The Enemy as a System

Colonel John A. Warden III, US Air Force


We were a different breed of cat right from the start. We flew through the air while the others walked on the ground. -- Gen Carl A. Spaatz

Spaatz's dictum is as accurate a description of airmen today as it was over a half century ago. Slightly modified, it also applies to strategic warfare because strategic warfare is a different animal than the warfare we have known throughout history.  It is not easy to understand because we need to toss out many of our ideas about war.  Furthermore, prosecuting it requires top-down thinking from the big picture to the small rather than the bottom-up thinking that serves us so well when we deal with tactical issues.

There are basically two ways to think: inductively and deductively.  The first requires gathering many small facts to see if anything can be made of them.  The second starts with general principles from which detail can be learned.  The first is tactical, the second is strategic.  In the Air Force, most of our early training involves us with inductive processes.  To become good operational artists and strategists, however, we must learn to think deductively.  A good example from the civilian world comes from a comparison of architects and bricklayers.

Architects approach a problem involving a place where people are going to live from the top down.  First, they envision a town with its areas for schools, houses, and businesses. When they have the overall plan in mind, they begin to think about what kinds of buildings will go into each area.  They decide on a style of house that they believe will meet the needs of the probable residents.  They design a house starting with general ideas of space and appearance.  At the very end of the process, they may specify brick facings and how many courses of bricks will be used.  Each step progresses from the large to the somewhat smaller until they finally have reached that level of detail that they can leave to someone else.

Think how bricklayers would approach the same problem.  Given their training, they would start with the idea of stacking bricks, but they wouldn't have any way to know how to integrate bricks with other materials or how one house would relate to another, or how the town would be divided.  In other words, you can't build a very well-organized town if you approach it from the bottom up.

The same thing applies to devising a campaign.  If you start your thinking based on the bricks in the enemy camp, it is unlikely that you will produce a coherent plan.  Conversely, if you approach it from the standpoint of large ideas about objectives and about the nature of the enemy, you have a good chance of developing something that will work.

We cannot think strategically if we start our thought process with individual aircraft, sorties, or weapons or even with the enemy's entire military forces.  Instead, we must focus on the totality of our enemy, then on our objectives, and next on what must happen to the enemy before our objectives become his objectives.  When all of this is done rigorously, we can begin to think about how we are going to produce the desired effect on the enemy the weapons, the delivery systems, and other means we will use.

As strategists and operational artists, we must rid ourselves of the idea that the central feature of war is the clash of military forces.  In strategic war, a clash may well take place, but it is not always necessary, should normally be avoided, and is almost always a means to an end and not an end in itself.

If we are going to think strategically, we must think of the enemy as a system composed of numerous subsystems.  Thinking of the enemy in terms of a system gives us a much better chance of forcing or inducing him to make our objectives his objectives and doing so with minimum effort and the maximum chance of success.

Finally, as twentieth-century strategists, we must demystify war to a considerable extent.  Napoléon and Clausewitz were right when they talked about friction, fog, and morale.  They were right, however, in a time when communications were almost nonexistent, weapons had little more range or accuracy than those of the Roman legions, most movement was at a walking pace, battles were won or lost depending on the outcome of tens of thousands of almost personal encounters between soldiers who could see each other when they fired, and war was largely confined to the clash of men or ships at a limited point in time and space.

Under these circumstances, morale was to the physical as three is to one.  In fact, the physical was largely the "physical" of the individual soldier and it was almost impossible to separate the intangibles like morale, friction, and fog from the physical.  Today the situation is significantly different; the individual fighter has become a director of large things like tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and ships.  Fighters are dependent on these things, these physical things, to carry out the mission.  Deprived of them, the ability to affect the enemy drops to near zero.  Whether the equation has changed to make the physical to be to the morale as three is to one is not clear.  That the two are at least coequal, however, seems likely.  The advent of airpower and accurate weapons has made it possible to destroy the physical side of the enemy.  This is not to say that morale, friction, and fog have all disappeared.  It is to say, however, that we can now put them in a distinct category, separate from the physical.  As a consequence, we can think broadly about war in the form of an equation:

(Physical) x (Morale) = Outcome

In today's world, strategic entities, be they an industrial state or a guerrilla organization, are heavily dependent on physical means.  If the physical side of the equation can be driven close to zero, the best morale in the world is not going to produce a high number on the outcome side of the equation.  Looking at this equation, we are struck by the fact that the physical side of the enemy is, in theory, perfectly knowable and predictable.  Conversely, the morale side -- the human side -- is beyond the realm of the predictable in a particular situation because humans are so different from each other.  Our war efforts, therefore, should be directed primarily at the physical side.

Objectives are key to success in strategic war.  When we go to war with a state or with any strategic entity,1 we must (or certainly should) have objectives, and these objectives, to be useful, must go far beyond those such as merely beating the enemy or wrecking his military forces.  (Indeed, the latter may be precisely what we don't want to do; remember, war at the strategic level is not the same as at the tactical level where defeat of the enemy's tactical forces is required almost by definition.) After all, we don't go to war merely to have a nice fight; rather, we go to war to attain something of political value to our organization.

The something that we want to attain may be as extreme as annihilation of the state or colonization of it.  At the opposite pole, we may simply want our enemy not to annihilate us.  In between is an enormous array of possibilities, a few of which follow: in the Gulf War, the US wanted Iraq out of Kuwait and wanted Iraq's power diminished to where it was no longer a threat to its neighbors; in Operation El Dorado Canyon, the US wanted Libya's Muammar Qadhafi to stop sponsoring international terrorism; in Indochina, the US wanted Vietnam to remain free of North Vietnamese and communist domination; in the American Revolutionary War, the Americans wanted to be free from Great Britain; in the War of 1898, the United States wanted to wrest Cuba and the Philippines away from Spain; and in World War II, Japan wanted to own her primary sources of raw material and energy.

At the strategic level, we attain our objectives by causing such changes to one or more parts of the enemy's physical system that the enemy decides to adopt our objectives, or we make it physically impossible for him to oppose us.  The latter we call strategic paralysis.  Which parts of the enemy system we attack (with a variety of weapons ranging from explosives to nonlethal computer viruses) will depend on what our objectives are, how much the enemy wants to resist us, how capable he is, and how much effort we are physically, morally, and politically capable of exercising.

A good place to start our examination of enemy systems is at the center.  By definition, all systems have some kind of organizing center.  The nucleus of an atom controls the orbits of the electrons just as the sun controls the motion of the planets.  In the biological world, every organism has a directing mechanism ranging from the complex human brain to the nucleus of an amoeba.  A strategic entity -- a state, a business organization, a terrorist organization -- has elements of both the physical and the biological, but at the center of these whole systems and of every subsystem is a human being who gives direction and meaning.  The ones who provide this direction are leaders, either of the whole country or some part of it.  They are the ones on which depends the functioning of every subsystem, and they are the ones who decide when they want their strategic entity to adopt-- or not to adopt -- a different set of objectives.  They, the leaders, are at the strategic center, and in strategic warfare must be the figurative, and sometimes the literal, target of our every action.


The Five-Ring Model

To make the concept of an enemy system useful and understandable, we must make a simplified model.  We all use models daily and we all understand that they do not mirror reality.  They do, however, give us a comprehensible picture of a complex phenomenon so that we can do something with it.  The best models at the strategic level are those that give us the simplest possible big picture.  As we need more detail, we expand portions of our model so that we can see finer and finer detail.  It is important, however, that in constructing our model and using it, we always start from the big and work to the small.  The model that we have found to be a good approximation of the real world is the five-ring model.  It seems to describe most systems with acceptable accuracy and it is easily expandable to get finer detail as required.  Thinking about something as large as a state is difficult, so let us start our examination of the five rings with something somewhat more familiar to us: our own bodies (table 1).

At the very center -- the personal strategic center -- is the brain.  The body can exist without a functioning brain, but under such circumstances, the body is no longer a human being, or a strategic entity.  (A strategic entity is anything that can function on its own and is free and able to make decisions as to where it will go and what it will do.) The brain provides the leadership and direction to the body as a whole and to all its parts.  It, and it alone, is absolutely essential in the sense that there can be no substitute for it and without it the body, even though technically alive, is no longer operating at a strategic level.  Included with the brain are the preceptors that allow it to gather and disseminate information internally and externally.  The eyes and other organs fall into this category.

All systems seem to require certain organic essentials -- normally some form of input energy and the facilities to convert it to another form.  For human beings, the essential inputs are food and oxygen.  Thus, next in order of priority are those organs we call vital, like the heart, the lungs, and the liver -- the ones that convert or convey food and air into something the body can use.  Without these organic essentials,2 the brain cannot perform its strategic function, and without the brain, these organs don't get the commands they need to provide integrated support.  Note here that a machine can substitute for all the vital organs; conversely, there is no machine that can take over strategic functions from the brain.

One might ask why the vital organs would not be more important than or equal to the brain.  The reason is that without the integrating, directing function of the brain, these organs are without meaning.  Conversely, the brain could theoretically be kept alive and in communication with the outside world through some form of life-support systems.  Under such circumstances, it would still be a "person" and would still be capable of influencing the outside world.  A heart without a brain, on the other hand, is a very expensive, complex pump without meaning or ability to act or to affect.

Next in order might be the infrastructure of bones, blood vessels, and muscles.  This infrastructure is important, but there is a lot of it, and the body is capable of working around problems involving it.

Continuing our examination of the body, we might next list the tens of millions of cells that carry food and oxygen around the body.  They also are important, but one can lose a fair portion and still survive.

So far, we have identified a complete system, a body that can do everything it is designed to do.  In a perfect world, it would need nothing more. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect; rather, it is filled with nasty parasites and viruses that attack the body whenever they can.  The body protects itself with specialized protective cells such as white blood cells.  They constitute the fifth and last part of our universal system model.

As we think about human bodies, we think in terms of systems; although we can assign various levels of importance to the parts of the body, the parts really constitute a system.  If any part of the system becomes incapable of functioning, it will have a more or less important effect on the rest of the body.  Interestingly, each part of the body is in turn a system.  The heart, as an example, has an internal control mechanism, uses incoming energy, has an internal network of vessels, has millions of cells to do necessary work, and has its own specialized protective cells.  So we have a strategic entity or system -- the body -- which in turn is composed of many subsystems, each one of which tends to mirror the whole entity in terms of the way it is organized.

At the other end of the spectrum is the solar system.  The sun is analogous to the brain.  It is located in the center and its gravity keeps the planets in orderly orbit.  Its organic essential is the fusion process that gives heat to the whole solar system and that maintains the sun at the appropriate size and mass.  It sends its heat and gravity through the infrastructure of space itself and the planetary orbits.  The planets themselves are analogous to the cells in a body or the people in a state.  The only thing the system lacks is the fifth component that protects the system from outside attack.  Inorganic systems, unlike organic ones, have no self-protection capability.

If some group wanted to destroy the solar system, it could do so by attacking and destroying each planet -- or, it could simply destroy the sun (or perhaps merely put a gravity shield around it if it wanted the sun for some other purpose).  With the sun gone, or its gravity blocked, all the planets would fly off into outer space and the solar system would be history.  It is useful to note that the effect on earth of the sun's destruction would not be evident for about nine minutes and that some life on earth would continue for some period of time thereafter.  (One must always assume a delay between strategic events and subsequent tactical effect.) The earth, however, would be irrelevant if the sun, its strategic center-its "brain" were to disappear.

Between the human body and the solar system in size and complexity are such human artifacts as a large electrical grid.  An electrical grid consists of a central controller, has organic essentials of energy input and conversion to create electricity, has an infrastructure of transmission lines, is populated by people who keep it functioning, and has repairmen to fix it when something breaks.

Having looked at different systems with which we have some familiarity, we recognize a similarity that carries across all of them.  The model that unfolds before us and that seems to describe a reasonable number of different systems has four basic components: central leadership or direction, organic essentials, infrastructure, and population.  In addition, all organic systems seem to have a fifth component that protects the system from outside attack or general degradation.  In other words, we have a simple model that serves as a road map to help us understand very complex processes.

If we were to start from the bottom up to understand something like an electrical system, we would have to become experts in electricity, computers, mechanics, materials, and many other subjects.  Unless that was to be our lifework, we would probably never get to the point where we really understood how everything comes together.  And electrical systems are only one of a near infinite number of systems that are of interest to the strategic thinker and war planner.  Since we can't possibly learn any of these systems in detail, we must present them in ways that allow us to gain sufficient understanding so that we can deal with them in the real worldand deal with them we must because they are our essence and the essence of our enemies.

The model built, we can look for additional similarities that apply to systems in general.  One of great significance is the apparent applicability of the second law of thermodynamics.  This natural law tells us that the inexorable movement of everything is from a state of order to a state of disorder.  Our homes are good examples of the second law in action.3  We all know that it takes great energy to make our homes orderlyand even more to slow the process of disordering.  We know that our homes are in a constant state of deterioration, from the tendency of clothes and books to "migrate" from closets and shelves and clutter the house, to the calcification of the plumbing, to the chipping of the paint.  The more complex a system, the more precarious its maintenance tends to be and the more likely that injections of energy in the wrong places will speed its natural movement toward disorderand perhaps even to chaos.


Figure 1 presents the five rings in their simplest graphical form.  Figure 2 is very similar, except it shows a variety of subsystems in orbit about the center.  It may be helpful to some to think of these orbiting subsystems as electrons; if the electrons move into a different orbit or disappear completely, the atom changes its nature.  Finally, figure 3 is another variation, but this time the circles have become ellipses.  This variation helps to show that the model is depicting a dynamic system and that all systems are not going to have precisely the same relationship among the five rings.  The five rings provide a model for systems at a macro level.  They also describe centers of gravity for a strategic entity.



Let us now see how our models apply to a strategic entity like a state or a drug cartel and how we can use them to develop campaign plans.  Before proceeding, however, it is imperative to understand that strategic war may have nothing to do with the enemy's military forces.

Strategic war is war to force the enemy state or organization to do what you want it to do.  In the extreme, it may even be war to destroy the state or organization.  It is, however, the whole system that is our target, not its military forces.  If we address the system properly, its military forces will be left as a useless appendage, no longer supported by its leadership, organic essentials, infrastructure, or population. This is not to say that we do not have to think about how to defeat an enemy military force directly.  Indeed, there will be times when its defeat is the only way to get to the strategic centers it guards; at other times, we may not have the wherewithal to attack the enemy's strategic centers.  In these cases, however, we must still understand that even the enemy military is a system that is well described by the five-ring model.  Key to our success is keeping in mind that strategists and operational artists start with the large entity, the enemy system, then work their way down to the small details as required.

Using the Five Rings for Strategic Warfare

The concept of centers of gravity is simple in concept but difficult in execution because of the likelihood that more than one center will exist at any time and that each center will have an effect of some kind on the others.  It is also important to note that centers of gravity may in some cases be only indirectly related to the enemy's ability to conduct actual military operations.  As an example, a strategic center of gravity for most states beyond the agrarian stage is the power-generation system.  Without electric power, production of civil and military goods, distribution of food and other essentials, civil and military communication, and life in general become difficult to impossible.  Unless the stakes in the war are very high, most states will make desired concessions when their power generation system is put under sufficient pressure or actually destroyed.  Even if they do not sue for peace, their loss of electric power will have a devastating effect on their strategic base, which in turn will make prosecution and support of the war extraordinarily difficult-especially if the power system is shut down quickly, in days rather than in months or years.  Note that destruction of the power system may have little short-term effect at the front -- if there is a front.

Every state and every military organization will have a unique set of centers of gravityor vulnerabilities.  Nevertheless, our five-ring model gives us a good starting point.  It tells us what detailed questions to ask, and it suggests a priority for the questions and for operationsfrom the most vital at the middle to the least vital at the outside.  These centers of gravity, which are also rings of vulnerability, are absolutely critical to the functioning of a state.

The most critical ring is the command ring because it is the enemy command structure, be it a civilian at the seat of government or a military commander directing a fleet, which is the only element of the enemy that can make concessions, that can make the very complex decisions that are necessary to keep a country on a particular course, or that can direct a country at war.  In fact, wars through history have been fought to change (or change the mind of) the command structureto overthrow the prince literally or figurativelyor, put in other words, to induce the command structure to make concessions or to make it incapable of leading.

Capturing or killing the state's leader has frequently been decisive.  In modern times, however, it has become more difficultbut not impossibleto capture or kill the command element.  At the same time, command communications have become more important than ever, and these are vulnerable to attack.  When command communications suffer extreme damage, as they did in Iraq, the leadership has great difficulty in directing war efforts; in the case of an unpopular regime, the lack of communications not only makes it difficult to keep national morale at a sufficiently high level but also facilitates rebellion on the part of dissident elements.

When the command element cannot be threatened directly, the task becomes one of applying sufficient indirect pressure so that the command element rationally concludes that concessions are appropriate, realizes that further action is impossible, or is physically deprived of the ability to continue a particular course or to continue combat. The command element will normally reach these conclusions as a result of the degree of damage imposed on the surrounding rings.  Absent a rational response by the enemy command element, it is possible to render the enemy impotentto impose strategic paralysisby destroying one or more of the outer strategic rings or centers of gravity.

The next most critical ring contains the organic essentials.  Organic essentials are those facilities or processes without which the state or organization cannot maintain itself.  It is not necessarily directly related to combat; indeed, war-related industry may not be very important qua war industry in many cases.  As an example, consider the effect on a drug cartel if its drug production comes to a halt.  Just as nothing happens instantly to the earth if the sun disappears, the drug cartel will not instantly go up in smoke.  It is quite clear, however, that the system must either change dramatically or perish.

On a state level, the growth in the size of cities around the world and the necessity for electricity and petroleum products to keep a city functioning have put these two commodities in the essential class for most states.  If a state's organic essentials-whether generated internally or importedare destroyed, life itself becomes difficult and the state becomes incapable of employing modern weapons and must make major concessions, which could be as little as forswearing offensive operations outside its own borders.  Depending on the size of the state and the importance it attaches to its objectives, even minor damage to essential industries may lead the command element to make concessions.  The concessions may come because of:

The number of organic-essential targets in even a large state is reasonably small and each of the targets in subsystems such as power production and petroleum refining is fragile.4

The third most critical ring is the infrastructure ring.  It contains the enemy state's transportation systemthe system that moves civil and military goods and services around the state's entire area of operations.  It includes rail lines, airlines, highways, bridges, airfields, ports, and a number of other similar systems.  It contains the majority of a state's industry because most of its industry does not fall in the organic-essential category.  For both military and civil purposes, it is necessary to move goods, services, and information from one point to another.  If this movement becomes impossible, the state system quickly moves to a lower energy level, and thus to a lesser ability to resist the demands of its enemy.  Compared to organic-essential systems, there are more infrastructure facilities and more redundancy; thus, a greater effort may be required to do enough damage to have an effect.

The fourth most critical ring is the population.  Moral objections aside, it is difficult to attack the population directly.  There are too many targets, and, in many cases, especially in a police state, the population may be willing to suffer grievously before it will turn on its own government.  Indirect attack on the population, such as North Vietnam used against the United States, may be especially effective if the target country has a relatively low interest in the outcome of the war.  As the North Vietnamese showed, it is entirely possible to create conditions that lead the civilian population of the enemy to call on its government to change the state's policies.  The North Vietnamese accomplished their aims by raising American military casualty levels higher than the American people would tolerate.  Almost certainly there are actions that can be taken to induce any enemy civilian population to offer some degree of resistance to its government's policies.  It is tough to determine what those actions might be because humans are so unpredictable.  As part of an overall effort to alter the enemy system, an indirect approach to the population is probably worthwhile; one should not, however, count on it.

Early air theorists such as Giulio Douhet thought that wars could be won by inflicting such casualties on the civilian population that morale would break with subsequent capitulation.  Historically, of course, he was on solid ground; besieged cities have normally surrendered when the pain and suffering became too much for the civilians to bear.  Many have argued, however, that the bombing of Britain and Germany in World War II actually stiffened civilian morale.  While there is certainly no evidence to support such an improbable claim, the evidence is quite clear that neither British nor German civilian morale fell to the point where the respective governments were forced to surrender.

That morale did not collapse in Britain and Germany is no proof that a different approach wouldn't lead to different results in different places and times.  As an example, Iraqi terror attacks on Iran certainly affected civilian morale and almost certainly led the Iranian government to agree to an armistice with Iraq.  Again, let us reiterate that we hold direct attacks on civilians to be morally reprehensible and militarily difficult.  That, however, will not keep someone else from trying it against us or one of our friends. It is something that has existed since time immemorial and isn't likely to go away in the near future.

The last ring holds the fielded military forces of the state.  Although we tend to think of military forces as being the most vital in war, in fact they are means to an end.  That is, their only function is to protect their own inner rings or to threaten those of an enemy.  A state can certainly be led to make concessions by reducing its fielded military forces -- and if all of its fielded forces are destroyed, it may have to make the ultimate concession simply because the command element knows that its inner rings have become defenseless and liable to destruction.

Viewing fielded forces as means to an end and not necessarily important in themselves is not a classical viewin large part because the majority of the classical writing and thinking on warfare has been done by continental soldiers who had no choice but to contend with enemy armies.  Modern technology now, however, makes possible new and politically powerful options that in fact can put fielded forces into the category of means and not ends.

In most cases, all the rings exist in the order presented, but it may not be possible to reach more than one or two of the outer ones with military means.  By the end of 1943, for example, the Germans in World War II were incapable of making serious attack on anything but the fourth and fifth rings (population and fielded forces) of their primary enemies; they did not have a useful long-range attack capability.  The Japanese could attack only the fifth ring (fielded forces) of their primary enemies.  Conversely, the United States and the Allies could attack every German and Japanese ring of vulnerability. The Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War had an even more difficult problem: they could not reach any of their principal foe's strategic rings unless the United States chose to put its fielded forces in harm's way.  For such states that cannot employ military weapons against their enemy's strategic centers, the only recourse is indirect attack through psychological or unconventional warfare.

It is imperative to remember that all actions are aimed against the mind of the enemy command or against the enemy system as a whole.  Thus, an attack against industry or infrastructure is not primarily conducted because of the effect it might or might not have on fielded forces.  Rather, it is undertaken for its direct effect on the enemy system, including its effect on national leaders and commanders who must assess the cost of rebuilding, the effect on the state's economic position in the postwar period, the internal political effect on their own survival, and whether the cost is worth the potential gain from continuing the war.  The essence of war is applying pressure against the enemy's innermost strategic ringits command structure.  Military forces are a means to an end.  It is pointless to deal with enemy military forces if they can be bypassed by strategy or technology either in the defense or offense.

One additional point needs to be made about the five rings.  They are in the order presented for several reasons: the most important is in the middle (World War II Germany continued to resist, however ineffectually, until Hitler died); there is an increase in numbers of people or facilities moving from the center to the fourth ring (one or two leaders, a few dozen organic essentials, many infrastructure facilities, and a large number of people); and the theoretical vulnerabilities decrease from the inside to the outside -- largely due to numbers involved.  The fifth ring is actually smaller in number than the fourth ring of population, but it is theoretically less vulnerable to direct attack simply because it is designed to be so.  A relative handful of bombs around Qadhafi drove him to make concessions; that same number falling on his tanks would have been inconsequential.

Although we discussed earlier the idea that strategic war is different from our popular view of war, it is such a difficult concept to grasp that it bears another discussion.  We can take ourselves back to a mythical, but logically plausible, early world where all men lived in peace.  That is, they lived in peace until one group decided it wanted something that a neighboring community had and was going to take it.  That something, of course, by definition lay within the four innermost rings; perhaps it was food, perhaps it was some part of the infrastructure, or perhaps it was the people themselves.

That first war was certainly successful because there was no fifth ring to defend the inner four.  (Despite the lack of armed forces clashing, it was every bit as much a war as any that took place subsequently.) The attacked community, however, quickly remedied the situation and created a force, a fifth ring, to defend the inner four.  Our point is simple: strategic war came first, and it was only after the widespread creation of fifth-ring military forces that we began to think about war as the clash of those forces. Logic, of course, says that the purpose of war, if it is to be anything more than a sideshow, is to do something to the enemy's inner rings or to prevent him from doing something to yours.  If this is the case, then clearly our planning should be based on affecting or defending inner rings at the earliest and least costly opportunity.  We should only deign to do classical battle if we have no choice.

Before continuing, we must ask ourselves if there exist states or organizations that do not have all five rings or centers of gravity.  Our basic answer is no, simply because our five rings are merely a model of the real world of systems built around life-forms of any type.  On the other hand, the relative importance of the outer four rings (the leadership ring is by necessity always of paramount importance) has changed over time.  In addition, vulnerabilities of the rings clearly change from one societal system and one historical period to another.

As an example, when William the Conqueror developed his campaign plan for the conquest of England, he would not have identified organic essentials, infrastructure, or the population as centers of gravity against which he could hope to operate with decisive results.  His target had to be the center ring -- King Harold himself.  He had neither the time nor the resources to deal with population, infrastructure, or organic essentials.  Consequently, he aimed directly for Harold, who was protected by his fifth-ring army.  (At that time in history, the leader and the army were frequently one and the same.)  When Harold fell to a high-trajectory arrow, William had accomplished his strategic objective. Today, the problem is more difficult because it is rarely possible to operate directly and successfully against a single organization leader.  Therefore, it will normally be necessary to strike at several of the inner rings.

The utility of the five-ring model may be somewhat diminished in circumstances where an entire people rises up to conduct a defensive battle against an invader.  If the people are sufficiently motivated, they may be able to fight for an extended period by using the resources naturally available to them.  This occasionally happens when the invader is so terrible that people see no hope if they surrender.  When people do fight to the last, they are fighting as individuals and in essence each person becomes a strategic entity unto himself.  While such may be possible for the defense, it is not for the offense.  It is a special case, and one definitely not to be confused with Maoist ideas on guerrilla warfare in which the guerrilla organization is well described by the five rings.

To this point, we have discussed centers of gravity that are strategic because they are principal parts of the enemy system.  Ideally, a commander will attack centers of gravity as close as possible to the leadership ring of the five rings.  He may, however, be forced to deal with the enemy's fielded military forces because he cannot reach strategic centers without first removing enemy defenses because enemy forces are threatening his own strategic or operational centers of gravity or because his political masters will not permit him to attack strategic centers.  In these cases, he must view his enemy military forces as systems and go through the same analysis that he did when he was dealing with the enemy as a whole.  What does one do when it is necessary to deal with the enemy's military forces for whatever reason?

Centers of gravity exist not only at the strategic level but also at the operational leveland, indeed, are very similar.  At the operational level, the goal is still to induce the enemy operational-level commander to make concessions such as retreating, surrendering, or giving up an offense.  Like the state command structure, however, the operational commander has rings of vulnerability -- or centers of gravity -- surrounding him.  In fact, each major element of his command will also have similar centers of gravity.

At the operational level, the first ring or center of gravity is the commander himself.  He is the target of operations either directly or indirectly because he is the one who will decide to concede something to the enemy.  Included in his center ring is his central command, control, and communications system; without the ability to collect information and issue orders to his subordinates, the commander-and his command-are in peril.  As at the strategic level, however, the likelihood of physically seizing or paralyzing the command ring is relatively small; thus, recourse to the operational rings, or centers of gravity, surrounding the operational-level commander may be necessary.

The next operational ring is the organic-essentials ring (which at the operational level may be thought of as logistics) because it contains the essentials of combat-the ammunition, the fuel, and the food without which modern war cannot be prosecuted.  A cursory review of history quickly reveals the dire straits that operational-level commanders have encountered when their logistics ring suffered from enemy attack.  Indeed, war in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in large measure designed around isolating a commander from his logistics ring.  Experience on both sides in the Gulf War, as well as in the study of operational-level petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) distribution in the Soviet army, shows that the problem of providing key logistics support for a large-scale offensive has become incredibly more difficult than ever in the annals of warfare.  The difficulty and complexity, however, make attack of this center of gravity easier and more decisive than even in World War II, where much equipment was still moved by horse-drawn vehicles5 and where total requirements per man in the field were a fraction of what they are today.

An infrastructure is necessary to move the materiel found in the organic-essentials ring as well as fielded military forces themselves--and this infrastructure is the third operational ring.  It consists of roads, airways, seaways, rails, communications lines, pipelines, and a myriad of other facilities needed to employ fielded forces.

None of the three inner rings will function without personnel to staff them, and these support personnel constitute the fourth operational ring.  Like the population in the fourth strategic ring, however, these personnel present difficult targets and will rarely be appropriate for direct attack.

The fifth and last ring of the operational commander is his fielded forces -- his aircraft, his ships, and his troops.  The fifth ring is the toughest to reduce, simply because it is designed to be tough.  As a general rule, a campaign that focuses on the fifth ring (either by choice or because no alternatives exist) is likely to be the longest and bloodiest for both sides.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes appropriate to concentrate against the fifth ring, and sometimes it may be necessary to reduce the fifth ring to some extent in order to reach inner operational or strategic rings.

Parallel Attack

The most important requirement of strategic attack is understanding the enemy system. The system understood, the next problem becomes one of how to reduce it to the desired level or to paralyze it if required.  Parallel attack will normally be the preferred approach, unless there is some cogent reason to prolong the war.

States have a small number of vital targets at the strategic level -- in the neighborhood of a few hundred with an average of perhaps 10 aimpoints per vital target.  These targets tend to be small, very expensive, have few backups, and are hard to repair.  If a significant percentage is struck in parallel, the damage becomes insuperable.  Contrast parallel attack with serial attack in which only one or two targets come under attack in a given day (or longer).  The enemy can alleviate the effects of serial attack by dispersal over time, by increasing the defenses of targets that are likely to be attacked, by concentrating his resources to repair damage to single targets, and by conducting counteroffensives.  Parallel attack deprives him of the ability to respond effectively, and the greater the percentage of targets hit in a single blow, the more nearly impossible his response.

Parallel attack has not been possible on any appreciable scale in the past because a commander had to concentrate his forces in order to prevail against a single vulnerable part of the enemy's forces.  If he prevailed, he could reconcentrate and move on to attack another point in the enemy's defenses.  The process of concentrating and reconcentrating was normally lengthy and one that the enemy worked hard to foil.  This process, better understood when labeled "serial warfare," permitted maneuver and countermaneuver, attack and counterattack, and movement and pause.  It also gave rise to the phenomenon known as the culminating point in campaigns -- that point at which the campaign is in near equilibrium where the right effort on either side can have significant effect.  All of our thinking on war is based on serial effects, on ebb and flow.  The capability to execute parallel war, however, makes that thinking obsolete.

Technology has made possible the near simultaneous attack on every strategic- and operational-level vulnerability of the enemy.  This parallel process of war, as opposed to the old serial form, makes very real what Clausewitz called the ideal form of war, the striking of blows everywhere at the same time.  For Clausewitz, the ideal was a Platonian shadow on the back of the cave wall, never to be known by mortals.  The shadow has materialized and nothing will be the same again.


Strategic warfare provides the most positive resolution of conflicts.  To execute it well, however, we must reverse our normal method of thinking; we must think from the big to the small, from the top down.  We must think in terms of systems; we and our enemies are systems and subsystems with mutual dependencies.  Our objective will almost always involve doing something to reduce the effectiveness of the overall system, if you will, to make it more susceptible to the infectious ideas we want to become part of it.  At the same time, we must take necessary action to ensure that the enemy does not do unacceptable damage to our system or any of its subsystems.

We must not start our thinking on war with the tools of war-with the airplanes, tanks, ships, and those who crew them.  These tools are important and have their place, but they cannot be our starting point, nor can we allow ourselves to see them as the essence of war.  Fighting is not the essence of war, nor even a desirable part of it.  The real essence is doing what is necessary to make the enemy accept our objectives as his objectives.


1. Strategic entities are really our subject matter with a nation-state being a type of strategic entity. A strategic entity is any organization that can operate autonomously; that is, it is self-directing and self-sustaining. A state is a strategic entity as is a criminal organization like the Mafia or business organizations like General Motors. Conversely, neither an army nor an air force is a strategic entity because they are neither self-sustaining nor self-directing. This is an important distinction in itself. Of most importance here, however, is that our discussion of strategic centers and strategic warfare is as applicable to a guerrilla organization as to a modern industrial state.

2. Those familiar with the five-ring model used to develop the initial Gulf War air campaign plan will recognize a name change at this point from key production to "organic essentials." It has always been clear that there were certain facilities or processes so important to a state that they required a specific label and class. Thus, we identified the production of electricity and petroleum products as "key production" because we believed that taking them away from a state which had them would transform the state into something quite different and far less powerful. Many people, however, had difficulty distinguishing between key production, normal production, and infrastructure. I believe the name change to organic essentials (meaning they are part and parcel of the system and essential to its survival in its current state) should help clear up this problem. In addition, as the similarity between many different types of systems becomes clearer, organic essentials seems to have more universal applicability.

3. With thanks to Stephen Hawking and his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).

4. Superficially, Allied attacks on German industry in World War II would seem to contradict the idea that essential industry is fragile. In that conflict, however, bombing accuracy was not good; more than half of all bombs dropped missed their targets by well over a thousand yards. When accuracies are improved to where more than half of all bombs fall within a few feet of their target, as did the majority of those aimed at petroleum and electric targets in Iraq, it becomes clear that what took thousands of sorties and many tons of bombs can now be accomplished with orders-of-magnitude less effort.

5. Well over a third of German transport used on the offensive against the Soviets in 1941 was horse-drawn. Likewise, the supplies needed to keep Patton's entire Third Army on the offensive in 1944 would barely support a single corps today. The proliferation of motor vehicles, communications equipment, and doctrine demanding high rates of fire has perhaps created more problems than it has solved for an offensive army.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense or the United States.