LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: General view at a special screening of 'Iron Man 3' at Odeon Leicester Square on April 18, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — A Pentagon plan to build a real-life "Iron Man" suit has taken some lumps from fiscal hawks on Capitol Hill, but US Special Operations Command's acquisitions chief defended it Wednesday as a way to protect troops using cutting-edge technologies.
In October, the final "wastebook" from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., final "wastebook"listed the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program among 100 federal programs he called wasteful. The report knocked TALOS' estimated $80 million budget as a fraction of the projected cost to produce a prototype.
TALOS, although intended as an an exoskeleton that allows the wearer to tote for the toting of heavy gear and an internal computing system, is also an effort to develop as much about finding a new framework for inventing technologies and fielding them quickly, SOCOM acquisition executive James Geurts said at an industry conference here.
"TALOS to me isn't the Iron Man suit as it is protecting the guy or gal at his most vulnerable point, to give them the capabilities and protection they need to get their mission done," Geurts said. "Just doing an incremental approach to that isn't going to get us where we need to get to. Our collective challenge is to come up with new operating models that make sense."
SOCOM's director of science and technology, Anthony Davis, acknowledged the skeptical press surrounding the program, but said the program's goals are more modest than the "Iron Man" nickname suggests.
"That program is not about putting a nuclear cell on someone's chest and having them fly off to battle," Davis said at the conference. "It's about protecting the operator. The first guy going through the door is our most vulnerable operator."
TALOS is a catch-all for a variety of technologies, "whether a full-powered suit occurs or not," Geurts told reporters. after his remarks. Eighteen months in it has produced "great spin-outs we didn't think were possible," Geurts said.
"That rapid prototyping was almost reverse education with industry," he said. "Industry sends people there not because they had a product to sell, but an expertise and they wanted to contribute. I think it's a great model."
The program is field-testing unpowered exoskeletons, body armor and helmets to see how the combination works versus an operator's usual kit. Officials want to avoid, "creating an exercise machine because you're causing more work using the machine itself."
This year, the program will explore powered exoskeletons, and is contracting for three prototypes. exoskeletons.
While the technology is not "inventing nano-particle stuff," Geurts said, it aims to take advantage of leadingbleeding-edge technology for immediate effects and future special operations problems.
"I know I've got it when the operator says, 'let me go out and use it,'" Geurts said. "We're seeing that right now. I have embedded operators who are saying, 'I can use that today.'"
Lightweight face and body protection are part of the program as is electronics miniaturization, but much of the focus is on augmenting situational awareness with next-generation audio, video and communications.
Technologies at the early stages include the unpowered exoskeletons; advanced armor; radios that can handle multiple waveforms; optics that allow troops to see in various light conditions; and inter-team communications using "3D audio," which somehow indicates where a teammate is by the sound of his voice.
"How do I create 3D audio so that when a teammate says, 'clearing this room,' I don't have to think about what room he's calling me from," Geurts said. "In my headset, it's coming from my left, OKokay he's got that room."
The secret sauce for TALOS is creating a "combustion chamber" that combines experts from different specialties like communications, survivability and armor. "It's about what we're inventing and reinventing how we invent things," Geurts said.
In addition to Outside of TALOS, Geurts touted two successes where SOCOM's acquisitions directorate willingness to circumvented the cumbersome Pentagon acquisition system. These are has yielded two successes. Geurts touted on Wednesday, a 3D terrain model, produced by a 3D printer in the field using just 6 cents of plastic, and a $100,000 cube satellite for over-the-horizon data exfiltration.
The point of Experimenting with different acquisition models allows is for SOCOM to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, the lightning rate lighting pace of technological change. That means involves near-term flexibility and long-term planning, Geurts said.
"We shouldn't be surprised the world's changing, the threat's changing and our operations are changing, so you have to create a framework that gives you enough structure that you cvan go fast as things change," he said.
While American officials will almost always begin their public remarks boasting that US forces are the best led, best equipped, most highly trained fighting force the world has ever known, a hint of doubt—or at least healthy concern—has crept into their comments in recent years.