Opinion: Coming back to reality was the first order of business for USSOCOM this winter. The command finally admitted that the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit or TALOS project was not even close to being a reality, which we reported after attending the SOFIC Conference in Tampa two years ago.
The entire concept was flawed from the outset. The way it was configured, the suit would have weighed close to 600-700 pounds. An operator weighing that much would be in more danger falling thru 2nd story floors he may encounter in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq than he would from enemy action.
Back in 2013, SOCOM first unleashed its idea for constructing a close-quarters combat suit that was based on the suit that Marvel Comics made famous in the “Iron Man” films with Robert Downey Jr. While obviously not nearly as technologically advanced as Tony Stark’s suit, it was supposed to be the next big thing. The Russians, always one to copy a bad idea if it means trying to one-up the United States, announced plans to build their own version of TALOS.
SOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith put all that hoopla to rest recently when he told an audience at the 30th Annual SO/LIC Symposium & Exhibition that TALOS is out of reach of our current efforts.
“It’s not the Iron Man. I’ll be the first person to tell you that,” he said. It never really had a chance to succeed, but SOCOM continued to pump money into a dry well, as recently as January of last year looking for a new round of proposals from contractors for a workable potential TALOS design.
Thankfully, reality has set in and the money spent on pie in the sky money pits can be better spent elsewhere. “When we get the exoskeleton here in a few months, we will have the best exoskeleton in the Department of Defense,” Smith added. “It will not be something our operators will feel comfortable putting on a close environment today. So, moving, shooting, communicating in the face of enemy fire … not quite there yet.”
Also in May two years ago, we reported about a much less sexy but eminently more workable solution that was already being tested by Lockheed-Martin. Their system works, doesn’t make an operator the size of a pickup truck and doesn’t need a battery bank that will light up Manhattan.
Lo and behold, the Army was testing this system called “Onyx” back in June with members of the 10th Mountain Division at the US Army Natick Labs to get a clear picture of how well this system will work. In our original piece, we noted that Lockheed-Martin had already tested this exoskeleton extensively with an American Special Operations unit and they put the unit thru the paces jumping up and down on walls, staircases and humping heavy loads around a simulated battlefield.
So, no, Lockheed-Martin didn’t build a suit that will protect an operator thru a nuclear blast, fly thru the air like Superman and shoot laser weapons that will knock down tall buildings…but one that will protect an operator’s knees and back by easing the amount of weight those joints bear in the day-to-day operation of conducting special operations.
Finally. SOCOM is ditching the sci-fi geek projects that will do nothing for the operators in the field for the next several generations for ones that will help our operators today…and tomorrow.
The current design has a much smaller profile than the TALOS and only is worn from the hips down. And it works…what a concept. Sensors on the exoskeleton report the soldier’s speed, direction, and angle of movement to an onboard computer that drives electro-mechanical actuators at the knees.
The exoskeleton delivers the right torque at the right time to assist knee flex and extension. The exoskeleton ultimately reduces the energy needed to cross terrain, squat or kneel. These benefits are most noticeable when ascending or descending stairs or navigating inclined surfaces.
This system boosts leg capacity for physically demanding tasks that require repetitive or continuous kneeling or squatting, or lifting, dragging, carrying, or climbing with heavy loads.
With the added news that our operators may soon be getting upgraded weapons systems that will increase the range and effectiveness of their weapons, 2019 is at least starting off on the right foot.
But sci-fi geeks can take solace that Smith didn’t rule out better armor for operators. “We’re not going to stop looking for better body armor, better situation awareness, better lethality,” he said. “We’re going to keep looking at all of those things.” Maybe a “Predator” helmet with an integrated laser cannon?
For now, I’ll take a workable exoskeleton that will ease the burden on our operator’s knees and backs….I wish we had that a generation ago.