Ball Bearings Innovation: The Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the Increments of Transformational Change

This is the fourth of several posts running on Defence-in-Depth over the next few weeks arising out of the Military Learning and Innovation Roundtable held at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on Wednesday 17 June 2015. The roundtable explored the various ways in which armed forces have learned, adapted, and innovated in times of war and peace, austerity, and pressure from the eighteenth century to the present day. You can read more about the aims and objectives, research outputs, and future events of the Military Innovation and Learning Research Group at Podcasts from the roundtable are available to download here.


Military innovation conjures in people’s minds the advent of iconic capabilities. The arrival of firearms, the shift from sail to steam at sea, and the conquest of the skies are the stuff of the common conception of the phenomenon. Mirroring the magnitude of the effect, the innovation itself is expected to be recognized as a major shift. To think this way, however, leaves off too many important advances. Where in fact some have only themselves effected minor change, in the repetition and scope of such societal endeavours as industrial war the revolutionary outcome is achieved. This type is what I am calling here Ball Bearings Innovation, based on a theme of German military industrial prowess in WWII. Apocryphal or otherwise, the ball bearing has been hailed as the lynchpin of their strength of arms. In this scenario the simplification of components according to fewer standardised parts created efficiencies that at scale advanced manufacturing capabilities significantly. Ball bearings become transformative, even revolutionary, when uncountable numbers are involved. Repeated at scale and across mass the irrelevant becomes mighty.

Where the Germans had ball bearings, the American military juggernaut in WWII had packaging and packing. Concerned with how individual and grouped items are contained, identified and wrapped for transport, storage and use, packing and packaging perfectly represent the materiel basis of American warfare. Improvements during the Interwar period in this seemingly irrelevant backwater of technological development would mean tremendous gains in logistics capabilities.

A key node of this effort resided in the newly established Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). Opened in 1923, ICAF represented the next step in American Military education from the first rounds which had established the Command and Staff and War Colleges. Unlike these, ICAF depended significantly upon the intersection of government and civilian partners, as well as other services. The need for coordination across these many organizations was excellent preparation for the scale, complexity and terms of WWII operations. And the advances the school would help to usher along would manifest in the overwhelming margin of capacity the Allies brought to bear in the war against Germany and Japan.

The school’s mandate was to improve military capabilities in industrial warfare. Whether in planning or research, interaction with the private sector, or assisting th‎e demands of mobilisation planning, the curriculum across the period covered the spectrum of martial-industrial topics, to include consideration of requirements and needs of packing and packaging in war. Although many offices and actors were at work on this issue and others during this period, ICAF’s efforts were important for the interactions it created among the state, armed forces, and the economy. During the Interwar period the students benefited from practical military experience in WWI and other conflicts, business and research expertise, as well as the commitment of the government. Whether it was by reducing the transportation space needed per good or to replace losses, against the logistics demands of industrial war the incremental improvements in packing and packaging would exceed their minor scale. When it came to an American and Allied strategy dependent upon the weight of logistics in WWII, across the breadth of a global conflict at the apex of mass industrial warfare, the savings would accumulate to critical effect.


Navigating past events or the pace of contemporary change, we tend to focus on the large terrain features. As we come to grips with the transformative effect of 140 characters in the strategic capacity of political narratives in war, it is clear this focus cannot serve. Particularly with innovation, concern for the small details which can accumulate to shape events will improve our understanding, whether of history or the present.

Image: Aerial view of Mulberry harbour “B” (October 27, 1944)

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