Small Wars Journal

Six Months or Forever: Doctrine to Defeat an Enemy Whose Center of Gravity is Time

Sun, 03/25/2018 - 1:54am

Six Months or Forever: Doctrine to Defeat an Enemy Whose Center of Gravity is Time


Timothy Grebos, Thomas McAvoy, Jonathan Gerson and John Hughes

Professional militaries look to their doctrine to determine how they will conduct military operations against their adversaries. More than simple tactics or procedures, doctrine links a nation’s military force to its strategic and national security objectives. Doctrine provides a framework for the military to operate within; it is meant as guidance more than a collection of unyielding rules. United States military doctrine followed a path of development similar to that of other nations with large, professional militaries. Originating out of Field Service Regulations and Manuals written as early as the 1860’s, US doctrine developed to incorporate lessons hard learned in wars at home and abroad. Today, US doctrine defines the roles and responsibilities of its military forces, and how they will organize, train, and equip themselves to fight. While US doctrine provides in-depth guidance on how forces will operate in support of the nation’s strategic and national security objectives, it is glaringly deficient regarding how long forces should be employed in support of the nation’s strategic and national security objectives.  In order for US forces to achieve decisive victory, US joint warfighting doctrine must identify a time requirement as a set condition for ending operations, prior to their commencement. An analysis of US military campaigns reveals that the event horizons to achieve decisive victory are 1) less than one year from deployment to redeployment; or 2) indefinite occupation. History shows that in order to defeat a Combined/Joint US force, an adversary only need to persist for an extended period of time. Therefore, Time is always the adversary’s Center of Gravity.

Center of Gravity and Time

The concept of a Center of Gravity, or “those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a nation, an alliance, a military force or other grouping derives its freedom of action, physical strength or will to fight” was first introduced by Carl von Clausewitz in his magnum opus On War1. The term Center of Gravity derives from the German word Schwerpunkt Clausewitz used in his original work. The German words schwer (heavy), and der punkt (point or spot), literally refer to a physical center of gravity, although Clausewitz used them figuratively to mean emphasis or focal point. Today, the current German use of Schwerpunkt is the "point of main effort.”2Writing at the United States Air Force Air War College in 2004, Dr. Joseph Strange and Colonel Richard Iron further refined Clausewitz’s definition of Center of Gravity, stating, Centers of Gravity (CG) are physical or moral entities that are the primary components of physical or moral strength, power and resistance. They don’t just contribute to strength; they ARE the strength. 3 While the Center of Gravity is the source of strength that gives a force its ability to fight, conversely, it is the thing at which an opposing force must strike and destroy in order to achieve victory. In military planning, the enemy’s Center of Gravity is identified for the sole purpose of attacking and destroying it. By destroying the source of the enemy’s strength, one destroys the enemy’s will to fight and can achieve a decisive victory and an end to hostilities.

To win decisive victory over an adversary, a force must destroy not only the adversary’s means of fighting, but also their will to fight. In On War, Clausewitz wrote that “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”and that to do so a force must cripple an enemy, specifically by finding and destroying that enemy's Center of Gravity.4Although a decisive victory may not bring an immediate cessation to all hostility, it does represent the end of the enemy’s ability to effectively resist and signals the inevitable conclusion of the conflict. In Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory, Colin Gray defined a decisive victory as "a victory which decides the outcome to a campaign, though not necessarily to the war as a whole."5 While a force may achieve crushing victories that destroy an enemy’s ability to wage war, the victory is not a decisive one if the enemy’s morale and will to carry on are not also thoroughly defeated. So long as it’s will to fight remains intact, a patient enemy can reconstitute forces, create insurgencies, and ultimately win victory from a string of defeats. Clausewitz correctly observed that war can only end in a decisive victory or it will continue, stating “there is only one decisive victory: the last.”6 Therefore, a decisive victory for US forces must be one that rapidly concludes military operations and enables the force to redeploy back to home station.

Time, specifically the adversary’s ability to extend the conflict until it achieved victory, has played a major role in any defeat of a US-led force, making it the enemy’s Center of Gravity. Writing hundreds of years before Clausewitz, Sun Tzu highlighted the importance of Time in military planning, and warned of the danger the passage of Time represents to the invader,

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, the men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength, and if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the state will not be equal to the strain. Never forget: When your weapons are dulled, your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted, and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.7

Like Sun Tzu, Clausewitz wrote about the unique aspect of Time, questioning in On War whether the attacker or defender has the most reason to expect special advantages from Time.  He argued that any delay affords a greater opportunity for something advantageous to happen for the conquered than for the conqueror. Clausewitz also claimed that because a great expenditure of force is necessary to maintain any gains won through victory, the strain upon a conqueror’s resources will eventually become unsupportable, and that Time of itself will inevitably bring about a change.8

From the United States’ perspective as the stronger force in recent conflicts, and typically fighting on foreign soil, Time is a critical vulnerability. For US forces fighting abroad, the shorter the duration of the conflict, the more likely the result will be decisive victory. Conversely, the only sure response to an enemy’s ability to draw out and extend a conflict indefinitely must be a willingness to commit to indefinite occupation, in order to outlast the enemy to achieve victory.  Recognizing that Time will be the adversary’s Center of Gravity, the US military must amend its doctrine to account for the “special importance” of Time Clausewitz spoke to when he wrote, “If we consider the combat no longer in itself but in relation to the other forces of war, then its duration acquires a special importance…This duration is to be regarded to a certain extent as a second subordinate success. For the conqueror the combat can never be finished too quickly, for the vanquished it can never last too long.” 9 Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz agreed that Time creates peril for the invader and is a powerful ally of the defender; history has thus far proven them to be correct.


Military leaders have long recognized that Time is a great advantage to the weaker force, particularly if that force is defending its own territory. George Washington, Ho Chi Minh, and General Vo Nguyen Giap all recognized that Time was the Center of Gravity to the weaker belligerent, and all employed strategies that used Time against their stronger foes. General Washington, while leading the Continental Army against the British during the US War of Independence, recognized his chances of defeating the British outright were slim. He knew, however, that if he could continue the fight, the British might grow tired of the war. According to Russell Weigley, “…Washington’s hopes had to lie mainly not in military victory but in the possibility that the political opposition in Great Britain might in time force the British Ministry to abandon the conflict.”10 Time was the source of Washington’s strength, and the source of strength of his army. His strategy was therefore to extend the conflict at all costs, and “Washington’s first object in his defensive war was to defend not any geographical area or point but the existence of his army.”11 Washington’s “strategy of erosion”would indeed gradually wear away British resolve and bring final victory to the Colonials. Time, much more so than Washington’s forces, was the enemy the British were not able to defeat.

Ho Chi Minh, along with his military commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, recognized early in the struggle for Vietnamese independence and unity the advantage that Time would afford their fight. First against the Japanese, and later against the French, and finally against the US, Minh and Giap recognized Time as their Center of Gravity, and their strategy’s main objective was always to survive to fight another day and hope to outlast their adversary. In each case, they knew that their commitment was deeper and their will to fight to final victory was stronger than the invader they faced. While Minh and Giap may have both known that with each day their forces grew stronger, and that Time represented their best chance for victory, neither invented the strategy, but merely adopted it. “It is clear from the following passages from his People’s War, People’s Army that General Giap relied heavily on Mao: The Vietnamese people’s war…had to be hard and long lasting in creating conditions for victory…The strategy of long-term war and the principle of expansion from guerilla to regular war were successful.”12 Like Washington two-hundred years earlier, Giap knew he faced an incredibly capable and professional force. Moreover, Giap, like Washington, recognized Time as his Center of Gravity, and knew that each day the conflict continued, his forces’ will to fight grew stronger, and the likelihood his foe would tire of the fight and go home increased. For Giap, it was always a matter of Time. Later, Giap would say about his American adversaries, “These men and their political and military advisors did not lose in Vietnam through blunders or mistakes. They did not lose because they committed political or strategic errors. They did not lose because their combat forces were untrained and unsuited for the kind of engagements they faced in Vietnam. In fact, there is no way the U.S. could have won in Vietnam.”13

For the Colonials, and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, final victory was won by remaining on the battlefield and carrying on to fight another day. In this way, Time became their Center of Gravity, the primary source of their strength and power. The longer each conflict persisted, the greater the chance the weaker force, fighting on home soil, would prevail. Clausewitz’s writing codifies what history has demonstrated time and again, “The waiting till more favourable times implies that we have reason to expect such times hereafter, and this waiting for, that is, defensive War, is always based on this prospect; on the other hand, offensive War, that is, taking advantage of the present moment, is always commanded when the future holds out a better prospect, not to ourselves, but to our adversary.”14 While Time is the Center of Gravity, the source of strength and power, for the defender or weaker force, it is a critical vulnerability to the attacker, and therefore must be attacked vigorously.

Because Time provides a source of strength for the inferior force, then as the adversary’s Center of Gravity, US forces must attack Time itself by denying the enemy the ability to persist and delay the outcome of the conflict. Only by defeating an enemy rapidly, and denying it Time, can US forces achieve decisive and lasting victory. US forces must use speed and mobility to deny the enemy of Time, quickly achieve a military victory, and equally as quickly transition military success into diplomatic success. Each day that military success is delayed, and therefore the diplomacy which must follow military operations is also delayed, the likelihood that both will end in failure increases. Clausewitz recognized the danger that Time presents to the attacker when he stated, “Our object in the above reasoning has been to show clearly that no conquest can be finished too soon, that spreading it over a greater space of time than is absolutely necessary for its completion, instead of facilitating it, makes it more difficult.”15 For Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, and William Westmoreland, the importance, and difficulty, of attacking the adversary’s Center of Gravity, and ending hostility quickly, was obvious.

Leading the Union against the breakaway Confederate States to restore an undivided nation, Abraham Lincoln faced seemingly insurmountable odds. While Robert E. Lee sought to delay any conclusion to the conflict and found strength in Time, Lincoln knew all too well that his Union forces, and the fate of the Nation, were living on borrowed time. Lincoln and his generals, “faced perplexing problems in waging an offensive war of conquest, in pursuit of rapid victory, without suffering casualties so severe that they would destroy the very resolution which the quest for rapidity of the conquest was supposed to sustain.”16 Aside from the problem of winning the war quickly, Lincoln faced the additional problem of pacifying the South after achieving a military victory. Lincoln knew:

The primary object of his government was the restoration of the Union, the achievement of which demanded that sooner or later the South must yield to the Union with some measure of voluntary consent. The South could not be held forever with the bayonet. The longer the war went on, however, the more bitterness it seemed likely to nourish, and the more difficult a true restoration of the Union might become…Lincoln did not wish to defeat the Southern armies only to have an embittered South shift into a guerrilla warfare, which might perpetuate itself indefinitely.17

Time was then a disadvantage to the Union on two counts. The longer the struggle continued, the more likely the North was to grow weary of the fighting and lose its will to fight. Additionally, any continuation of hostility also increased the chances that the war against the South would degenerate into an endless revolutionary struggle. Lincoln, along with McClellan, Meade, and eventually Grant, knew that to achieve decisive victory and successfully restore the Union, they would have to attack the Confederate Center of Gravity and deny them Time. While the Civil War certainly lasted longer than any of the Union leaders would have preferred, eventually Northern strength, and proximity to the fight, would prove to be more than Lee’s army could resist. In the end, the Confederates were unable to outlast the will of the Union to see the fight through to final victory.

Franklin Roosevelt, like Lincoln, faced a conflict that had to be seen through to final victory, and that would test the patience and will of the Nation. Fighting a two-front war that spanned the globe, “President Roosevelt’s (government) in World War II labored under an acute awareness that the American electorate might not show patience with a prolonged war.”18 The Allies stated objective was the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. While this objective was risky, it was the only objective that could, “ensure that the aggressor governments and societies could be so completely reshaped that they would never endanger Western democracies again.”19 General George C. Marshall, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff of the Army, also understood the risks of a prolonged war. Referring to a conflict in colonial history that shaped the birth of the nation, Weigley notes, “Many years later, during the Second World War, General George C. Marshall, Jr. was to remark that ‘a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.’”20 Perhaps no conflict in US military history illustrates Time as a Center of Gravity, and how that Center of Gravity must be eliminated to achieve decisive victory, quite like the war in the Pacific. As the US and the Allies closed in on the home islands, Japan eventually resorted to using suicide attacks in the form of the Kamikaze, literally trading lives for Time in a desperate attempt to extend the fighting and avoid unconditional surrender. Conversely, faced with the invasion of Japan and the staggering estimates of casualties the Allies would sustain trying to conquer an unyielding opponent, the US chose to use a weapon of horrific destructive power against primarily civilian targets in a bid to bring the fighting to a swift end. Ultimately, the use of the atomic bomb did bring an immediate end to the fighting, and with it, decisive victory. Although US participation in World War II lasted just over three and one-half years, the US occupation of Germany, Italy, and Japan lasted nearly a decade, and the US continues to maintain a military presence in the former Axis powers through the present day.

The conflict on the Korean Peninsula from 1950-1953, the first major fighting of the Cold War, would see an end to the streak of American military victories, but once again result in the permanent commitment of US forces abroad. While the conflict ended with a mutually agreed upon cease-fire that did not technically award victory to any of the combatants, it represented the first time that the US political will was unable to match that of a committed adversary. Unfortunately for the US, it would certainly not be the last. Although the US and its allies were initially able to stem the North Korean advance, and eventually push the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel, the entrance of the Chinese into the conflict upped the ante to a level the US was unwilling to match.  According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, extending the war into China would be provoking, “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.”21 Carrying the war across the Chinese border, as MacArthur wished, was the only way the conflict could end in anything but a stalemate. In Korea, Time finally became an advantage of the adversary even the US military could not overcome. Despite MacArthur’s declaration that, “There is no substitute for victory…War’s very object is victory,” the US strategy in Korea turned so that ending the conflict became preferable to winning it.22 And although the fighting stopped, the conflict did not end, as evidenced by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea, and the roughly 29,000 US troops stationed in South Korea today.

In contrast to the US war in Vietnam, the stalemate in the fighting and the ongoing stationing of troops in Korea seems favorable. Having fought the Japanese and French for over a decade before the US began its own war in Indochina, the Vietnamese communists led by Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap had already learned the importance of Time in their struggle. The US, however, would learn a hard lesson about Time, commitment, and will. Although he would not live to see the end of the fighting and North Vietnamese victory, the statement by Ho Chi Minh in 1969 “No matter what difficulties and hardships lie ahead, our people are sure of total victory. The U.S. imperialists will certainly have to quit” demonstrates his certainty that through patience and continued fighting, his forces would eventually prevail.23 Nonetheless, General William Westmoreland found himself fighting a war in Vietnam that American policy makers, to a large extent, had already determined was unwinnable. Before the significant build-up of US troops in Vietnam, President Kennedy had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff about committing forces in Southeast Asia:

The President discovered that the dominant conviction among the military planners currently established in the Pentagon, and inherited from the Eisenhower years, was the lesson of the Korean frustrations of 1950-53 decreed that there should be no more limited, local wars fought by American forces on the Asian continent without freedom to use any weapons in the American arsenal, including nuclear ones.24

US military planners understood that Time was undeniably the Center of Gravity for their adversary in Vietnam, and for any adversary that they would face fighting a limited war. As the fighting in Vietnam dragged on with no clear end in sight, Minh and Giap’s conviction that every day that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong could extend the fighting, and continue armed resistance, they would grow stronger, and the US resolve would grow weaker, proved to be true. Without a commitment to attack the North Vietnamese Center of Gravity of Time, and bring a quick and decisive end to the fighting by attacking and utterly defeating the North in an unlimited war, there was never any possible outcome other than failure. If Korea had been an indicator, Vietnam proved, “America’s opponents in the locality involved, like the North Vietnamese, will almost certainly feel too much larger a stake in the outcome of a contest on their home grounds than does the United States itself, to prove susceptible to manipulation by measured applications of violence from distant Washington.”25 With Time established as the adversary’s Center of Gravity, there are only two circumstances by which the US achieves decisive victory: rapid deployment of forces to achieve extremely limited and well-defined objectives, followed by rapid redeployment, or permanent commitment of forces in an unlimited war.

Criteria for Decisive Victory

With Time being so clearly advantageous to the defender, or weaker force, and so clearly disadvantageous to the attacker, or stronger force, then US forces conducting military operations abroad will only find decisive victory under one of two circumstances. Decisive victory has been won when forces deploy to achieve clearly defined, limited objectives, force a rapid end to hostilities, and redeploy home almost immediately. Conversely, US forces have achieved victory in fighting unlimited wars of annihilation, where the threat to US sovereignty and way of life was considered to be so great that despite the disadvantage of Time, the US was committed to continue military operations indefinitely to achieve victory. Only under one of the two scenarios described above have US forces deployed abroad and been victorious.

Early conflicts in US military history tended to be of limited scope, short duration, and followed by a rapid redeployment home. World War II saw US forces, backed by the will of the American people, fight two adversaries to unconditional surrender, and then permanently post significant forces in Germany, Italy, and Japan. While American will may have faltered in not fighting North Korea to unconditional surrender, it was still strong enough to defeat the enemy’s Center of Gravity…Time…and permanently post deterrent forces in South Korea. Thereafter, in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003, US forces have been forced to fight in long, drawn-out conflicts, which predictably ended without decisive victory. The enemies in both conflicts were never defeated and have emerged as ongoing threats after US forces returned home. In these conflicts, the strategy guiding US forces failed to recognize that Time is the adversary’s Center of Gravity, which must be attacked and defeated. Clausewitz recognized that the results of battles are relatively meaningless in the outcome of the whole operation, “on account of all these natural relations of War there is, I say, only one result, to wit, the final result. Until it takes place nothing is decided, nothing won, nothing lost...In this view, therefore, War is an indivisible whole, the parts of which (the subordinate results) have no value except as in relation to this whole.”26 Though US forces have always fought well and destroyed enemy forces on the battlefield, their recent strategy did not have them attacking the source of the adversary’s power and strength, and therefore been unable to defeat the enemy and achieve decisive victory.

Throughout US military history there has been a perceived need for US forces to deploy in order to achieve limited objectives and maintain a balance of peace. These operations were successful because they started with the rapid deployment of forces to achieve very limited and well-defined objectives and ended successfully with the rapid redeployment of troops back to their home stations. Destruction of the Barbary Pirates resulting from military operations against the Sultanate of Morocco from 1801-1805, the US intervention in the First World War in 1917-1918, the expulsion of Cuban military forces from the island of Grenada in 1983, and the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990 are all examples of successful limited military actions. In each case, US forces deployed overseas, achieved limited and clearly defined objectives, and redeployed home. While World War I may, in the larger sense, seem to not fit the mold of a limited war, the US participation in the closing eighteen months did achieve limited objectives, and was followed by an almost immediate redeployment and demobilization. Likewise, the return of US forces to Iraq in 2003 might lead some to believe the military operation in 1990 did not achieve a decisive victory, but in fact, it did achieve all its stated objectives and resulted in the redeployment of the preponderance of US forces back to their stateside bases.

The time for US forces to go abroad to restore peace in limited operations may be over. With regard to the manner by which America exerts its influence globally, economist and strategist Thomas Schelling points out the obvious, “There is a difference between taking what you want and making someone give it to you…”27 Whereas in the past the US and its allies used military might to force adversaries to their will, Time as an advantage to the weaker force may have put an end to the whole idea of limited war. Weigley stated in The American Way of War, “After the experiences of Indochina, the idea that the United States can work its will in distant parts of the world by means of the measured, controlled application of punitive violence seems especially dubious.”28 The recent US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validate Weigley’s concerns. In the instances that a military operation is deemed the only path to success, US doctrine must require military commanders to identify the Time it will take to achieve decisive victory and plan the operation to accomplish clearly defined and limited objectives within that timeline. If the operation does not achieve victory in the stated timeline, it must be concluded that victory is not achievable, losses must be cut, and forces redeployed to home station.

The time may come again that the US will face such a terrible threat to its very existence that the entire nation mobilizes for war, commits to fight the enemy to unconditional surrender, and if necessary, carries on with hostilities across generations to achieve decisive victory. This conflict would be one of survival and would require the whole of the nation to employ every instrument of national power to realize the decisive victory necessary to ensure America endures. US doctrine must recognize that although Time is a disadvantage to its deployed forces, and the Center of Gravity for the adversary, there are circumstances where the threat to the Nation demands military action. The objective must still be to strike at Time as the enemy’s source of strength, and fight to achieve a swift victory, but unlike in a limited war with a defined schedule to achieve victory, a war of survival must be fought until the enemy is utterly defeated and cannot again pose a threat to America. In the instance of a war of survival, the difficult part will not be mustering national will to fight the enemy once the conflict has begun, it will be recognizing that the fight has come to America whether or not it is ready. According to Donald Kagan, “In spite of their victories in the Cold War and, more recently, in the Gulf War, the United States and its allies, the states with the greatest interest in peace and the greatest power to preserve it, appear to be faltering in their willingness to pay the price in money and the risk of lives.”29

Throughout US military history, Time has proven to be the Center of Gravity for the defender, or weaker force. When, in the infancy of the Nation, the US was the weaker force fighting a stronger British military, Time was the source of strength and power for Washington and his Continental Army. To keep fighting was Washington’s primary objective and wait for the British to grow weary of the fighting and sue for peace. It worked. As the stronger, attacking force, the modern US military has had to contend with Time from the perspective of it being a disadvantage. In some notable instances, such as World War II, commitment to total victory enabled US forces to overcome the strength Time afforded the weaker defender. In recent limited conflicts, however, Time has proved too great an ally of the adversary and the US has been unable to achieve decisive victory. Perhaps Time has not been formally incorporated into US military doctrine because it is believed that how long US forces fight should be left to elected civilian leaders. However true this belief may be, it is the responsibility of military leaders to recommend and advise the civilian leadership of the capabilities of US forces. If decisive victory can only be achieved either in short conflicts with very limited and clearly defined objectives, or in unlimited wars that require permanent commitment until unconditional surrender and decisive victory are achieved regardless of cost in life and national treasure, it is the duty of US military leaders to advise as such. Accounting for Time as the adversary’s Center of Gravity and incorporating into doctrine the two circumstances under which US forces can deny the enemy of Time and achieve decisive victory will ensure that the US does not employ forces without concern for Time, thereby enabling the maximum chances of success.

This paper is a submission to the Faculty of the Joint Continuing and Distance Education School in partial satisfaction of the requirements for Joint Professional Military Education Phase II. The contents of this submission reflect our writing team’s original views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Joint Forces Staff College or the Department of Defense.

End Notes

  1. AAP-6, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, Edition “V” Version 2.  
  2. German Army Regulation 100/100, Command and Control of Armed Forces (September 1987) (HDv 1001100 VS-NfD, Truppenfuhrung), p. 7-12.
  3. Dr. Joe Strange and Colonel Richard Iron, "Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities." (Maxwell-Gunter AFB, AL: USAF Air War College, 2004), p. 7.
  4. Carl von Clausewitz. On War (New York: Penguin Books, Inc., 1968), p. 371.
  5. Colin Gray, Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002) p. 11.
  6. von Clausewitz, p. 371.
  7. Sun Tzu, Art of War (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 12.
  8. von Clausewitz, p. 392.
  9. Ibid., p. 318.
  10. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 11.
  12. Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare. Introduction and Case Study by Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p. 9.
  13. General Vo Nguyen Giap, How We Won the War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976), p. 6.
  14. von Clausewitz, Pg. 397.
  15. Ibid., p. 393.
  16. Weigley, p. 132.
  17. Ibid., p. 132.
  18. Ibid., p. 281.
  19. Ibid., p. 281.
  20. Ibid., p. 5.
  21. Ibid., p. 390.
  22. Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 386, 404.
  23. Giap, Pg 54.
  24. Weigley, p. 451.
  25. Weigley, p. 476.
  26. von Clausewitz, p. 371.
  27. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p.34.
  28. Weigley, p. 476.
  29. Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 572.


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Guevara, Che. Guerilla Warfare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.


de Jomini, Baron Antoine Henri. The Art of War. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1862.


Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday, 1995.


MacArthur, Douglas, Reminiscences. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.


Millett, Allan R., Peter Maslowski, and William B. Feis. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.


Strain, Major Patrick M. "The Tactical Center of Gravity: Fact or Fallacy." Ft Leavenworth KS, School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1993.


Strange, Dr. Joe and Colonel Richard Iron. "Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities." Maxwell-Gunter AFB, AL: USAF Air War College, 2004.


Tse-tung, Mao. Basic Tactics. New York: Frederick Praeger, 1966.


Tse-tung, Mao. On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: First Illinois Paperback, 2000.


Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.


Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.


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About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander John D. Hughes is a Reserve Program Administrator in the United States Coast Guard Reserve and is a recent graduate of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School- Hybrid course at the Joint Forces Staff College. Last deployed to CENTCOM in 2011 in support of Operation New Dawn, he currently is assigned to the Coast Guard Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. as the Reserve Personnel Management Division Chief.

Major Jonathan I. Gerson, Army National Guard, is an Infantry officer currently working as a strategist and is a recent graduate of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School- Hybrid course at the Joint Forces Staff College. Last deployed in 2014 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he has served in the regular Army, the US Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. He has served in billets at the platoon through Combatant Command echelon level, has worked in international security cooperation, and was posted to the US Embassy in Chad.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas A. McAvoy, Marine Corps Reserves, is a 2000 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and is a recent graduate of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School- Hybrid course at the Joint Forces Staff College.  Assigned as a Low Altitude Air Defense and Marine Air Command and Control Systems Officer, he twice deployed to Iraq in early 2003 and again through late 2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he led a platoon providing provisional security to bases and convoys in southern Iraq.  Also twice deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2010 and again in 2012-2013, he served as a Civil Affairs Team Leader in Helmand province.  As a civilian, he works for Petro-Hunt, LLC, in western North Dakota as an inventory manager.

Lieutenant Colonel Timothy E. Grebos, Marine Corps Reserves, is a communications officer currently serving as the Assistant Chief of Staff, Communications for the 4th Marine Logistics Group, New Orleans, LA and is a recent graduate of the Joint and Combined Warfighting School- Hybrid course at the Joint Forces Staff College. Last deployed in 2005 to the Horn of Africa in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, he works full-time as the Disclosure Officer for the F/A-18 Program Office at Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD. Previously, LtCol Grebos authored “Learning to Find the Right Needle in a Stack of Needles” (Oct 8, 2014 Small Wars Journal) and “The Post-Afghanistan Marine Corps: Charting A Course To Remain Ready and Relevant” (Dec 1, 2014 The Marine Corps Gazette).



Mon, 04/02/2018 - 4:50pm

Very good article.

Time is a tough Center of Gravity to beat.  It seems as if adversary's where time is advantage are those who do not have to respond to public opinion, or those whose view on the value of life are certainly is different than our own.  In Vietnam, Giap didn't seem to be overly concerned with the amount of soldiers lost in a battle and would use such a view to offset American advantages in more lethal combat power.  This wasn't the case for Washington or Lee.  Their centers of gravity were the continued existence of their forces.

I'm not sure how you adapt the short term approach to adversaries such as the Taliban or Al Queda Iraq.  They are too diffuse to truly annihilate.  Saddam Hussein had a government and military to attack.  Al Queda didn't.  And Al Queda generally didn't mass in large formations.  They did lose some steam though.  Perhaps for these non state actors time is sometimes against them (especially since ISIS started getting more headlines).

With regards to time, perhaps in these smaller ongoing interventions that we are not going to win inside a generation such as the war on terror, we treat it more as a maintenance activity.  Policing is a maintenance activity since we know crime may decrease but it will never fully stop.  I'm not supporting endless wars and interventions but where we've already invested, perhaps convincing ourselves AND the adversary that we're committed over a long period of time will be a deterrent for those who would use time against us.



Wed, 03/28/2018 - 12:49pm

The scope of this is also too narrow and doesn't account for the continuum of competition, not conflict and multi-echelon shaping activities that are enduring and not tied to a timeline.

Resilience and adaptation should be addressed further. Decisive victory is not tied to "1) one year operations or 2) indefinite occupation".

I recommend using  a semiotic square to diagram two more categories that are not #1 or 2, then seeing where shaping, security cooperation, deterrence, resiliency shaping and time intersect. The how long is "enduring" to account for the future security environment. 




Vicrasta...thanks for taking the time to read and comment on our work.

I'm not smart or well-read enough to understand most of what you said about COG...but I can confirm we are exactly suggesting "war control."

Simply stated, we contend that if US forces can't deploy, win, and be home in a year...or we're not prepared to stay and occupy forever...then we shouldn't fight because we can't win. And the reason we can't win, is because the only thing they have to actually show up tomorrow to fight, and wait for us to go home. Therefore, no matter who they are, if we're fighting in their yard and we're not prepared from the onset to stay and fight forever, Time is they're greatest strength.

If you don't want to call Time the adversary's COG, I can live with that. And I agree time has many meanings and passes very differently across cultures and eras. But anyone who states that Time is agnostic has never watched the last :15 of a tightly contested March Madness NCAA college basketball game. If your team is winning...those :15 seem like an eternity and all you want in the world is for the game to end. If your team is losing, those :15 can't last long enough, and all you want is to foul, stop the clock, and get possession back in hopes of evening the score by making three-point shots. To the team that's behind, time becomes more important than's the basketball equivalent of COG.

Thanks again for you insight and for bringing to light several facets of the debate we did not consider. SF, Tim



Wed, 03/28/2018 - 12:38pm

Begin Quote: 

"While US doctrine provides in-depth guidance on how forces will operate in support of the nation’s strategic and national security objectives, it is glaringly deficient regarding how long forces should be employed in support of the nation’s strategic and national security objectives."

End Quote

These "hows" seemed intertwined and the fault is actually in the strategy. The design involving observed and desired systems is at fault. Taking a linear approach with decisive conditions and objectives is an option, but not for what we have been doing in the last few decades. 

Begin Quote

“Therefore, Time is always the adversary’s Center of Gravity.”

End Quote

Here we are again at the crossroads of Clausewitz, Strange, Echevarria and others when it comes to COG analysis. The only thing time is time. All the time. 

The concept revisions are more applicable today and would dismiss “time” as a valid COG for any strategy or operation.

In COL Eikmeier’s revision, the COG is “the primary entity that inherently possesses the critical capabilities to achieve the objective.

“Logically, “COG is the primary entity, the key word being primary. Second, it has the capability to achieve the specified objective or purpose. The logic is A (primary entity) + B (capability to achieve the objective) = COG. Using these simple criteria, one can infer what is and what is not a COG.”

“Intangibles, such as moral strength, public opinion, or a righteous cause, are not COGs because they have no inherent capability for action. However, they are not without value and they can be requirements. A tangible physical agent must perform the action. This is an important distinction and highlights a key difference between my proposal, Echevarria’s, and current definitions.”

Time is not the center of gravity for an adversary waging a protracted conflict against a superior force. They are. Their ability to wield power is based on their COG analysis of us and political will as a critical vulnerability. That coupled with their capabilities and requirements allows them to use time, an operational variable, to their advantage. Time is relevant to the physical systems that are interacting.

A better analogy is “history”, not time. In the case of Afghanistan. Afghans know the occupiers will not stay based on the previous interactions of various systems. This is relevant “information” which is a measurement of probability. From those probabilities, predictions of the future can be made. 

Time is not only relative in nature, but in culture. Our time constraints are self-imposed and not the enemy's COG, but our CV. Election cycles, terms, PCS, retirements are all self-imposed. Accelerating effects for a flawed strategy or one without political ends will not beat time. Time is only counting the interactions between systems. Time literally does not pass in the same way everywhere in the world. 

What you all are suggesting sounds more like "war control" or zhànzhēng kòngzhì that includes escalation management, precision anti-access area denial, and multi-domain firepower strike capabilities across the continuum of conflict. 



Azor...thanks for the comment. From the right perspective, I think your insights actually strengthen our argument. Let me explain:

Your comment that, "... In all of these campaigns (Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq -2003 to present), there were major material deficiencies present from the outset: all were under-resourced in terms of manpower and equipment..." I absolutely agree with! But, we did this to ourselves! It was a choice we made to decide to fight a war with self-imposed limitations on our resources. Our paper argues..if not entirely coherently... that if we again choose to fight a war with self-imposed limitations, we should expect to lose. Only if we set conditions to achieve decisive victory in a very short time frame, and seek to accomplish only extremely limited goals, can a campaign against an enemy who simply has to wait for us to leave, be successful. Either that, or we go all the way, fight to the bitter end, and plan to stay forever.

Your point that, "the adversaries in the Korean, Vietnam, and Afghan wars all benefit(ed) from having bases, depots, and staging areas protected from US attack; North Korea and North Vietnam were fully supported by the Soviet Union and China" is well taken and speaks to our motivation to write this paper and engage in the debate regarding the interplay of time, space, and will. Without the will to attack at the bases and support in the USSR and China, to go "all the way", we should have been able to deduce that campaigns in Korea and Vietnam could only end in defeat...or at least not end in victory. In the instances you mention, we chose to fight half a war, while the enemy chose to fight the whole war. How could we expect to win? We shouldn't. And yet we did...and we do. And it's absurd. Although perhaps not as clearly thought and and explained as it could have been (we all have day jobs,) our paper stands on solid historical ground stating that unless the whole of the nation is committed to fighting the whole war, all the way to the finish (forever,) we'd better keep the campaign small and short...or it will end badly.

Your questioning that our, "... contention that “time” was on the side of the Confederacy and the Axis is rather curious" brings to light a great point. Time, as an ally or adversary, is all a matter of perspective. And that perspective changes as the fortunes of war change. I agree with your statement,  "Both of these adversaries (Confederacy and Axis Powers) fought to inflict a rapid and decisive defeat on US forces so as to stun the American population into acquiescence and make further resistance politically untenable; neither was capable of waiting out a US blockade or repelling the steamroller of superior US resources" but only to the point in time that the Confederates or Axis were the attackers/aggressors/occupiers/stronger forces. In the spring and summer of 1861 or 1862, Lee wanted a swift end to the war. In 1939 and 1940, the Axis certainly sought swift and decisive victory. I think your comment supports our argument that "for the attacker, the battle cannot end soon enough."

However, as the tide of battle swung in favor of the Union or the Allies, and the Confederates and Axis found themselves as the defensive/weaker/losing side, they're goal could only be to prolong the hostilities in hopes that the Union/Allies would tire and sue for peace short of unconditional surrender. By early 1864, following the failure of the Invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee was on his heels and simply fighting for time, hoping Union will would collapse before Confederate military power, and a negotiated truce which preserved the Confederacy could be realized. Likewise, the Axis in Europe traded lives for ground...and they fought desperately to prolong the war in hopes of an outcome different than complete capitulation. an ally or not absolute. In the early stages of both the wars you reference the attacker/aggressor initially sought a swift end, only to end up fighting to prolong the war once a reversal in fortune left them as the weaker force on the losing side of any armistice.

Thanks again for your comments. I think the questions you have and the objections you raise are very reasonable, and are probably held by many readers, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to see our ideas either upheld, or struck down, through rigorous intellectual debate. SF, Tim




In Response...


It is not certain that time is in and of itself a Center of Gravity.  The authors describe time as, “the adversary’s ability to extend the conflict until it achieved victory”.  Yet the authors conflate “time” with several intersecting factors that have adversely impacted the prosecution of several offensive US campaigns, specifically the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq (2003 to present).  In all of these campaigns, there were major material deficiencies present from the outset: all were under-resourced in terms of manpower and equipment; the adversaries in the Korean, Vietnam, and Afghan wars all benefit(ed) from having bases, depots, and staging areas protected from US attack; North Korea and North Vietnam were fully supported by the Soviet Union and China; in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the US government gambled that it could achieve its ambitious goals without the requisite political will.  


The authors’ contention that “time” was on the side of the Confederacy and the Axis is rather curious.  Both of these adversaries fought to inflict a rapid and decisive defeat on US forces so as to stun the American population into acquiescence and make further resistance politically untenable; neither was capable of waiting out a US blockade or repelling the steamroller of superior US resources.  The authors also seem to conflate the actual costs of war with the perceived costs of war, as a short, intense, high-end campaign would be far costlier today than the grinding insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are.  Moreover, Americans treated the costs of the Korean War very differently from the subsequent Vietnam War.  


It is not a principle that time is “clearly advantageous to the defender, or weaker force, and so clearly disadvantageous to the attacker, or stronger force”.  A prolonged war was certainly not advantageous to the Confederacy, the Central Powers, the Axis, or insurgencies against German (1939-1945) or Soviet (1939-1941; 1944-1956) occupation.  America wins wars when it fully commits to its objectives and has the requisite domestic political support.