Why Doesn't the Army Have "Iron Man" Suits Yet?

December 3, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Iron ManMech SuitTechnologyTALOSBatteries

Why Doesn't the Army Have "Iron Man" Suits Yet?

Despite the promise of modern technological progress and the pace at which new systems can now emerge, the “Iron Man” vision has not yet materialized in what could be called a substantial way. Why? Exportable power. 

Here's What You Need To Remember: The Army has worked on this problem before, and some of the innovations from its previous iterations - TALOS, for instance - ended up useful in other areas. But the mechanical body armor of Tony Stark remains a pipe dream.

Will Iron Man be going to war anytime in the near future? The classic superhero used a powered “suit” to fire weapons, fly and increase strength, computing power, sensors, resilience and overall attack power.

In recent years, the prospect of making the legendary superhero character into a reality has both gained traction and made progress through exoskeletons

Soldier helmets with high-resolution thermal sensors, wearable computers, various kinds of lightweight conformal body armor and even many weapons systems have, in recent years, been built into a range of emerging Ironman-like exoskeletons.

Despite the promise of modern technological progress and the pace at which new systems can now emerge, the “Iron Man” vision has not yet materialized in what could be called a substantial way. Why? Exportable power. 

Iron Man would need strong, lasting, rugged mobile sources of electrical power. Something as integrated and powerful as the envisioned Iron Man suit would naturally rely upon massive amounts of mobile electricity able to provide sustained sources of power to propulsion systems, computers, weapons and other anticipated crucial elements of the envisioned technologies. Any kind of tethered or portable generator would have to be massively miniaturized or woven into soldier gear in ways that still enable operations. Batteries are challenged by a need to be recharged, limiting mission scope and duration. Batteries can also be heavy and difficult to transport on dismounted missions. Laser weapons, for example, speak directly to this kind of predicament. While lasers are fast evolving and already firing from armored vehicles and ships, they are not yet miniaturized and able to be built with enough mobile electrical power to the point where they can arm fighter jets. This is, however, expected in just the next few years. Therefore, how long might it be until individual dismounted soldiers can carry and fire portable laser weapons? It may well be possible one day.

At the same time, despite some of the many technological constraints, the emergence of things like higher-power density, yet cooled, lithium ion batteries. Another possibility are small form factor fuel cells, opening the door to a world wherein Iron Man could still yet come to life.

Also, many elements in development for Iron Man suits have shown great promise through things like lightweight armor, sensors woven into uniforms and weapons, new generations of communications gear and even AI-empowered, long-range night vision targeting systems. 

Given this, why did systems like the now cancelled Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) ultimately fail? U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) TALOS Iron Man suit effort worked with a wide sphere of industry, military and academic experts on plans to build initial exoskeleton prototypes.

TALOS was aimed at providing special operators, such as Navy SEALs and Special Forces, with enhanced mobility and protection technologies, a SOCOM, statement said.

Scientists working on TALOS also sought to engineer a physiological subsystem that lied against the skin that is embedded with sensors to monitor core body temperature, skin temperature, heart rate, body position and hydration levels, an Army statement from years ago said. 

Some of the lightweight armor composites developed for TALOS, as well as many of its subsystems, have been harvested for other promising programs, according to an interesting report from the website SOFREP. 

Yet another innovation sought after for Iron Man suits continues to inform emerging projects, the possibility of self-forming liquid armor. In recent years, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a next-generation kind of armor called “liquid body armor,” which an Army report said is designed to “transform from liquid to solid in milliseconds when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied.”

However, like other elements of a truly capable Iron Man suit, this too would need to be sustained by exportable power. 

Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article first appeared last month.

Image: Reuters