Don’t Hold Your Breath for a Special Forces Iron Man Suit
Why we’re skeptical about SOCOM’s power armor
It’s one of those recurring stories about military technology. The Pentagon is working on an armored combat suit loaded up to the elbows in sensors and communications gear. Any day now, American troops will leap into battle like Iron Man and War Machine.
There’s several projects underway in different branches and defense contractors. The military is working with Harvard University to develop a web-patterned exosuit worn under a soldier’s uniform. The Navy has an exoskeleton project which hopes to augment dockworkers’ physical strength. Lockheed Martin has its own powered exoskeleton project for infantry troops, known as HULC.
Special Operations Command’s plan is for an armored suit known as TALOS. It blew up into a viral sensation earlier in July 2014 after The Wall Street Journal reported SOCOM had teamed up with a Hollywood special effects company to design conceptual models for the armor.
But it’s likely going to remain just a concept for years.
On Dec. 18, SOCOM released a broad agency announcement to contractors with lots of interesting details about it wants in TALOS. There’s little in the details that’s absolutely required, but SOCOM considers everything from bio-mechanical sensors to robotic medical devices as highly desirable.
For one, proposed designs should protect “against, as a minimum, advanced rifle rounds,” the announcement stated. To reduce weight, the suit should have “moderately curved, thin, and lightweight transparent armor materials.” It’s up to the designers to find the right materials. But a likely candidate would be the array of light, high-density polyetylene armor already on the market.
But that’s just the beginning of what SOCOM wants. A powered armor suit with moving actuators will give off a lot of heat and noise, and the system needs a backpack-sized power plant capable of transmitting five kilowatts. That’s a give-away to the enemy, so engineers will need to embed technologies to reduce these thermal and acoustic signatures.
The system should be able to lift move than 200 pounds. That will require an exoskeleton—using most of the suit’s power—capable of moving “at a continuous running pace and a dash pace for short distances.”
Then it starts getting even more high-tech. There’s the helmet, which should receive both vision and sound from 360 degrees and digitally recreate it on a screen. SOCOM also wants a heads-up display and control system “not requiring physical manipulation.” All of this information has to transmit in near real-time.
There’s more. Nestled around the body could be bio-mechanical sensors to slow a soldier’s metabolism—or cool the soldier down. There should be an internal oxygen system. Even more science fiction are “remotely deployable advanced medical intervention devices” which include tourniquets and injection devices that can deploy themselves.
When soldiers get wounded, their armored suits would automatically patch them up.
If anyone of this sounds implausible, it’s worth looking at the cost. For each proposal, SOCOM wants each contractor not to exceed $3 million in research and development costs, and finish in 18 months. That’s chump change for a military project and barely any time.
Another problem is getting all the equipment to work—and to work with upgrades. Another recurring problem for new military technology is trying to do too many things at once. Think of a fighter jet that can accomplish every conceivable mission. Or a single radio that can harness all frequencies.
They don’t generally work very well.
It’s worth reiterating that SOCOM is only asking for a prototype, with the goal of having a functional one by August 2018. SOCOM itself is putting up $80 million, according to Military.com. But in an August report that interviewed industry officials, the paper poured cold water on the project. “To do it right, they need about a billion dollars,” one official said.
So why do it at all? To see if it can be done. Even if the project doesn’t bear a suit, there’s hoped-for innovation along the way that could go toward other projects. The time between a working prototype and actual, wearable combat suit could also be a lot longer.
Military.com puts the date at 2026—at the earliest. With substantially more funding than SOCOM is putting into it now.