Center of Gravity: a New Ethical Decision Point for Just War Theory

Captain Maxwell Thibodeaux


            The principles of war are the axiomatic assumptions that we make about sound strategy. These principles drive our strategy decisions. Thus, it’s not difficult to predict the future of warfare if we stick to the axiomatic principles that have reliably determined how we fight—Principles of Command Unity, Objective, Mass, Maneuver, Economy of Force, Surprise, Security etc. We can safely say that all proper strategies will maximize and harmonize these principles with the goal of winning honorably. In any war these principles will be operative and will determine the tactical outcome of all battles over time.

            To a certain extent this foundational portrait that I am painting for you is already frayed around the edges because the advent of nuclear and missile technologies. These technologies have made at least some of these immutable principles mutable. For instance, there is no form of maneuver that will save a country from the devastation of a nuclear attack, except perhaps political maneuvering.

            Thus, morally speaking the technological innovation of nuclear weapons has thrown a wrench into the system. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and morality has thrown a wrench into the efficacy of nuclear weapons use. I tend to think that the second statement is at least as true as the first one. In the current analysis of this tension between nuclear weapons and the morality of war prudent nations have come to the conclusion that there is no way to wage a moral war with nuclear weapons. The longstanding moral principles of discrimination and proportionality stand in our way. We’ve been to the precipice, looked over, and turned back. This is not to ignore the hot issue of missile defense, but it’s difficult to see the aim of missile defense as anything but a lid on the deadliness of nuclear technology. Thus missile defense is not an iteration of technology, but more of a technology recall on the deadliest of our current weapons systems.

            The newest innovation that affects the traditional view of morality in war is a new paradigm in war fighting labeled Information Operations. The newness of Information Operations is very controversial just now. The issue is whether it departs from the traditional ways of waging war, or just consists of a rehash of axiomatic principles long in effect, e.g. maintaining your own command and control while disrupting your enemy’s command and control and intelligence gathering. My view is that the form of information operations that the US is oriented towards is indeed at least a new moral development if it’s not a strategic one. Perhaps this would not be true, except for the confluence of Information Operations with Center of Gravity Doctrine.

            These two 21st century buzzwords combine to produce a moral minefield if we take the Just War Tradition seriously. This is so because Information Operations’ primary target is not field forces, but in order of importance—Leadership, System Essentials, Infrastructure, Population, and Fielded Forces.[1]  This is according to the Cyber Sword, a publication of the U.S. Army Joint Command and Control Warfare Center. Indeed the view is that fielded forces are the outer ring in the enemy target. Their “only function is to protect their own inner rings or to threaten those [rings] of an enemy.”[2]  This publication goes on to suggest that “Modern technology, such as air-delivered projectiles and information weapons … makes possible new and politically powerful options that make traditional fielded forces of little value or concern.”[3]  The only conclusion to be drawn here is that since the advent of the information operations/center of gravity doctrine, soldiers are no longer restricted to engaging combatants. Instead we are to conduct a systems analysis that includes all of those systems which are crucial to the functioning of an enemy power, and we’re to target whichever one is most vulnerable.

            Indeed we expect the same kind of targeting from our potential enemies. President Clinton’s Decision Directive 63 states that “because of our military strength, future enemies, whether nations, groups or individuals, may seek to harm us in non-traditional ways including … non-traditional attacks on our infrastructure and informational systems.”[4]  In this same document President Clinton emphasizes the interdependence of public and private systems. He writes that the “United States possesses both the world’s strongest military and its largest national economy. Those two aspects of our power are mutually reinforcing and dependent. They are also increasingly reliant upon certain critical infrastructures and upon cyber-based information systems.”[5]  Add to this the current trend of privatizing government, and you have significantly altered the landscape of the public private split. Instead of two separate entities, one inherently military and one inherently non-military, we have one system that goes under the moniker the “Public-Private Partnership.”[6]

            The problem here is that this new outlook clouds the jus in bello concept of moral warfare in two ways. First, the concept of discrimination which historically limits the use of force to combatants becomes more difficult to apply in practice. Second the concept of proportionality and the limiting principle of military necessity that expresses proportionality is also obscured. However, I do not think that this is quite the diabolical course of events that it sounds like at first blush, or else the title of my paper might have been “The Crisis in Just War Tradition”. But, if we understand the current state of affairs correctly and they continue unabated, we find ourselves as military professionals at a fundamental decision point. If we wish to keep the Just War Tradition relevant, we must shift the paradigm to accommodate this new outlook or abandon this moral tradition altogether. This paradigm shift is the subject of this brief paper.

            I limit the breadth of the paper to three goals, and I’m going to sacrifice some depth in the interest of your interest. First I want to lay out the context and causes for this new moral decision point. This is where I’ll spend the most time. Secondly I’ll make the combined implications of the COG concept and the concept of information operations as concrete as possible. Finally I’ll try to provoke some thought about the moral alternatives for the future or warfare.


Context and Causes

            The current Army doctrine enjoins us to “be capable of full-dimensional operations. This means employing all means available to accomplish any given mission decisively and at the least cost—across the full range of possible operations in war and in operations other than war (emphasis added).”[7]  The least cost language is ambiguous here, but it connotes at least two things. It corresponds to the Center of Gravity Doctrine and the Information Operations targeting priority. Colonel Warden, who was the “architect for the successful Gulf War air Campaign” expresses this concept of economy best when he remarks, “To change the system by smashing at its outer ramparts is likely to be expensive and time consuming. On the other hand, when we understand that a system consists of subsystems, or centers of gravity, we begin to see that changing the system may be much easier than it first appeared.”[8]  In other words, the Center of Gravity Doctrine is a rearticulation of the economy of force principle. There has been a great deal of wrangling over what exactly a COG is, and branches have only recently begun to reach a common vision. Most simply put, COG Doctrine dictates that force is directed at critical vulnerabilities which represent pillars of strength for the enemy. They are those targets that represent the best possible and the most economic defeat of the enemy.

            An appropriate analogy for explaining what this means in ordinary terms is the metaphor of the boxer. The boxer sizes up his opponent and strikes at the glass chin, or the weak stomach—whatever seems to be the accessible vulnerability that will lead to his opponent’s defeat. He dances around the ring when his opponents brawn is concentrated in his arms and chest. He does this so that he can deny the opponent’s most deadly abilities. This is precisely what any military body seeks to accomplish in time of war. To the extent that attacking a center of gravity saves us time, physical toil, or manpower and loss of life, its use is mandated—required—inescapable. To the extent that technology can minimize these burdens, its use is necessary not just for the money it saves, but for the life that is at stake.

            This does not indicate a break with the law of land warfare for instance, because to a great extent, the law of land warfare accepts militarily necessary attacks on the infrastructure if the infrastructure is directly related to combat power, e.g., munitions factories. The U.S. has already begun to walk the fine line of attacking infrastructure that may or may not be directly related to combat power. In fact, we’ve widened our definition of directly contributes to combat power to include those mechanisms that affect the will of the civilian population as well as the military population, e.g., PSYOPS, misinformation, disinformation, breaking national communication networks, roads, financial systems, and power sources. Already the Army is deeply committed to the concept of information warfare. There is even a new functional area for field grade Army officers called the information operations career field. The advent of information operations is a primary cause leading us to the current decision point.

            There are two other influential factors. One is the technology and the other is the media. The fact that technology and computer systems are now an integral part in both the military and civilian infrastructure, that they are largely one in the same as in the case of roads and telecommunications, means that breaking military technology will almost surely mean breaking non-combatant technology. This is because the U.S. is one of the leading proponents of globilization, i.e., modern transportation and communications infrastructures facilitate a global economy where the means of production need not be located inside a country’s borders. This allows many countries to substitute technology for the means of production. For example, it’s no longer very profitable to manufacture steel in the U.S. We simply requisition and import what we need. Modern information systems (cyber-systems) allow us to coordinate the markets and commodities in such a way that we need not physically own or control the means of production.

            This sounds fine until we recognize that this also means that disrupting the global coordination that it takes to get X essential commodity to market or into a production cycle is as simple as interrupting the communications. So one doesn’t have to blow up bridges or sink ships to affect the center of gravity that is manufacturing or food production or steel raw material. An increasing reliance on technology instead of physical systems means greater vulnerability. Hence, the economy of communications disruption takes the place of physical force. This kind of attack is fairly conventional and raises no moral questions when aimed at an inherently military target, I have already indicated how this is problematic. For instance, the U.S. currency is traded in the open markets, and it is not backed up by anything physical. I’ll get to this in more detail later. It’s sufficient at this time to suggest that the increasing reliance on technology for life sustainment and system sustainment is an issue.

            Technology has another influence on the current moral decision point in that it is becoming easier to implement non-lethal weapons. This affects the efficacy of discriminating between combatants and non-combatants. This is so because it may sometimes be economic and morally attractive to use non-lethal force against non-combatants if the alternative is lethal force against military forces. The problem here is that the Just War principle of discrimination does not allow this. The open question is whether it does not allow it because it is immoral or because this kind of technology would not have been effective in winning a war. It’s also possible that the whole moral equation ought to consider only the disutility across the system instead of the bifurcation of combatants and non-combatants.

            The media is a third influential factor although it requires less explanation. The pervasiveness of the media and its power to shape its audience’s view of a political situation are vast. I’ve suggested here that the confluence of doctrines—center of gravity/information operations (full spectrum dominance) the media and new technology are the context for the ethical decision point. They change the nature of target legitimacy by shifting the means of war into the realm of less discriminate warfare. The new targets are considered centers of gravity regardless of their historical status because less lethal generally opens the way for more aggressive action, especially in the case of a mixed public/private infrastructure.


Implications of COG and Info Ops

            What’s at stake is a reinterpretation of the traditional morality of war. We can say with confidence that the traditional rule of discrimination is that a soldier violates the morality of war when he uses lethal force directly on the non-combatant. But what is less certain is the extent of non-combatant immunity. After all, the political measures of blockade and economic sanctions preceed  the resort to war. There is also precedent for the military siege. However, the destruction of public utilities can be considered tantamount to indirect biological warfare. When sanitation plants cannot treat sewage, and hospitals cannot treat the sick because of intentional sabotage of power plants, the center of gravity may be thrown out of kilter, but this kind of attack is akin to weapons of mass destruction. Now that the emphasis is on centers of gravity that are only tangentially the defeat of military forces, the danger is that attacking non-combatant centers of gravity will become a legitimate option—even a doctrinal requirement for military commanders. The laws of war stipulate that foodstuffs may only be destroyed if they are solely intended for soldiers. Perhaps the way to insure that the devastation that information operations can generate is kept in check is to hold the line on all other quasi-military information networks and infrastructure. Of course this is not be a realistic goal if it makes waging of war impossible. Two areas that are specifically exempted from attack and yet are part of a center of gravity operations plan would be assassination of a head of state and the destruction or incapacitation of inherently non-military targets. Because these targets are off-limits by virtue of the law of land warfare there would seem to be no cause for concern; however, the problem is that there may not be any inherently non-military heads of state and no non-military targets in the new economy.  

            Still, it’s difficult initially to sort out the pie in the sky implications of information warfare from the reality of the situation. I’d like to suggest a realistic thought experiment to make the situation more concrete. The purpose of the thought experiment will be both to suggest an information attack that anyone can understand, and to show how such an attack might be problematic for the Just War Tradition to sort out. Suppose sovereign leader X contacts the national command authority of the U.S. to announce that her country has declared cyberwar on the U.S. Her announcement is:

Text Box: Ø	Ø      Since the pursuit of remedies in the international community of the U.N have gone long unanswered, sovereign nation X hereby declares that a limited cyberstrike has been effected by military operatives inside the U.S. against a predominantly military target—USAA Federal Savings Bank. Ø	Ø      Sixty billion dollars has been electronically transferred to a Swiss Bank and withdrawn in gold bullion as of 1200 hours Eastern Standard time. Ø	Ø      The sovereign government further declares this remedy is just recompense for lost financial gains as a result of a multi-year economic embargo pursued almost exclusively and unilaterally by the U.S. government and backed up by U.S. military dominance.Ø	Ø      Furthermore, sovereign nation X demands the immediate and unconditional surrender of the U.S. in this cyberwar.Ø	Ø      It’s further stipulated that: ·	·        If the U.S. attempts to locate the source of the attack. This will be interpreted as a counter-attack and a continuation of belligerency. The result will be two-fold.·	·        The details of the attack and it’s success will be made public to the international community—thus affecting the confidence in the American financial system, and almost certainly necessitating the propping up of the American Currency (A prospect that could cost several times the current damages.)·	·        More attacks will take place on other parts of the U.S. infrastructure which supports it’s military industrial complex. This means primarily power facilities, but also could be the financial system.·	·        However, no further attacks will be necessary unless the U.S. seeks to further cripple our own economic well-being. In such a case future attacks will be necessary and justified.·	·        Nation X only intends to seek proper monetary compensation, not the loss of life or undue payment.

            The U.S.’s first inclination might be to call this international terrorism or blackmail, but terrorism is marked by illegitimate authority and its execution by  illegitimate non-professional soldiers. Mercenaries or self-proclaimed freedom fighters carry out terrorism. Also terrorism usually targets civilians brutally and directly for greatest effect. In this case, we have soldiers of a sovereign nation carrying out the proportional and fairly discriminate attacks. One could quibble about USAA not being a solely military institution, but it is a self-proclaimed service begun for the benefit of military members, and it serves mostly those who are or were affiliated with the military.

Text Box: 1.	Legitimate authority: the attack is ordered by the country’s leader.2.	Just Cause: cause is the unjust American embargo which has resulted in tens of thousands of undernourished and starving women and children. 3.	Just Intent: to exact just remuneration for an unjust and indiscriminate economic attack.4.	Last Resort: country X has pursued remedies in the international community for a period of ten years, and has come up empty handed5.	Declaration6.	Chance of success: in a sense the attack has already succeeded.
            Likewise, we could hardly call this blackmail because the belligerent has already received payment, and has proclaimed that it intends no further action unless more injustice should occur. In a sense this act of cyberwar conforms to our ideas of a Just War in that it could in every valid sense conform to the principles of jus ad bellum.

            If we look at how the war is executed more closely we’ll notice that it is not the most discriminate attack possible. Nation X could simply declare a conventional war on the U.S. and fight things out soldier to soldier. But economy of force and chance of success dictate a less discriminating, asymetrical attack. The best tactical course of action for nation X is to strike with a force that is invisible with a means that levels the military playing field against a nation with such vast conventional might. Thus, in this situation the new technology—network attack, aims at an American center of gravity—our wallets. Our society, which derives its might largely from its technologically advanced reliance on computer systems and technology is utterly vulnerable to this kind of attack Our financial system is only as secure as its network of computers. There is no gold backed currency to rely on. Instead we are utterly dependent upon the full faith and credit of our good name and its worth in the currency markets. But if soldier-hackers can exploit weaknesses in the system, we are vulnerable in spite of, and because of our technological society.

            For those of you who find this far-fetched, think over the recent events. No system is perfectly secure. Recent events include; trading losses as a result of false information being reported in the stock market; a Microsoft break-in that may have resulted in the code for Microsoft’s Operating System being stolen; and most recently I received a message that’s credit card database had been broken into. There aren’t any secure computers because there is no completely secure operating system, and the network interconnection between computers only exacerbates the problem. A common saying is that the only secure computer is one that is melted down, encased in a slab of concrete and buried in a secret location—but such a computer is of no use. Every computer that is useful must be interconnected. Codes and ciphers are made to be broken.



            You may suppose now that I have made a good case for why the new technology and the COG doctrine do not affect the efficacy of the Just War Tradition, which is the moral lens that has informed our view of morality in war for hundreds of years. However, consider now that there is no possible proportional offensive response to the network attack that I’ve hypothesized. The reasons for this are as follows.

            1. The courses of action are to manifold, but any overt response to the attack must either be indiscriminate ( as in a nuclear attack on the whole country) or disproportional ( because any action would likely cost us much more money than the attack).

            2.  If we decide to respond overtly and the fact that another country has successfully tapped one of our federal savings banks, the cost is disproportionate to the loss. Certainly it would cost much more than 60 billion to prop up the dollar in the international market when it is known that significant amounts can be extracted from our federal savings banks. Even if we were to cut a deal with the Swiss to monitor all transfers to their banks, any transfer of funds could be sufficiently cloaked. We cannot halt the transactions and economies around the world even if we tried. Large amounts of money and many smaller amounts could be transferred anywhere in the network. Two million $500 dollar ATM transactions would appear as a everyday commerce. Keep in mind that ATMs operate across borders and overseas. Who knows what schemes nation X has cooked up.

3.   3.   Suppose now that we came to the conclusion that our financial networks were too important of an asset to surrender to these hooligans. What recourse do we have? We could send a nuclear attack to wipe the country off the face of the earth, but then this would be an indiscriminate solution to say the least. Indeed the attacks could be coming from inside our own borders.


            If it’s the case that these attacks are themselves moral, but any offensive counter to them is immoral, then we are forced to modify or reject JWT as an impractical moral standard. Where could the tenets of JW give? Well, fortunately we have some idea that JWT has bent not so slightly to accommodate the concept of nuclear deterrence, which only works sufficiently  if it threatens to violate the tenets of discrimination and proportionality. JWT at least according to the Catholic Bishops can accommodate deterrence provided that it is a temporary response to the current state of affairs where it would be more dangerous or disastrous not to employ deterrence.[9]

This is a paradox that has come back to haunt us in this technological age. It may not be possible to be discriminate and proportional when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, and attacks on financial, and electrical systems are certainly capable of devastating effects.

            The combination of New technology and the COG doctrine are a threat to the efficacy of JWT. They force a new decision point. The COG doctrine and the principle of proportionality might sometimes morally obligate the soldier to violate the principle of discrimination? (use non-lethal means to force civilians under control) And the COG doctrine along with the principle of discrimination sometimes obligates him to violate proportionality?  When either of these two principles is violated there is a breech of JWT. Thus JWT must adapt to this new threat.

            We might sometimes morally prefer non-lethal force to civilians rather than the use of lethal force to soldiers. It’s reasonable to believe that instead of increasing the lethality of weapons the plausible goal is to achieve our ends through effective, but non-lethal means. This is a different aspect of the economy of force principle and a mainstay of the center of gravity/information operations targeting doctrine. This is what we try to do before a war begins. We take every measure to bring about a state of affairs politically before committing troops. In a sense we target civilians first—before we target the military. This makes sense because if at all possible, we want to avoid a military confrontation even if the civilian population is targeted in terms of sanctions or blockades and embargoes.


Moral Alternatives

            There are at least three ways to look at the situation we find ourselves in. It could be that this is simply another conflict between utilitarian principles and the ethics of principle. It could also be that this is just another necessary paradigm shift for the Just War Tradition. Finally it’s possible that we are in the midst of a moral degeneration.

It could be that the just war principle of discrimination will perpetually be in opposition to the utility of using any kind of force on noncombatants. It’s also possible that the principle of discrimination should be enforced to a greater degree so that all targets are necessarily field forces, and any departure from this is a betrayal of what it is to be a professional soldier. This kind of policy would undoubtedly benefit the United States and other industrialized and globalized economies that are most vulnerable to this kind of attack on information infrastructure.

            If on the other hand we choose to attack and kill combatants who could otherwise be spared through the careful targeting of other centers of gravity, should we morally opt for the latter COA? If we don’t is the term for our decision properly the needless or senseless killing/murder of human beings?

            Finally it may be the case that we have to accept the new state of affairs as a moral degeneration necessitated by the efficiencies and boundlessness of war. It seems to me that having made all of the headway that we can make in the lethality of weapons, we’ve now faced with the moral dangers of non-lethal means, and means that could be as lethal as weapons of mass destruction. The way ahead I hope is more along the lines of moral progress; that is, less lethal weapons that maintain the benefits of victory while minimizing the cost of life-- less killing, same quality of victories. This is a goal that is acceptable to any rational military professional. For one thing it’s true to the immutable principles of war, as well as the current warfighting doctrine (Center of Gravity) and for another thing, it satisfies a certain moral sensibility.[10]



[1]John A. Warden III, COL USAF (Ret), “Maximum Effect from Information Operations” Cyber Sword: The Professional Journal of Joint Information Operations Volume II Number 1, Spring 1998 , Joint Command and Control Warfare Center: 7.

[2]Ibid., 8.

[3]Ibid., 8.

[4]Clinton Administration, White Paper: Policy on Critical Infrastructure Protection: Presidential Decision Directive 63,  May 1998, White House Online Archive, accessed 10 October 2000; available from



[7]Army FM 100-5 [online library]

[8]Warden p. 6 (6-9)

[9]U.S. Catholic Bishops' Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, May 3, 1983 accessed 6 May 2000; available from

[10]Some might object at this juncture, that the military is by definition the kind of organization that uses lethal force as it primary means of prosecuting war. However, this is a sometimes controversial standpoint (it’s not a necessary truth). There is a strong case to be made for the limiting principle of military necessity, i.e., professional soldiers use only the minimum amount of force required to achieve an honorable victory. The expanding scope of the military operations into peace enforcement, humanitarian aid, and peacekeeping, activities that are contrary to the view of soldiers employing only lethal force for a military cause, lends a new perspective to this paradox.