SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit - A Worthy Moonshot

By Stew Magnuson

Screenshot: Army

It was six years ago at SOFIC in Tampa, Florida, when then-Special Operations Command Commander Navy Adm. William H. McRaven first mentioned a technology development program that would go on to be popularly known as the “Iron Man suit.”

While there were few details at the time, six months later at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C., the command’s science and technology enterprise had a slick, animated feature of a commando, crashing through a door and standing there as bullets bounced off his suit of armor as if they were nothing more than a swarm of pesky mosquitoes.

The tactical assault light operator suit, TALOS, made it in the main stream press as McRaven himself likened it to the popular Marvel super hero. The YouTube video was replayed widely on news sites and had thousands of hits. Placing the words “iron” and “man” in a headline created clickbait for military technology reporters, and the association with a popular movie character brought SOCOM publicity it could never buy.

McRaven’s vision for the technology was exactly as shown in the video. It was an independently operating suit of armor that would protect the first commando in a raid to enter a room where insurgents might be holed up.

Special operators for the good part of a decade had been carrying out missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that required them to track down and — if possible — capture insurgent leaders, bombmakers and other assorted bad guys. That often required raids taking place in buildings.

The first special operator to go through a door was left vulnerable to bullets and bombs. McRaven wanted TALOS to protect that commando. Unlike the Iron Man character, this suit would not shoot energy beams or fly.

McRaven asked Congress for $80 million to develop the suit and he set a deadline of five years for a working prototype.

Six years later at a SO/LIC talk, Acquisition Executive James Smith went through an entire presentation on the command’s science and technology priorities but never mentioned TALOS. A year prior, officials announced that TALOS’ working prototype would be delayed a year, but they expressed confidence that it would be done.

With no TALOS update forthcoming, National Defense asked Smith in the Q&A for an update.

Smith said TALOS had fallen short of its goals. “It’s not ready for prime time in a close-combat environment,” he replied.

While not ready for the mission McRaven envisioned, when the final prototype is delivered this year, it will be the best exoskeleton in the Defense Department, he added.

“It will not be something that our operators would feel comfortable putting on in a close-combat environment today. So moving, shooting, communicating in the face of enemy fire — not quite there yet,” he said.

The lower half of the exoskeleton is particularly robust, he said. One operator put on the legs and was able to run a four-minute mile. So it could be used in other missions such as logistics and during long-distance marches, Smith said.

Army Col. Joel Babbitt, program executive officer for SOF Warrior, said TALOS has spun off several technologies. “We are leveraging the vast majority of that technology,” he said at the conference. The funding is in place to bring about nine technologies derived from TALOS to the command’s various components for them to integrate, Babbitt said.

“There are a lot of success stories coming out of this, but you’re not going to hear about it under the banner of TALOS. You’re just going to see a lot of cool stuff coming to SOCOM over the next few years,” he added.

While TALOS was never a formal program of record, the science and technology push to develop its underlying technologies will continue, Smith said. “We’re not going to stop looking for better body armor, better situational awareness, better lethality. … We’re going to keep looking at all those things.”

TALOS would turn out to be one of the command’s highest profile and most watched technology development programs. Smith said the video might have been a mistake for raising expectations. We disagree. It excited the public and brought in nontraditional contractors who had never worked with the military before, as SOCOM officials noted.

So was TALOS a boondoggle or a worthy moonshot?

“I think we have pushed physics as far as we are going to get in the near term,” Smith said. The key words here are “near term.” Five years was always an arbitrary number.

Technology may catch up and special operators may someday have their Iron Man suit.

This is also a case of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” For too long, dismounted troops have gotten the short shrift when it comes to high-profile military technology development, yet they are the most vulnerable warfighters. A fighter pilot is wrapped in the best protection and stealth technology available, and the amount of money to pay for it goes unquestioned. Meanwhile, the Army nickel and dimes it when it comes to developing new squad weapons, lighter armor and better batteries.

Marines, foot soldiers and special operators bravely busting down doors deserved their own moonshot technology development program, and this should not be the last one.

Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (3)

Re: Editor's Notes: SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit - A Worthy Moonshot

What grunts need is better, lighter armor and a full-mandible helmet, not an "Iron Man" exoskeleton. The problem with TALOS was the exoskeleton component, which was far too technologically ambitious. They should have focused on lightening and improving armor, as well as creating a helmet that completely encapsulated and protected the operator's head (as well as added sensor fusion). As the author - and General Mattis - said, we spend a trillion dollars on a plane program (F-35) that may never see actual peer-to-peer combat (not to say it isn't worth it - the F-35 is), but we still have yet to revolutionize basic infantry armor. This should be a multi-billion dollar effort, not an $80m one; the dividends - both tactical, political, and economical - would be unmeasurable. Tactically, light armor negate the need for complicated exoskeletons, as it is precisely the weight of armor that creates the need for an exoskeleton. Economically, the cost of a critically-injured grunt is astronomical; high-disability rated service members are a generational-lasting cost, which is why the cost of wars last 60+ years, not just those few during which actual hostilities are engaged. Finally, politically, the American public has no tolerance for casualties, so we'll never win another war until we develop armor that can significantly improve protection. We have overmatch against all our peers, histrionic decelerations to the contrary not withstanding. Where the world's sole superpower lacks supremacy is at the grunt level, where we are not much better than a 140lb guy running around with an AK in a dress and sandals. A revolutionary leap in personal protection should be a priority for the DoD on par with subs, bombers, cyber, and all the other major programs we spend 100's of billions on.

0311 at 5:03 PM
Re: Editor's Notes: SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit - A Worthy Moonshot

Sorry guys but the laws of physics are not repealed simply because you give it a cool comic book name. So where does all the kinetic energy from that "swarm of pesky mosquitoes" actually go if it is not being transferred into the soldier?

brad clark at 4:51 PM
Re: Editor's Notes: SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit - A Worthy Moonshot

I believe an “Iron Man Suit” could have been made akin to Hollywood style. “Made in the USA” or “Made Elsewhere?” Think the F-35 which is manufactured all over the world. I believe the problem is that corporate and industry don’t want to cooperate and communicate with Defense for various moral, ethical, political, management, motivation, reward, and Millennial reasons. I don’t believe it has much to do with budget, technology, or manufacturing issues. The “Dream Team” just wasn’t there to start with. I mean if corporate, designers, Millennials, or startups can make a new spacesuit that looks cool and works better than NASA’s, then they can make an armored Iron Man Suit that is better than TALOS. It might not be all-encompassing for all missions, but it might be useful for certain missions. Case in point…have you seen some of the foreign luxury and concept cars and Tesla cars? They beat almost any car “Made in the USA” and have miniature sensors and power conduits that can do wonders.

Krashnovians at 9:49 AM
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