Special Operations Iron Man Suit Prototype Delayed a Year

By Stew Magnuson

Illustration: Scott Rekdal

This is part 1 of a 10-part series covering U.S. Special Operations Command’s Top 10 technology needs leading up to the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, May 21-25, 2018. Today: The Iron Man Suit.

There perhaps has been no higher profile Special Operations Command technology development program over the past few years than the tactical assault light operator suit, or TALOS.

The idea sprung from former SOCOM Commander Adm. William McRaven in 2013. He wanted more protection for the first special operator to go through a door during raids. The suit would protect against bullets and blasts and have enough power for it to operate untethered. He set August 2018 as the deadline for the first working prototype and received $80 million for the first four years of development.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press picked up on the story after comparisons were made to the Iron Man superhero. Early SOCOM illustrations of the concept and a video it created with a fully-armored operator bursting through a door with bullets ricocheting off the armor certainly influenced the nickname, although officials have since downplayed the moniker.

Army Col. James Miller, director of joint acquisition task force (JATF) TALOS, told National Defense that there will not be a working prototype of the suit this year as hoped.

“TALOS is a unique engineering challenge that seeks to accelerate the development of emerging technologies across multiple domains simultaneously and integrate these disparate technologies into a fully functioning system that is intended to provide decisive advantage to future [special operations forces] in close combat,” he said in an email. 

Leadership remains committed to the program even though McRaven retired several years ago. Current SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III has declared TALOS the command’s top research-and-development priority, as did Army Gen. Joseph Votel before him, Miller said.

The concept for the suit has remained more or less the same, he said.

“TALOS has maintained a consistent focus on achieving the commander’s vision for the first article prototype combat operator suit. We have not made any major changes in direction over the last three years, although some design accommodations related to size, weight and power across all the subsystems have been made to reduce risk where necessary. I expect some determinations will be made as we near the end of development and subsequent demonstration of the prototype,” Miller said.  

In 2019, the command will demonstrate a functional TALOS prototype of the exoskeleton subsystem it calls the Mark-5, he said.

Other subsystems, such as the encompassing base layer, visual augmentation systems/operator interface, helmet, armor, power and communications, will continue to be refined in support of the exoskeleton subsystem development in a lab environment progressively throughout 2018, he added.

“The exoskeleton structure is the most difficult component of the Mark-5 prototype and is highly dependent upon the designs of the other hardware components. System-wide dependencies are complex and extensive,” he added.  

Researchers over the past five years have been blunt about the challenges they face. The most pressing issues have been power and the software that will help coordinate the exoskeleton’s movements, they have said. Miller said that was still the case. Work continues on control theory algorithm development, associated system kinetics and the dynamic loading needed to ensure structural integrity and torque requirements. Thermal management is also a challenge.

“The JATF is performing applied research to gain the knowledge necessary to understand the state of technology at the system-component level,” he said.
Meanwhile, the program is already proving its value. The applied research has led to some possible spinoff technologies that may benefit special operators whether or not the suit is fielded any time soon.

“Some early TALOS exoskeleton prototypes and associated technologies have evolved independently by industry vendors for commercial and military applications,” Miller said.  

He listed some of them: integrated base layer with vital sign monitoring and operations-stress-index application; long-wave infrared and short-wave infrared camera system; glance display; wide field-of-view holographic imaging system heads-up display; novel lithium-polymer battery configuration and solid-oxide, fuel-cell power sources; curved armor with high ballistic performance; improved helmet back-face deformation liner and retention system; small-arms stabilization system; and 3D ambient and radio-frequency audio. 

Another secondary benefit of the program was expanding SOCOM’s research-and-development network.

“By teaming with a wide range of corporations, government agencies, universities and national laboratories, the TALOS project is leveraging the expertise of leading minds throughout the country to redefine the state of the art in survivability and operator capability,” McRaven told Congress at the outset of the program.

Thomas “embraces the method of accelerating technological innovation to create unique opportunities for SOF,” Miller said.  

Nevertheless, a fully functioning suit resembling the initial concept is still a ways off, Miller said. The Mark-5 exoskeleton, to be delivered by 2019, will be just one of many iterations leading to a final product.

“We expect that additional prototype combat suits will be necessary to achieve an appropriate technology readiness level for fielding,” he added.

SOCOM's Top 10 Technology Needs

Part 2: Special Operations Command Beefing Up Communications

Part 3: SOCOM Investing in New Tech to Counter Drones

Part 4: SOCOM Tapping into Biotechnology

Part 5: SOCOM Replenishing Precision-Guided Weapon Stockpiles

Part 6: SOCOM Setting Records for Unmanned Systems Procurement

Part 7: New Tools Wanted to Fill Signature Management Gaps

Part 8: Commandos Need Lightweight, Energy Efficient Equipment

Part 9: Special Operators New Position, Navigation and Timing Capabilities

Part 10: Special Ops Command Aims to Convert M4A1 Carbine

Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (1)

Re: Special Operations Iron Man Suit Prototype Delayed a Year

I wonder if the “Iron Man Suit” would be better with the use of Metal Foam as the body armor. Titanium seems both expensive and perhaps heavier. Obviously, more research is needed on Metal Foam, but I would suspect that the incorporation of Metal Foam might render the suit obsolete or at least force a suit Version 2.0.

Another interesting aspect would be that if the suit is so complex and neat, wouldn’t opposing forces go out of their way to capture a soldier wearing one? Then the SOF squad would have to spend all efforts to retrieve the soldier to bring back the technology. How would the USSOCOM ensure that the technology doesn’t fall into enemy hands? Would switching off all the gear and tech be enough? We’ve seen what happens when SOFs fall in battle…the enemy often strips them of their gear, weapons, and radio if the rescue team does get to them in time. Now the enemy has NVGs and weapons that are mostly used by US Forces because some of them were captured.

And what about exporting the “Iron Man Suit?” The USSOCOM spent all these years and dollars making it…would the USA export it to allied nations and nations that could afford it? If so, how would these nations protect such high-technology, or would this be a "USA-Only" system? Already we’ve seen Iraqi Army M1A1 Abrams tanks fall into insurgent hands and some of our best weapons sold to Middle East and other nations. Take in point the F-15 and F-16 where Asian and Middle Eastern nations now have the best and most advanced versions compared to our USAF.

I’m all for the “Iron Man Suit,” however, I also wonder if it would be a lot better, simpler, and cheaper to just buy a remote robot from Boston Dynamics and outfit it with weapons than develop this complex hard body armor suit for a Special Operator to wear. SOFs had to wait years for this high-tech suit whereas Boston Dynamics had nimble robots operating for years already. The goal of Iron Man is to protect the first-in Operator...can't a nimble robot do that like the Spot dog?

Peter at 2:15 PM
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