Industry: Iron Man Still Hollywood, Not Reality

U.S. Special Operation Command displays a version of the Iron Man suit at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show. (Defense Department photo)

U.S. Special Operations Command recently built a new website to promote its vision of elite commandos outfitted in futuristic battle suits that have become so popular in Hollywood blockbusters.

Military leaders have called it the Iron Man suit, but the website's description makes it clear that any of the high-tech ensembles worn in movies like "Man of Steel," "Pacific Rim" and "Starship Troopers" would be welcome prototypes for the Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit (TALOS) effort.

"The broad goals are to provide operators with lighter, more efficient full-body ballistics protection and beyond-optimal human performance," TALOS Team officials said. "Antennas and computers embedded into TALOS will increase the wearer's situational awareness by providing user-friendly and real-time battlefield information."

"Integrated heaters and coolers will regulate the temperature inside the suit. Embedded sensors will monitor the operator's core body temperature, skin temperature, heart rate, body position and hydration levels. In the event that the operator is wounded, the suit could feasibly start administering the first life-saving oxygen or hemorrhage controls."

SOCOM Commander Adm. William McRaven said he wants to see portions of a prototype in two months and the first "independently operational combat suit prototype" delivered by July 2018.

The tone of the TALOS website is confident enough to quicken the pulse and kindle the imagination.

But the ambitious scope and accelerated pace of TALOS has triggered skepticism from defense industry experts who doubt SOCOM has the money or the expertise needed to perfect this sophisticated battle rattle that currently exists only in big-screen sci-fi flicks.

The TALOS team plans on partnering with industry and academia to help overcome some of the financial hurdles involved with developing such complex, multi-component technology.

SOCOM intends to funnel $80 million into research and development over the first four years. This figure has defense-industry officials scratching their heads.

"To do it right, they need about a billion dollars," said an experienced industry official who works for a large defense firm. He asked that his name not be used for this story. "Twenty million dollars a year in an R&D budget -- you couldn't even develop a pencil on that."

This may sound overly cynical, but it's fairly accurate in terms of the U.S. Army's track record for developing smart-soldier technology. The service is now equipping combat units with a secure, smartphone device -- known as Nett Warrior -- that allows a leader to track subordinates' locations in relation to his own position via icons on a digital map. The unit leaders can view satellite imagery and even send text messages.

The technology has seen combat and given leaders a precise view of their tactical environment, empowering units to operate more decisively than ever before.

But the program's success did not come easily. Land Warrior, the first generation of this computerized command-and-control ensemble, was plagued by failure. From its launch in 1996, the Army spent $500 million on three major contract awards before the system's reliability problems with solved in 2006.

Officials in the science-and-technology community maintain that the technology needed for TALOS is achievable but not before the 2026 timeframe, according to an Army official with knowledge of the TALOS program. 

TALOS program officials are hoping to convince defense companies to invest in the effort.

For starters, industry engineers have been invited to participate in the 2014 TALOS Rapid Prototyping Session, a 60-day event to develop a full TALOS design including a Level 3 drawing package and engineering analysis, according to a March 26 SOCOM solicitation on

The event is scheduled to focus on the following TALOS areas:

  • Advanced Armor: Materials to support next generation full-body ballistic protection 
  • Mobility/Agility: Enhancement platforms such as powered exoskeletons
  • Situational Awareness 
  • Light/noise discipline 
  • Command, Control, Communications & Computers  (e.g., conformable and wearable antennae and wearable computers)
  • Individual soldier combat ready displays including non-visual means of information display 
  • Power generation and management
  • Thermal management of suit occupant
  • Medical: Embedded monitoring and biomechanical modeling

It began April 14 and will run until June 13. It is unclear how many firms are attending, but companies are hesitant to spend their money after watching the Pentagon kill major programs such as the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle as a way of coping with mandatory defense spending cuts under sequestration.

"Industry has stockholders. No one wants to spend a dime," the industry official said.

To be fair, SOCOM has successfully developed many pieces of high-quality battlefield gear, innovations that have trickled down to conventional combat units. But Special Forces engineers have never tackled this complex of an endeavor before, experts said.

All of the TALOS components can work perfectly, but it won't mean anything unless they are all designed to work together.

"It all works great until you start pushing it on this kid and his right shoulder is a quarter inch lower than his left shoulder and the sensor is rubbing his shoulder raw," the defense industry officials said.

SOCOM officials said that several of the technologies needed for TALOS are already showing great promise. But light-weight, low-bulk power generation -- a key component needed for the program's success -- is not currently a reality, experts said. 

"It doesn't exist," the industry official said. "Until there is a true technological breakthrough -- and you can put an Arc reactor on a kid's chest with unlimited electrical energy -- you have a problem."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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