MacDill Matters: Iron Man suit out at SOCom, but new innovations still needed for commandos

A competition with an entry deadline of Feb. 15 seeks innovations in 12 areas, including artificial intelligence for psychological operations, improved human performance and undetectable video manipulation.
In this May 20, 2014 photo, Michael Fieldson , the civilian project manager for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit at MacDill Air Force Base, looks at sketches of the body armor exoskeleton during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla. Elite US special operations forces may be a few short years away from donning a similar suit. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)
In this May 20, 2014 photo, Michael Fieldson , the civilian project manager for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit at MacDill Air Force Base, looks at sketches of the body armor exoskeleton during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla. Elite US special operations forces may be a few short years away from donning a similar suit. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)
Published February 12

I was not shocked to read that the so-called Iron Man suit originally pitched by U.S. Special Operations Command as an exoskeletal system to protect commandos in battle won’t be a Tony Starkish whiz-bang innovation.

Last week, James Smith, SOCom’s acquisition executive, announced that the final product, known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, would not match the initial sales pitch, according Patrick Tucker writing in Defense One.

“It’s not the Iron Man. I’ll be the first person to tell you that,” Smith told the crowd at a key D.C. special operations forum. The exoskeleton, Smith told the audience, is “not ready for prime time in a close-combat environment.”

Instead, Tucker writes, the technologies developed, including lightweight body armor and situational awareness in helmet displays, will be chunked off and used elsewhere, if wanted.

As one of the first people to write about this project, I had operators express skepticism that it would ever get off the ground as touted.

My sense is it is an up-armored Pinocchio!” joked Scott Neil, a retired special forces master sergeant. “Now the commander can shove a monkey in a suit and ask us to survive a machine gun, IED, and poor intelligence all on the same objective. And when you die in it as it melts to your body, you can bury them in it! “

Though TALOS won’t be the be-all supersuit once envisioned by former SOCom leader William McRaven as a way to protect operators rushing into hostage rescues and other dangerous situations, the command continues to seek new technologies and innovations, something evident in a recent announcement of an upcoming event at Sofwerx, the command's Ybor City incubator run by the Doolittle Institute.

Called a Collider Event, it will be held April 9-11.

This inaugural event "is a multi-phased, competitive opportunity to present new, novel or provocative solutions to government stakeholders in a one-on-one environment that can lead to a near-term award," said Sofwerx director Tambrien Bates. "The overall goal is to streamline processes and leverage the newer acquisition tools at USSOCOM’s disposal to deliver capabilities to the warfighter faster."

The competition, which has an entry deadline of Friday, Feb. 15, seeks innovations in a dozen areas, including artificial intelligence and machine learning for psychological operations, Hunger Games-like holographic displays, data visualization and human performance optimization.

Special Operations Forces Military Information Support Operations want a machine learning and automation intelligence tool that improves the ability to analyze social media, radio and TV broadcasts of indigenous populations.

The SOCom PsyOp community seeks improved capabilities to create and modify video message content using existing audio, video and social media material created by indigenous population or terrorist organizations to facilitate historical and cultural target audience analysis. Modifications should not be detectable.

Special Operations Forces desire the capability to display or project holographic image displays in various environmental conditions with an undetectable source.

During Remote Advise and Assist Operations, U.S. commandos need to enhance the capabilities of partner forces with constrained manpower and resources. Operators should be able to see, hear, and direct the actions of a partner force from a distant location, staying out of the line of fire. Commandos seek solutions that can improve the distance of current communications, integrate drone networks, and provide man-portable hot spots.

Commandos need a lighter weight machine gun with the capability to engage adversaries in a direct and more lethal capacity. It should be 30 percent lighter than current 50 caliber weapons and be able to fire .338 Norma Magnum rounds in a belt-fed configuration.

Human performance improvements are needed to increase individual operator effectiveness and ensure overall force resilience. The Preservation of The Force and Family Human Performance Program is designed to enhance commando physical and mental conditioning and to reduce injury and maintain peak performance throughout their careers. Commandos are interested in any technologies or techniques that enhance human performance, accurately assess operator physical or psychological states and improve physical or psychological recovery. Optimization efforts could include nutrition and supplementation, achieving results of exercise via alternative methods, maximizing neurocognitive performance, musculoskeletal injury prediction or sleep restoration technologies or techniques appropriate for human performance and resilience.

For more information about submitting an idea for the Collider Event, go to www.sofwerx.org/collider

•••

The Pentagon announced no new deaths in ongoing operations last week.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 61 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .

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