Imagine a day in the not too distant future when American commandos won't have to pull back in the face of enemy fire as they did in Somalia this weekend. Instead, they'll wear armor that allows them to literally walk through a hail of AK-47 fire and snatch their target away. Who will need drones when you can snatch a guy off the street with minimal risk of U.S. casualties?
This scene, straight out of a sci-fi movie, might be real someday soon -- if U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has his way.
The nation's top SEAL last month asked defense for technology to build a suit of armor, called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), that does everything from provide the wearer with night vision and superhuman strength to protecting them from gunfire.
"I'm very committed to this, I'd like that last operator that we lost to be the last operator we lose in this fight or the fight of the future, and I think we can get there," McRaven told dozens of industry representatives gathered at SOCOM headquarters in Tampa Fla. last July to discuss the creation of this supersuit.
The "requirement is a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armor suit where we bring together an exoskeleton with innovative armor, displays for power monitoring, health monitoring, and integrating a weapon into that -- a whole bunch of stuff" that the Army is conducting research into, Lt. Col. Karl Borjes, an Army science advisor assigned to SOCOM, said in a press release.
In fact, the suit will likely feature liquid body armor being developed at MIT "that transforms from liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied," according to the press release.
SOCOM wants the suit to include "full-body ballistic protections," displays that provide battlefield intelligence to the wearer, "powered exoskeletons," wearable computers and communications antennae, according to this May 15 government notice. McRaven and company even want the suit to use the wearer's "cognitive thoughts and the surrounding environment to display personalized information," whatever that means.
The suit would also provide heat, air conditioning and oxygen. If a soldier is wounded, the TALOS would monitor their health and even stop bleeding using a "wound stasis" program such as one being developed by DARPA that sprays foam onto open injuries.
Think this effort to develop real-life Iron Man suits is too far-fetched to become reality? SOCOM disagrees, saying it a promotional video that technology exists to build "1st generation" TALOS gear within a year. Once that suit is built, the command wants to see if a more advanced version can be developed by 2016.
For more than a decade, defense contractors and the Pentagon have been working on exoskeletons designed to allow troops to carry more gear and run faster than they would on their own. Lockheed Martin is trying to get its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) exoskeleton to Afghanistan where it will be combat-tested by troops. It's not beyond reason to believe that they could combine new technologies in armor and computing with exoskeleton designs to have a very rough prototype in the next couple of years.
Still, that doesn't stop one former special operator from calling the suit "an uparmored Pinocchio!" in the Tampa Tribune. "Now the commander can shove a monkey in a suit and ask us to survive a machine gun, IED, and poor intelligence all on the same objective. And when you die in it as it melts to your body, you can bury them in it!"
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.