Iron Man suits without the hype

Posted on: January 2nd, 2014 by Will Rodriguez 25 Comments

There has been a rash of stories about the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS).  You can see some of the excitement here, hereand here and the military itself including SOCOM’s Admiral McCraven along with DoD are trying to fan the flames .  The suit is supposed to provide ballistic/shock/fire protection, increased situational awareness, potential medical support and even superhuman strength like the “Iron Man” comic book hero for special operation forces (SOF) and in as soon as four years.

It’s not going to happen.

The Army has been playing with futuristic Infantry concepts for decades and the latest SOCOM iteration is just a rehash of several concepts before it.  Some of the previous “power suit” concepts were Lockheed’s HULC and Raytheon’s Sarcos exoskeleton.  The Army also had several programs for the future Infantryman starting with Land Warrior but including Future Force Warrior and Objective Force Warrior.

During my stint in the Infantry Battle Lab I had to model some of the FFW and OFW capabilities into the Future Combat System grunt.  Watch this OFW video from 2003 and compare it to the current TALOS concept video to see how we’ve taken a step back with TALOS. 

Here’s the OFW promotional video.

Here’s the TALOS promotional video for comparison.

There are a multitude of issues but the long pole in the tent for a powered suit suitable for tactical operations is power.  Battery technology just hasn’t progressed to the point that suits can operate for more than a handful of hours.  Carrying extra batteries to facilitate continuous operations almost defeats the purpose of creating a suit with superhuman strength unless you want to devote that strength to carrying batteries.  Until we see a breakthrough in the battery technology field tactically operational power suits is quite far on the horizon.  Much more likely are power loader type suits which would be helpful on FOBs or even forward airfields to help reloading aircraft and where power is available from fixed sources.

So since powered suits aren’t a real possibility why all the excitement?  Well, the military IS interested in giving industry problems to solve and programs like these push the envelope.  The Army played with equipping the individual soldier with a computer that would link grunts to each other so information and orders could be passed as well as incorporating the video, thermal and data feeds from drones.  NETT Warrior has done many of these things and is incorporating the thermal and video capabilities that modern cameras and optics have delivered to the battlefield.

Another reason to build excitement is to justify budgets and in a period of fiscal frugality everyone is concerned with their budget and convincing the taxpayer that they are a good investment.   Finally, Americans are enthralled with technology.  It’s in our DNA.  Becoming a real life comic book hero has recruiting value.  The feature picture from this story is from a 2007 display used at various civilian events to showcase new technology the Army was pursuing.  The weapon is the XM-307 Advanced Crew-Served Weapon (ACSW) by General Dynamics, a lightweight ground mounted 25mm.  

Unfortunately, there is risk to this proposition because in four years there will be little to show for it besides potentially liquid body armor but the public’s attention span is short.  

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  • Ishaan

    Oh man, to the average civilian, the concept is just too amazing, it kind of sucks that this project will never see success.

    But hey, as long as concepts like this allow for an increase in budget and funding, they can keep on coming, I guess.

  • ArcticWarrior

    How about skip the Iron Man suit and robot donkeys and come up with lighter weight, more flexible body armor.

  • GodblessUSSF

    ArcticWarriorThat seems like a better idea to me too. Just don’t see how the reward will outweigh the cost enough to make this feasible even if the battery problem was a non-issue. But I don’t know shit.

  • Sh4d3

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂
    You mentioned battery life and this is the real problem: just think about mobile phones batteries…
    Giving the industry problems to solve is a good idea but I fear those projects will be left behind as soon as the leadership will change.
    I hope this is not just a political/media promotional campaign.

  • Tango9

    ArcticWarriorRead “Of Arms and Men” by Robert O’Connell.  Pay specific attention to the chapters that discuss the European adjustment to the crossbow.
    More armor != combat effectiveness.
    History is mocking us.

  • Tango9

    Sh4d3We’ve all seen this movie.  It’s a no-go out of the gate and you hit many nails on the head:
    1)  batteries  (no one’s solved it, won’t likely solve it.  It’s just physics)
    2)  throwing money down a crapper to get a star
    Need I say more?

  • ArcticWarrior

    Tango9ArcticWarrior Mobility can be a lifesaver. Will def check out that book

  • ArcticWarrior

    Tango9Sh4d3 Don’t leave out milking Big Army for funding knowing full well that most of this never see’s the light of day

  • 5000area375

    I couldn’t agree more or work on optics that allow you to see through fog, rain, and smoke.

  • 5000area375

    I am a strong supporter of mobility and of cooling. Wearing body armor is a surefire way to increase heat related injuries and decrease mobility. Both of which up your chances of taking more hits. Body armor has places room clearing, aircraft and vehicle crews. That about where it stops for me.

  • YankeePapa

    “His enemies went blind from his ‘sheer awesomeness…’ ”  -Kung fu Panda-

  • ArcticWarriorTango9Recommend the book.  It’s been referred to in several courses throughout my education experience.

  • I’d be interested in anyone’s comments and feedback over the circa 2003 OFW video I posted in the article above. 

    I think it provides context to how long some of these technologies have been kicked around.  The unit UAV and platoon level kamikazee drones are fielded (though they don’t look the same as in the video) so some of the technology does bring something to fruition.

  • ArcticWarrior

    The BMP did exactly what I always figured would happen to “robot donkeys” , the tank sniper took care of the BMP.

    Very Starship Troopers, which is not a bad thing. We certainly need the tech edge but what chafes me is these large expenditures (relative)  only get cherry picked for what will realistically be viable tech. The Battle Lab has come up with good things and as you say we already field some of the ideas. But the Iron Man suit seems more for PR to get dollars.

  • bharrison

    I feel like that first video carved out my eyeballs and fucked my brain with a cactus.  Sweet baby tapdancing, tittyfucking Jesus.
    On a more serious note, I feel like DARPA and DoD don’t seem to give two shits about the boys on the ground and their input.  I’ve yet to talk to a single infantryman, airborne or leg, Big Army or SOF, that believes anything other than “loads need to be lightened and streamlined”.

  • bharrison

    Sh4d3 If you think cell phones are bad, how bout field radios?

  • bharrisonWell in 2003 a DECADE ago we chuckled but this was a very low expectation kind of deal.  Most people don’t realize that DARPA typically works on projects that are supposed to deliver results in about 20 years.  Very VERY little of what DARPA does ends up in our hands in 5-10 years.  That’s Natick’s job.

    The thing I’d like people to notice though is almost all of the capabilities of TALOS were talked about a decade ago (minus the invisibility which is actually another real world project).

    One thing that has come out of all this effort and hype is body armor which I believe is really a good thing until the good idea fairy came along and turned soldiers into the Michelin man.  Casualty aversion has become a strategic weakness driving everything from the simplest tactics to the acquisition of major systems.

    Weight is the bane of the grunt.  We were Christmas trees where weight savings become opportunities to hang more things from the tree.  The only tried and true solution is command discipline.  Commanders at the lowest level must be allowed to determine what the soldier carries and take the time to determine what should be carried on each mission.  This has become something done at the Brigade and higher level primarily because of (wait for it)…  casualty aversion…

  • YankeePapa

    …You are a company commander at Con Thien or Khe Sanh late ’67-early ’68…  You make sure that your men have vests and helmets at all times…  Another commander… sending out recon team on a long range patrol… no helmets… no vests…  A time and a place for everything…
    …”Casualty aversion”, if it becomes god… is a cowardly yielding of duty and good sense.  You can avoid casualties… for a time… if you don’t run patrols outside your wire… but sooner or later you will get massive casualties when they overrun your position.  
    …Look at the photos of the Marines landing at Da Nang in 1965.  They look like they are the replacements for the outposts of Reno, Carson, and Vegas near the MLR in Korea in 1953.  Sometimes they needed all that (Hue, Khe Sanh…), other times… 
    …Photos taken of Marine patrols in the last year of their deployment.  Barring heavy activity in their AO, typical might be T-Shirts, floppy bush cover… rifle, ammo, canteen and first aid kit… maybe one grenade. 

    …Only local commanders can make the call.  If a tiger suddenly rushes out and mauls a Marine… his commander should not be crucified because he did not have his men equipped with tiger repellant…   
    …Some flag officers forget what it was like to be an overloaded grunt… Some were in other branches, and never had to be a pack mule closing with the enemy.  And politicos that demand that our lads be loaded down with bomb squad level armor… could not keep up with troops in the field carrying only a cell phone and a derringer…


  • YankeePapamajrodbharrison I’m not so sure Generals forget as much as their CYA instinct overcomes any memory or common sense.

    It’s exceptionally developed when you get to that level.

  • IS1FiveO

    Seems like another example of reality falling short of concepts. Weren’t we supposed to be driving flying cars like 20 years ago? Rather than making U.S. servicemen superhuman, DoD is making them walking bunkers.

  • steelhorse

    ArcticWarriormajrod The 03 video was looking pretty far in the future and AW you are probabally wright about it being a money thing ,but we sent men to the moon with less tech than my cell phone it has come a long way in a reletivly short time who knows what the next 20yrs will bring

  • Tango9

    ArcticWarriorTango9Sh4d3I give you:  The Bradley IFV.
    Which nicely encloses a full squad for immediate destruction.

  • Tango9

    majrodYankeePapabharrisonThere’s a book to be written there.  We need privates that think like generals and generals that think like privates.
    Won’t happen, but it’s nice to think about.

  • Tango9

    You and I have been over this topic many times.  Best place to be is a mid-level NCO, I’m still convinced.
    grade officers have to put up with so much nonsense nowadays (PPT
    Ranger!) that it’s remarkable anything gets done.  Senior NCOs; (most)
    lose focus.  Put a silver eagle on someone’s should and it’s tantamount
    to a lobotomy.
    Politics is always there.  You have politics at
    home, you have it work.  But it’s not an excuse when people’s lives are
    at stake.  Not directed at you, Will.  We both think alike.  Just
    ranting a little.

  • Tango9majrodYankeePapabharrison No offense taken.  I could tell you stories.  I just chafe at the blind officer hate because a lot of it is just petty.

    Being a LT/CPT on the line is worth almost any price to be paid in powerpoint hell.  It’s that much a privilege and plain fun.

    The soul selling happens at field grade level (as well as the hardest and mnost thankless work).  Many submit.  For far too many it’s not a problem at all.