US special operators are notoriously low-profile “silent professionals.” But lately the Internet’s been abuzz over Special Operations Command’s effort to build a high-tech suit of bulletproof armor – TALOS, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit – that the normally understated chief of SOCOM, Adm. William McRaven, actually compared to the metal-clad superhero Iron Man.
Make no mistake: This is no mistake. SOCOM is deliberately drumming up the hype because TALOS is the one thing they’re doing that they actually want everyone to hear about. It’s a conscious effort to get the word out to innovators in industry, academe, and even high schools who might otherwise have never thought of working with SOCOM. Why? Because without their help, TALOS is doomed to fail.
TALOS’s goals stretch the art of the possible to the breaking point. By contrast, the regular Army is moving steadily forward with incremental improvements to existing body armor – which is already way ahead of the protection troops had ten years ago – and intends to field a “Soldier Protection System” at least 10 percent lighter than current suits by 2016. But SOCOM wants to leap ahead to a bulletproof suit so heavy that a human could hardly move in it without a strength-enhancing mechanism called an exoskeleton – and it wants a functioning “proof of concept” prototype by 2018.
“The media frenzy that you’re talking about, that’s by design,” said Michael Fieldson, the SOCOM civilian who’s in charge of TALOS. “We want to get out there because this is a very challenging problem,” he told me. “You might not get there if you stuck to the traditional approach.”
While today’s body armor is issued to almost everyone, from special operators to support troops driving supply trucks, TALOS is currently intended only for a subset of a subset of a subset. It’s not for the whole ground force. It’s not for ordinary Army or Marine Corps infantrymen, who suffer the most casualties in most modern wars. It’s not even for lower-priority special operators like Civil Affairs, advisor teams, or, quite possibly, even the Army Rangers. It’s only for “direct action” units like the SEALs – of which McRaven is a veteran – that go on the highest-risk missions against the highest-priority targets, such as Osama Bin Laden in 2011 or, less successfully the Somali-based terrorist Ikrimah earlier this month.
“We really don’t think everybody in SOF and certainly not everybody in the army would end up with one of these things,” said Fieldson. “It would be cost-prohibitive.”
“Of course they say that!” exploded Robert Scales, the retired two-star commandant of the US Army War College, who’s been pushing since at least the mid-1990s for better equipment, including exoskeletons, for every infantryman. “This needs to be something that applies to the ground services [in general],” he told me. “A dead soldier from the 10th Mountain Division counts just as much as a dead special operator.”
“It’s not about cost: It’s about priorities,” Scales said. “You’ve seen the cost of the latest F-35?” (The latest installment of Joint Strike Fighters went for $7 billion). Yet no fighter pilots have died to enemy action, as opposed to accidents, since the Iraqi air defense system was destroyed in the “shock and awe” attacks of 2003, compared to thousands of ground troops killed in the decade since.
Why isn’t the nation investing billions in keeping infantrymen alive? Scales fumed. “Why isn’t that a priority?”