just as Clausewitzian theory posits concentration of effort onto a center of gravity, two key military theorists were also in concurrence.  Alfred Thayer Mahan and Col. John A. Warden advocated for concentrated effort onto the enemy’s center of gravity in achieving strategic effect in maritime and air environments respectively.   Mahan, within the 19th century’s maritime environment, supported a ‘war on commerce’ and Warden advocated concentrating force onto enemy leadership using air power.  They both, however, differed from each other and from Clausewitz on the nature of the center of gravity.    Nevertheless, Mahan and Warden, argued the importance of concentration of military force onto a single decisive point.  These two key theorists, in trying to achieve economy of force, bridged the gap between action and policy through use of force.  Their thinking lends support to Gray’s idea of a general theory of strategy in different environments.

In reference to the military strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini, Bernard Brodie, the early 20th century American military strategist, assessed that there were, “…certain basic ideas about fighting a war which over the centuries have been proven valid”2.  This essay explores this idea through the Clausewitzian concept of concentration of effort upon a center of gravity in different environments.  Furthermore, the essay shall explore both Mahan and Warden’s perception based on their respective environments and the reason for agreement.  We begin with an explanation as to why this concept should be framed as a strategic principle.  Secondly, using Clausewitzian military thought to frame Mahan’s maritime thinking, we shall discover the association of maritime trade to the center of gravity.   While Mahan’s center of gravity is debatable, his writing infers that he believed in maritime trade as key to controlling the enemy.  Thirdly, Warden’s “System Model”3modifies the Clausewitzian concept through selective targeting yet divorces from Clausewitz’s idea that the enemy’s centre of gravity is the army.  Warden posits that it is the enemy’s leadership which should be the main focus.  However, a conceptual counter argument can be made if framed within irregular warfare.  Lastly, the essay shall focus on economy of force as a reason why both theorists agreed.  While abounding literature exists on each of these theorists’ work, this essay shall build on Gray’s idea that “… [a] general theory of strategy is work in progress”4as it attempts to show coherency in strategic thought through different environments.  The essay avoids the expansive view of strategy as encompassing non-military instruments and stays within the scope of using military force as a bridge in achieving policy objectives through military instruments.

In order to frame this Clausewtizian concept as a strategic principle we shall look at Gray’s definition of strategy.  If, as Gray states, “…the primary purpose of strategy is to control an enemy’s behaviour”5, then concentration of military force onto a centre of gravity is a strategic principle.  Clausewitz documented the importance of centre of gravity when he stated that, “…a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all [the] forces must be directed”6. It is this strategic principle of concentration of effort upon the center of gravity to control the enemy’s behaviour in which we shall explain the extent by which Mahan and Warden agreed.

Mahan’s interpretation of the enemy’s center of gravity is clearly expressed in his attribution of importance to maritime trade as evidenced in his writing, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783”.  Mahan highlighted the importance of guerre de course or a “war on commerce” through his admiration of the French Navy’s successful use of the concept in the nineteenth century7.  His view on the matter bordered on admiration yet reservation by an honest acknowledgement of local restrictions.   Mahan admirably stated, “…[P]ublic opinion in the United States has great faith in war directed against an enemy’s commerce”, before referring to the geographical limitations that the United States had in conducting guerre de course8.   

Arguments exist as to exactly what Mahan’s idea of a center of gravity was, with John A. Adams positing that it was the enemy’s fleet9.   Adams sees Mahan’s thinking within a Clausewitzian framework with the enemy’s army being the center of gravity and hence his perception that Mahan would have thought the same.   There is, however, evidence to show that Mahan’s thinking leant towards maritime trade as a center of gravity.  If Adam’s perception had indeed been correct, then it may have been due to Mahan’s acceptance that the United States was not geographically prepared to practice guerre de course, as Mahan quoted, “…the [R]epublic had no ports”10. Mahan may have associated the center of gravity to the enemy’s fleet in accordance with Adam’s logic due the inability of the United States Navy to use the French modality.  However, it is without doubt that Mahan presented strong evidence of the impact that attacking maritime trade would have brought to the enemy’s will.   This is the conceptual essence of the center of gravity.  This operational modality of directing force against “…peaceful merchant vessels which are usually defenceless”11, Mahan reflected, would lead to “…great injury done to the wealth and prosperity of a nation”12.  

Mahan therefore, while arguing the importance of attacking maritime trade and positing its severe repercussions on the enemy, had acknowledged the limitations of guerre de course due to his nation’s own geographical restrictions.   Mahan’s advocacy of this practice was also regulated by his belief that attacking the enemy’s commerce must be supported.  While this latter reservation distances Mahan from the concept of concentration of force, Geoferry Till argues that Mahan was a proponent of the latter, arguing for the offense by “pitting all [your] force against a portion of the opponent’s”13. 

Mahan’s view of the importance of maritime commerce to global power is evident in Till’s opinion on Mahan.  Till approvingly quotes Mahan as writing: “…control of the sea by maritime commerce…means predominant influence in the world”14.  Mahan’s perception of maritime commerce as a center of gravity and his appreciation of the concept of guerre de course demonstrates a Clausewitzian understanding of “…a center of power and movement forming itself”15which, if destroyed, has profound implications.  To Mahan, the center of gravity was not the army as Clausewitz argued, but the economic powerhouse of maritime trade which, if destroyed, would lead to a denial of the enemy’s will to fight.

Mahan and Clausewitz both argued for concentration of effort onto a center of gravity from a maritime and land perspective.  Naturally, their viewpoint on the nature of the center of gravity would have been affected by the environments about which they theorised, with Mahan focusing on the enemy’s maritime trade and Clausewitz on the opponent’s army.  We are now beginning to see a general strategic principle in different environments being moulded by key theorists.  We shall now focus on strategic air power through the eyes of USAF (Ret.) Col. John A Warden, a leading air power theorist of the twentieth century.

Warden’s “system model” of understanding the enemy frames the opponent as a system of parts. He argues that an enemy state is comprised of interrelated parts and as a human body has a brain, food, vessels, cells and leukocytes, the enemy state will have a government, energy industry, roads, people and military16.  His view on the objective of war was non-Clausewitzian, believing in the aim of war as convincing the enemy rather than completely annihilating the enemy’s army.  Warden therefore disagreed with Clausewitz’s idea that the enemy’s army was the center of gravity, instead focusing on leadership.  This posit was made clear by his statement, “…[T]he person or entity with the power to agree to change is the leader in the middle.  Thus, directly or indirectly all our energies in war should be focused on changing the mind of the leadership”17.  Through this statement, he clearly affirmed his belief in concentration of effort on the leadership of the enemy, it being the ‘brain’ of enemy operations.

There is, however, a strong argument against Warden’s concept.  Warden postulated his “system model” which reflected air strategy during the Desert Storm campaign (1990-1991) based on attacking Iraq’s Ba’ath party locations18.  His theory of focusing on leadership may not, however, be effective against non-state actors with irregularly networked structures where focusing on leadership as a center of gravity may lead to underestimating the nature of the threat.  Irregular leadership is constantly changing and if destroyed will only be replaced by another in an alternative location.  Warden’s model may need to be modified to suit modern warfare where irregular groups are the belligerents.  

Warden also raises another very important condition of choosing the center of gravity which may relate to both Mahan and Clausewitz’ thinking.  In deciding the right center of gravity to attack, one should consider the capability of the attacking force while making a decision on “…the effect we want to produce on the enemy in order to induce him to accept our position”19. This latter statement supports his belief that victory could be achieved by targeting leadership.  Warden’s posit of the attacker’s capability as a determinant in choosing the center of gravity also coincides with why Mahan so admired guerre de course but regretfully admitted that the United States was not capable due to geographical positioning.  From the evidence presented however, Warden embraced the concept of concentration of effort onto a center of gravity. While there may be a counter argument on the application of his model within irregular warfare, he supported concentration of effort onto a decisive point to restrict the enemy’s behaviour.  This, he believed would be achieved by targeting the enemy’s leadership.

We have identified why Mahan and Warden both utilised Clausewitzian thought in identifying the center of gravity. It would now be suitable to form a relationship in explaining why they both focused on a center of gravity.  In an effort to make warfare as efficient as possible, these two theorists applied the principle of economy of effort or force.  They proposed ideas aimed at ending wars as quickly as possible.  Mahan, in attacking maritime trade, would have hoped to choke the will of the enemy, and Warden aimed to do the same by attacking the enemy’s leadership.  This aim of economy of force is the reason for targeting a center of gravity with concentrated force.   It is this aim of economising effort in war which allows all three theorists to converge in thought.

We have framed strategy as one which bridges military force to policy objectives.  Driven by economy of effort, concentration of effort onto the enemy’s center of gravity can be viewed as a strategic principle.  This concept has pervaded both maritime and air strategic thought as expressed by Mahan and Warden’s thinking.  The concept was adapted by Mahan to support attacking the enemy’s maritime trade.  Mahan however, argued that the United States was restricted in this practice due to its own geographical restrictions.  He admitted the importance of the Clausewitizian concept and reframed its nature to the environment in which he theorised.  Likewise, Warden posited the importance of concentration of effort onto enemy leadership.  While his theory has weight, it may need to be modified to achieve strategic effect against non-state actors.  Warden argued that by focusing on enemy leadership, the enemy’s behaviour could be controlled through a reduced will to fight.  Interestingly, this strategic principle has woven its way through all three environments as theorised by Clausewitz, Mahan and Warden.  Economy of force was the driver behind the use of this concept and their convergence in thought.   If indeed there is a general theory of strategy, then we may be one step closer to realising its continuing nature through the help of these two key maritime and air theorists and their quest to achieve greater strategic effect.


Andre Mohammed

Andre Mohammed is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with an MA in International Development Management from the University of Westminster and is currently pursuing his second MA in International Affairs with Kings College London.  He has worked for UN agencies in Yemen, Libya and Pakistan and currently based in Peshawar, Pakistan as Security Operations Officer for the World Health Organisation.


  1.  Colin S. Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 21. http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199579662.001.0001/acprof-9780199579662.
  2. Bernard Brodie, “Strategy as a Science,” World Politics 1, no. 4 (1949): 468, https://doi.org/10.2307/2008833.
  3. Colonel John A. Warden Iii, “‘Air Theory for the Twenty-First Century’,”  (1998): 108, https://media.defense.gov/2017/Mar/31/2001725235/-1/-1/0/B_0064_SCHNEIDER_GRINTER_BATTLEFIELD_FUTURE.PDF.
  4. Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice, 33.
  5. Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice, 11.
  6. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 522. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=1623274.
  7. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: a guide for the twenty-first century, Fourth edition ed. (LondonNew York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2018), 91. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1761863&site=ehost-live.
  8. A. T. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783 (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), 25. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=5319237.
  9. John A. Adams, If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War : An Analysis of World War II Naval Strategy (Bloomington, IN, 2008), 9-10.
  10. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783, 25.
  11. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783, 25.
  12. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783, 91.
  13. Till, Seapower: a guide for the twenty-first century, 75.
  14. Till, Seapower: a guide for the twenty-first century, 74.
  15. Clausewitz, On War, 522.
  16. Warden Iii, “‘Air Theory for the Twenty-First Century’,” 107.
  17. Warden Iii, “‘Air Theory for the Twenty-First Century’,” 109.
  18. “The Five-Ring circus: How air power enthusiasts forgot about interdiction,” War on the Rocks, 2015, accessed 6 Februay 2021, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2015/09/the-five-ring-circus-how-airpower-enthusiasts-forgot-about-interdiction/.
  19. Warden Iii, “‘Air Theory for the Twenty-First Century’,” 110.

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