The United States Army is planning to develop a project to equip soldiers with “smart armor” that could take Iron Man from blockbuster movie to battlefield reality.
The modern soldier faces many physical challenges on the battlefield: Combat is an enormously demanding experience, although adrenalin temporarily mitigates much of the stress that is put upon both body and mind. Soldiers need to be flexible and highly mobile during a firefight with the enemy, but the requirements of carrying weapons, ammunition, medical kit, communications equipment, water and personal rations – in addition to being weighed down by body armor – has the effect of limiting the speed and dexterity with which even the most well-conditioned human being can move. Add to this the necessity of being able to negotiate obstacles, buildings and quickly board, and dismount from, fighting vehicles and the soldier is faced with a difficult task. When covering long distances on foot, soldiers often have to carry backpacks and other load bearing equipment that might weigh as much as 150 pounds.
In partnership with government research facilities, academics and the technology industry, the US Army is planning to enhance the battlefield capabilities of combat soldiers by equipping them with TALOS; The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit.
According to the army, TALOS will take the existing prototype exoskeleton concepts that have already been produced to a new level; incorporating armor made from “smart” materials that will be embedded with sensors, wireless networking capabilities and a computer system that the soldier will be able to access through a wearable display similar to Google Glass. The sensors will monitor the wearer’s physical condition by detecting such indicators as heart-rate and temperature. In addition, however, this Iron Man style suit – which could become a battlefield reality within three years – will be powered with a hydraulic system which would enhance the soldier’s physical capabilities.
Lt Col Karl Borjes, with the US Army’s research, development and engineering command, said that a weapon system would also be integrated into the suit. “It’s advanced armor.” he said, adding that the suit would incorporate communications equipment.
A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has already begun work on similar concepts, is likely to be involved in the design and development of the new body armor, according to the army. Professor Gareth McKinley suggests that such futuristic systems may be similar to those seen in Hollywood science fiction movies. Among the new concepts envisioned by the team – and currently in development – is a type of liquid body armor, which would transform to a solid state using electrical current or magnetic fields. Speaking to NPR, McKinley said “It sounds exactly like Iron Man.”
Even if and when such a suit is developed and perfected, the military faces three further challenges; the cost of equipping army units with the new sci-fi armor will be considerable. Training soldiers to operate and maintain the equipment will add considerable time and expense to Basic and Advanced Individual Training programs and, lastly, but of paramount importance, will be finding out how such equipment holds up in combat: The physical wear and tear on such a suit would be considerable, in addition to the necessity of withstanding harsh climates, such as extreme heat or cold, humidity, dust, sand and mud, depending on the theatre in which forces are operating. Withstanding direct hits from modern, high-velocity small arms without compromising the operational abilities of the suit is one vital, additional factor.
A large part of modern warfare comprises operating against lightly equipped, fast-moving enemy combatants who employ guerrilla tactics; seeking shelter in areas that are not easily accessible due to the harsh terrain, striking quickly and then withdrawing once met by heavy resistance. The Iron Man suit, were it to become a reality on the modern battlefield, may well prove to be highly effective for soldiers fighting from defensive positions; to withstand the demands of offensive operations against heavily defended objectives, it will need to be highly resilient, light and easily maintained. The possibilities are intriguing and the US Army will, no doubt, be anxious to perfect such a concept.
Graham J Noble