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Home » Thinkers » J. C. Wylie » Military Strategy: A general theory of power control by J. C. Wylie » Excerpt from J. C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: Control and the center of gravity

Excerpt from J. C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: Control and the center of gravity


RADM J.C. Wylie

Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie

From Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of the war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

This was purposely a very general statement. If we accept the premise that a strategy is a plan for doing something in order to achieve some known end, then it seems an adequately precise postulation. The aim of any strategy—land, sea, air, diplomatic, economic, social, political, a game of poker, or the way of a man with a maid—is to exercise some kind or degree of control over the target of the strategy, be it friend, neutral, or opponent. I have used the word “control” because I can’t find a better. The vocabulary is not wholly adequate to the need. In many cases, “influence” might be more nearly the word; less often it could even be “dominance”. Take your choice, or find other words that better fit your situation. I have settled on “control” simply as an umbrella to cover the full span of possibilities.

In the case of maritime strategy (which was understandably my first interest), the aim is the extension of control from the sea onto the land. Note here that the more frequently discussed control-of-the-sea is a necessary prelude, a means, to this end. And remember also that the control extended from the sea on to the land, which is where people live, can be political, or economic, or psychological, or military, or any combination of various pressures toward control. It can be direct or subtle,  overt or covert, or immediate or slow or delayed in its working. And, again, some forms of it might be more accurately described as direct or indirect influence.

Probably the most slippery and lease precise bit of this postulated theory has to do with “manipulation of the center of gravity”, or control of “the nature and the placement and the timing of the center of gravity”. Another way to say this is that the strategist needs some leverage to induce or force the other fellow to accede, wholly or in part, to what the strategist wants.

The President, seeking a particular piece of legislation from the Congress, may adopt a strategy in which his leverages include both a carrot (to induce) and a stick (to force) in hopes of reaching some mutually acceptable agreements.

The diplomat engaged is arms control or trade negotiations follows essentially the same path in his strategy.

The man a-wooing the maid uses as his leverage the carrot.

The armed force at war depends on the stick.

And that brings up another matter. The principle stick available to armed forces is some kind of destruction. The correlation between destruction and control, which varies widely from one situation to another, has been emotionally neglected in public discussions of military strategy.

It is not too difficult for an army on a battlefield to resolve one aspect of this: just use a bazooka and destroy that tank. With one less enemy tank, the army is a little closer to control of the battlefield.

In my own profession, we can often use the same reasoning: sink a hostile ship or submarine and we are that much closer to control of that part of the sea.

The Air Force problem (and the Navy for some of this, too) quickly gets more difficult the farther it reaches beyond the battlefield. The tank shot up by a plane in “close interdiction” just substitutes the aircraft weapon for the bazooka. But what about the so-called “deep interdiction” and “strategic bombing”? How, and how much, do these destructions contribute to the control that is the aim of war? Monday-morning quarterbacks today still question the Dresden and Hamburg firestorms and (to my private fury since most of them were not then living, much less at risk) noisily question not only the need but morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Here let me clearly state that, by bringing up these matters, I am not automatically opposing “deep interdiction” or “strategic bombing” or opposing nuclear missiles in submarines or silos…What I am trying to do is indicate this basic aspect of the use of armed force, which necessarily involves many different kinds and degrees of destruction, needs a lot more thought and analysis than I think it has had either in public or in organizational privacy.

What are the relationships, the correlations, between destruction and control? What will this show of force (which is potential destruction) or that segment of actual destruction contribute, directly or indirectly, now or later, to the control we seek as our aim in peace or war? Only by facing up to that kind of question, clinically rather than emotionally, can we move from profligacy toward efficiency in the planning and conduct of war…


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