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By Mr T. McDonald


Imagine sitting in your office on a brigade headquarters, battalion staff or as a company commander and the telephone rings with a message to tell you that two island nations in the South Pacific have declared a state of emergency; you are to start preparing for a Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) mission. You are vaguely aware of the countries and their capabilities, but you know very little about them or how you might be able to assist, essentially you start planning on a blank sheet of paper. This is the situation New Zealand Army engineers were in when, in October 2011, the nations of Tuvalu and Tokelau requested assistance to overcome a debilitating drought that threatened to turn into a major humanitarian issue. The scenario may seem distant and one that US planners may not be able to relate to, however, many of the key planning processes that we, as military commanders and planners use, are tested by this kind of unexpected scenario. The ability to lodge, rely on host nation support and the tyranny of distance all impact what could be a very real situation given the US Pacific rebalance. So how do we look at these problems? How can we attempt to understand the dynamic environment with many internal and external pressures affecting the operation? The use of the centre of gravity (COG) construct allows for stability centric complex problems to be understood in an environment that military forces may not be used to.

The last decade of persistent conflict has provided western military forces with significant experience in how to undertake operations in the Middle Eastern environment. In addition, there is at least a doctrinal foundation of how to conduct conventional force on force operations (offence or defence), however, the other piece of the operational triad remains ambiguous (that is non-kinetic) stability operations. Whatever shape future conflict may take, an urbanizing global population along with climate change will likely see a higher number of stability operations, potentially with an HADR focus.

Carl von Clausewitz in his treatise On War explains that friction is an enduring component on the battlefield; while we plan for wars to be short and decisive, this may not always be the case as fog and friction are enduring, which often impacts the objectives and ultimately the final outcomes. COG analysis provides a way of thinking to understand complex systems that influence, either directly or indirectly, an area of operations thereby allowing commanders to develop relevant Lines of Effort (LOE) for mission success. The use of this construct enables military forces to target the key critical components of an adversary, theoretically allowing operations to transition in the most efficient way.

Clausewitz explains that the centre of gravity analogy is underpinned by a concentration of either a force or forces and their cohesion; essentially that nature seeks equilibrium and COG provides a metaphor to explain that the balance can change depending on either internal movements or external pressures.1 He also critically identifies that the use of force against the COG needs to be carefully considered because a miscalculation of the impact on the equilibrium could ‘waste energy, which in turn means a lack of strength elsewhere’.2 The potential for wasted energy is equally relevant during HADR efforts and it is in this context that this article explores COG, both to understand the broad implications of the use of military assets, as well as conserving effort to ensure a broad strategic effect across a spectrum of tasks.

It is the aim of this paper to outline a method that commanders can utilise to identify the relevant LOE in order to link the considerations of stability operations into practical application. How do commanders practically plan for stability operations to succeed, particularly given the congestion of agencies and actors within an operating environment?

What Are We Doing and Why Do We Need It?

Stability operations play an integral role within wider military operations, and doctrine exists to support the linear planning of such operations, such as the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) and more recently Design.3 Although this doctrine is comprehensive, it does not necessarily enable a commander or staff to maintain situational awareness facilitating situational understanding. Since these processes are theoretically not a linear process, rather a constantly evolving one, often the urgent surpasses the important and the crucial feedback loop does not occur. This is particularly relevant given the role of the broad spectrum of other actors that will either resolve the situation at hand or assist the military to a successful conclusion. Further, practical limitations such as port/airfield capabilities and host nation infrastructure could limit the type and numbers of relief assets on the ground. The contemporary operating environment has a multitude of organisations that potentially may increase friction in the conduct of military operations. To be able to visualise the role that these organisations may play will assist in identifying economy of force opportunities and reducing duplication. Within this framework, adaptation of the COG analysis may provide insights to military commanders that enable effective application of Decisive Action4 doctrine, managing the situational awareness and situational understanding relationship within ill structured or evolving problem sets.5

Centre Of Gravity in Stability Operations

So how can military commanders and their staff practically apply COG analysis in stability operations? ADRP 3-07 Stability explains how the military should strive for a ‘comprehensive approach’6where “the capabilities of the disparate actors [are leveraged], to achieve broad conflict transformation goals and attain a sustainable peace”.7 The overall COG analysis can be augmented by lower echelons COG analysis, for their specific geographic area, to provide a more comprehensive articulation of what the LOE should be. It also enables lower echelons to understand the broader issues and better develop their Lines of Operations (LOO) to achieve their mission. It will enable better focus and a situationally appropriate response. A shared understanding between units and their respective higher headquarters will enable staff to link LOE and nest the approaches into the overall COG analysis. What is relevant in one province, city or block may not be relevant in another.

Turning now to the components and construction of the COG analysis, there are various ways that professionals can view COG; the example provided is one way, but not the only way. In this approach the first step is determining the COG. This is achieved by leveraging the stability mechanism that is appropriate (or assigned) to the situation faced within an area of operation (AO). It could also be derived from the military end state or set of conditions that are determined prior to a mission being undertaken with either political, humanitarian or military goals in mind. The COG is likely to remain abstract; however, the withdrawal criteria for military forces are defined or at least identified by military commanders prior to the mission. The determination of the COG could occur at the outset, if known, or could be determined as a product of the wider analysis.

The next requirement is to determine the Critical Capabilities that either flow from the COG or are required within an AO. The determined capabilities then form the basis of the LOE in the overall plan. For example, the LOE in a stability or peace operation could be very simplistic, such as water, food, shelter, medical, evacuation etc. Each of these LOE may not be achieved purely (or by any) military element. By understanding how other actors in the operation interact with the host nation capabilities, a commander can better understand how they can support the successful conclusion of the military operation.

The Critical Requirements are the key objectives/tasks/facets along the LOE that ensure mission success or defined desired conditions to achieve or maintain. These could be simple, short duration single events or could be complex actions involving multi-agency interactions over an extended period.

Understanding how they link and interact across the LOE will enable better synchronisation of effort. Military forces may not complete them, however, understanding how they will be achieved provides context to their impacts. These could include military tasks requiring delay and implications on host nation resource availability.

Finally, the Critical Vulnerabilities are facets of the operation that require resourcing, protection or acknowledgment as risk. These link through the critical requirements and capabilities, but may not necessarily, in a HADR operation, be ‘military vulnerabilities’ as defined in the context of conventional operations. The ‘vulnerabilities’ could include areas of the operation where host nation support is deemed to be functioning to a sufficient level, as such, little focus is given to it and the actual vulnerability is our inability to affect it. While the response post-disaster is ultimately the remit of the host nation government, how additional resources provided are prioritised or distributed may not necessarily align with the actual population needs or best practice, which can have a negative effect on forces supporting the HADR mission. The preponderance of military resources should be allocated to the identified vulnerabilities or host nation ‘gaps’ to mitigate mission risk. This could also include areas where mentorship or limited assistance is provided to other actors to enable overall mission success.The diagrams outlined below demonstrate how the approach works (Figure 1 and 2).8

Figure 1: Centre of Gravity Development as Lines of Effort

Why This Approach?

While the approach appears simplistic and heavily doctrinal, it provides a start point for planners deploying into an immature or maturing environment, particularly if they have limited experience in stability operations. It enables commanders and planners to translate conceptual (and at times abstract) thought into a practical model for progress. It can provide commanders the ability to undertake collaborative planning with other actors within the AO to achieve ‘buy-in’ as well as focus efforts, which will in turn provide a unity of effort to the mission. These actors are not necessarily government agencies; therefore, a common approach towards LOE development could engender support across non-governmental agencies that have previously worked with military forces in other environments.

The approach should not be used in isolation, similar to LOE in counterinsugency (COIN) operations, it serves as a base plan, however, it should be adjusted depending on changing circumstances. Furthermore, it requires wider thought below brigade level to allow subordinate commanders the flexibility to adjust and adapt to the situation. This is already occurring in COIN environments, however stability operations, such as HADR, may require independent company operations where this approach can be used. The use of this methodology will enable the battalion commander, higher headquarters staff and other key stakeholders to understand the operational approach that will be taken and to what end.

Figure 2: Centre of Gravity Translated into Lines of Effort

Pacific Drought – 2011

The easiest way to demonstrate the utility of such an approach is through an example. In the introduction to this article, a scenario was articulated that involved the deployment of military forces to support the island nations of Tuvalu and Tokelau who had declared a state of emergency due to a debilitating drought. The example will focus on the Tuvalu relief effort, which is not to denigrate the work conducted in Tokelau by the United States Coast Guard, New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF). However, the operational complexity in Tuvalu was somewhat greater due to the significantly larger population and interagency/international actors involved.

Tuvalu is an island nation consisting of nine atolls located approximately halfway between Hawaii and Australia.9 The atolls are 26 square kilometres combined, and the major atoll of Funafuti, which is also the nation’s capital, consists of 30 small islands with a total landmass of 2.94 square kilometres.10Funafuti, with a population base of 4,492, was the focal point of the relief effort as it has an airfield, port and the preponderance of the population.11To place this into context, it is about the same size as Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. The island is low lying, and at its highest point is 0.5 metres above sea level, which precludes potable ground water supply. The primary water supply for the island is via rainwater capture and desalination. At the time of the state of emergency declaration, there had been no significant rainfall for six months with none predicted for a further two because of a weather phenomenon known as the ‘La Niña’.12 The existing desalination equipment on the island was not producing potable water to capacity due to a lack of spare parts and age; it was on the verge of failing.

The effects of the drought were severe. Water for the people on Funafuti, rationed to 20 litres of potable water per day per family, regardless of the size of family, some in excess of 11 people. The relatively small agricultural industry was under threat given the lack of water to keep crops hydrated. At the time the state of emergency was declared it was estimated that there were less than two days of water remaining on the main island. On at least one of the outer islands reports were that supplies were down to just tens of litres of water before the Red Cross arrived with small portable desalination units.

New Zealand, in conjunction with the Government of Tuvalu (GoT) and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) organised a relief effort, which included elements of the NZDF in support of the diplomatic element of national power. Other nation and NGO contributors included the United States, Australia, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) based in Suva. While not articulated formally, clear end-state and retrograde criteria were developed between the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (NZ MFAT) and the NZDF prior to the relief effort. In general terms the criteria was, in support of the GoT, to provide up to 30 days of potable water and remain in situ until sufficient desalination equipment was in place to provide the populace a minimum of Social and Public Health Economics Research Group (SPHERE) standard daily consumption rates.13 Many influencing factors that cannot be adequately articulated within this scenario existed, however, the situation was dire for the nation.

In developing a COG analysis for this situation, the components are not exhaustive. Regardless, the COG was determined as the ‘health and well-being of the Tuvalu population’. There were several critical capabilities that were considered for mission success:

  • the provision of potable water to the population,
  • the public health of the population,
  • ensuring ongoing food security,
  • coordinating the disaster response, and finally,
  • the maintenance of the force.

Each of these critical capabilities has their own critical requirements and critical vulnerabilities, as demonstrated in Figure 3.

The critical requirements have been color coded to reflect the amount of impact or control the military force could have over them. Green indicates military direct influence, where orange reflects either GoT or NGO lead roles with military support, and finally red shows where no military effect could achieve a decisive effect in support of the task. The COG analysis shows the key effects to be achieved to allow the conditions to be set prior to the retrograde of military forces and enable a broad understanding of progress within the overall operation. Each specific objective consists of its own measures of effectiveness or measures of performance, as have been developed on other contemporary operations.This model was not used during the case study scenario; rather, it is with the use of hindsight that the utility of this model has become clear. The use of the construct would have allowed indicative tasks to be identified, enabling the targeted deployment of capability to ensure the minimum footprint, thereby reducing the dependency on the island nation’s resources. In the case study, there were restrictions enforced on landing on the atoll due to geographical isolation and port/airfield capability. The troop deployment was capped so as to limit increasing the burden on already strained host nation resources. The construct would have enabled the appropriate sequencing of equipment and personnel onto the island to assist the Government of Tuvalu particularly as the NZDF was providing the stability mechanism of support. The GoT staff had a solid foundation of practical knowledge for living and operating on the island, however, they lacked the technical and logistical support. It was within this context that the military component of national power, subordinated to the diplomatic arm (the mission was led by the NZ MFAT), was required to leverage personal relationships and interactions with the local population.

Figure 3: Centre of Gravity and the Lines of Effort Analysis of the Tuvalu Problem Set14

The operation in Tuvalu was successful; it cannot however be solely attributed to the response or planning. The NZDF deployed various air assets and task organised Military Engineer element,15 in concert with diplomats and the New Zealand Red Cross, which reinforced a small contingent of ADF personnel on the atoll. The international effort provided immediate relief, and set the conditions with GoT and NGO agencies to mitigate recurrence in the future. Ultimately, nature broke the drought with significant rainfall and the work of the coalition in conjunction with GoT to ensure potable water storage enabled sufficient rainwater capture to occur. Further, international donor efforts to provide for bulk water shipment to the island provided over two million liters of water to the stricken island.


This article is not intended to provide the panacea to resolve development of LOE in stability operations; rather it provides a possible way to determine them. Stability operations constitute a significant portion of Unified Land Operations doctrine, with a broad understanding that they are a central feature of all operations. The contemporary environment increasingly involves military forces across the globe concentrating significant effort towards humanitarian missions and disaster relief; this trend is likely to continue. Frequently, these missions tend to resemble ill-structured or evolving complex problems, where present planning processes provide some utility, but do not provide the flexibility to generate collaboration. The COG planning model in a HADR context provides a model to improve understanding of the operational environment and a mechanism to capture the efforts of other actors in the AOR. Further, it provides another template to enhance civilian and military cooperation in a complex environment. Extant doctrine provides the necessary conceptual guidelines on how to think about the operations, however, there is little to guide the next generation of practitioners on how to think through these problems and figure out where to start when handed a blank sheet of paper.

This article was f irst published in the Small Wars Journal, but has been updated for this publication. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the New Zealand Defence Force, the New Zealand Government or its agencies.