Army Capt. Brian Dowling was leading his Special Forces team through a steep mountain pass in eastern Afghanistan when insurgents ambushed his patrol, leaving two of his soldiers pinned down with life-threatening wounds.
After a furious firefight, the two men were rescued, but that episode in 2006 would change Dowling’s life.
Now employed by a small defense company, he is part of a crash effort by U.S. Special Operations Command to produce a radically new protective suit for elite soldiers to wear into battle – one with bionic limbs, head-to-toe armor, a built-in power supply and live data feeds projected on a see-through display inside the helmet.
They call it – what else? – the “Iron Man suit.”
“We’re taking the Iron Man concept and bringing it closer to reality,” said Dowling, referring to the Marvel Comics character Tony Stark, an industrialist and master engineer who builds a rocket-powered exoskeleton, turning himself into a superhero.
The Special Operations Command began soliciting ideas for the suit this year from industry, academia and government labs, and has held two conferences where potential bidders, including Dowling’s company, Revision Military, demonstrated their products. Military officials say they are trying to produce a working prototype within the next 12 months. But no contracts have been signed, and the Pentagon has not ventured to make a cost estimate.
The metal suit the Pentagon wants would be all but impervious to bullets and shrapnel, and be able to continuously download and display live video feeds from overhead drones. Relying on tiny motors, the exoskeleton would enable a soldier to run and jump without strain while carrying 100 or more pounds.
It would, at least in theory, be able to stanch minor wounds with inflatable tourniquets – in the unlikely event the armor is breached. It also would carry a built-in oxygen supply in case of poison gas, a cooling system to keep soldiers comfortable and sensors to transmit the wearer’s vital signs back to headquarters.
“They want an Iron Man-like suit; they’ve been quite open about that,” said Adarsh Ayyar, an engineer at BAE Systems, one of the defense contractors seeking to build a working exoskeleton prototype. “You won’t get all of it. It’s not going to fly. But I think it’s doable.”
Even the project’s formal name is an homage to Iron Man. It’s the “tactical assault light operator suit,” or TALOS, the giant bronze warrior of Greek mythology who defended, not always successfully, the island of Crete from invaders.
Some experts question whether the project represents a misunderstanding of the lessons of the last dozen years of war, when U.S. soldiers, despite being equipped with technology and weaponry far beyond anything their enemies possessed, were dueled to a virtual draw in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“When the U.S. military entered the global war on terror, it was infatuated with technology and believed that it wins wars,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who now, as a Boston University professor, is critical of recent wars. “The experience in Iraq and Afghanistan ought to have destroyed any such expectation, but this (project) suggests it is still true.”
Describing the TALOS suit at a conference of engineers and defense executives in Tampa, Fla., in August, Adm. William McRaven, a Navy SEAL and head of the Special Operations Command, urged them to think about a special operations soldier preparing to assault a house.
“He has to open that door not knowing what’s on the other side,” McRaven said. “He’s got to be able to shoot, move and communicate. He’s got to be able to survive in that environment. … If we invest in the TALOS suit, it will reduce the operation’s risks and therefore the operation’s costs.”
How much of this is Hollywood and how much is truly possible is uncertain, designers acknowledge. There is no prototype, only a smorgasbord of ideas and off-the-shelf components that still need to be combined into a suit for actual combat.