The Complex

Top Commando: Iron Man Suits Coming Soon

An ambitious effort to build a high-tech armored suit for elite U.S. commandos has entered a new phase, as the military prepares to analyze three new prototypes it will receive this summer, the U.S.'s top Navy SEAL said Tuesday.

Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the military will receive the prototypes in June. The project was launched last year to revolutionize the capabilities and protection of Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces, and other elite commandos who perform some of the U.S.'s most dangerous and violent missions. It's already been nicknamed the "Iron Man" suit, a nod to the futuristic technology it will require resembling that of the popular comic book hero popularized in movies starring Robert Downey Jr.

There's a catch with the prototypes, however. McRaven told a crowd at a special operations conference in Washington that they will be unpowered - meaning the days of super-soldier commandos wearing exoskeleton armor is still years away. Best-case scenario, the admiral wants the suit to be used in combat situations by August 2018.

"Obviously if you're going to put a man in a suit -- or a woman in a suit -- and be able to walk with that exoskeleton... you've got to have power," McRaven said. "You can't have power hooked up to some giant generator."

Still, the admiral said he already has seen "astounding results" in the project. The prototypes in assembly now will be evaluated, with the results incorporated into the suits the U.S. eventually wants to see on the battlefield. It's unclear what the total price of the project may be, but McRaven said he would like to offer a $10 million prize to the winner in a competition. That hasn't happened yet, but it's likely the cost of developing the suit would be many times that.

"That suit, if done correctly, will yield a revolutionary improvement to survivability and capability for U.S. special operators," McRaven said.

The admiral said the project was inspired by a U.S. special operator who was grieving the loss of a comrade in combat. It's commonly known in the military as the TALOS, or Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. Despite more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. still doesn't have a way to adequately protect commandos who "take a door," McRaven said, a reference to the controversial raids that kill and capture insurgents all over the globe.

Already, SOCOM has predicted the suit will include futuristic liquid body armor that hardens when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied, officials say. It also will include wearable computers, communications antennae, and a variety of sensors that link it to its wearer's brain.

McRaven isn't shy about how important he thinks the project is. He wants companies to partner with the military on the project, even if they're still uncomfortable sharing information that otherwise would give them an edge in competitions with industry competitors.

"If we do TALOS right," he said, "it will be a huge comparative advantage over our enemies and give the warriors the protection they need in a very demanding environment."

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

National Security

Text Messing: SMS-ing Classified Information Creates Problems For Nuke Force

The ongoing cheating scandal in the Air Force's nuclear force has embarrassed the service, sidelined nearly 100 officers, and led senior officials to coordinate a wide-ranging review of what other problems might exist in missile units. But it also served as a vivid reminder of a simple truth: The U.S. military is still struggling with how to safeguard sensitive information in an era in which it can quickly be blasted to hundreds of people through cell phones and other unclassified and easy-to-hack electronic devices.

The scandal was first disclosed Jan. 15 by senior Air Force officials, who said that answers to a monthly proficiency test had been shared through text messages on personal cell phones. It has expanded to include at least 92 of about 190 missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, forcing the service to bring in officers from other bases to fill "alert" shifts manning the missiles. The crisis has raised concerns about morale and leadership in a command that has historically prided itself on having a zero-defects culture -- significant, considering it guards the U.S. arsenal of nuclear Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The importance of the answers being shared by text message has received little attention, however. Air Force officials have been hesitant to describe what the answers include -- "the details need to stay with the investigation for now," Air Force Gen. Chief of Staff Mark Welsh said Jan. 15 -- but aspects of it are almost certainly sensitive, if not classified. Investigators with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations discovered the answers on a phone while looking at an officer tied to a separate drug investigation, officials said. It's not clear why Air Force nuclear personnel were even allowed to carry their cell phones while inside their heavily-secured posts; many offices in the Pentagon that handle far less dangerous missions ban staffers or visitors from using, or even bringing in, cell phones.

"While ICBM operations proficiency testing can involve classified information, OSI's investigation is still ongoing," said Lt. Col. John Sheets, an Air Force spokesman. "We'll know more once it's complete, and provide an update then."

Welsh described the exam on which the cheating occurred as designed to test "the knowledge of each crew member to perform their standard operational duties as a member of a missile crew." Missile officers felt like even though they needed to get 90 percent of the answers right to pass, there was pressure to score 100, Air Force Secretary Deborah James said after touring nuke bases last month and meeting with nuclear crews.

Proficiency tests have been used in the nuke force for years to keep launch officers on top of their game, said Col. Charlie Simpson (ret.), who manned missiles during the Cold War and is now executive director of the Association of Air Force Missileers. He, too, said he couldn't get into the specifics of what the tests include. Broadly, however, it calls for launch officers to recall information about how they should react to real-world events.

"The procedures are different than they were 30, 40 years ago, but they're not different that much," said Simpson, who still tours nuke bases and meets with launch officers.

Nevertheless, concerns about sensitive government information leaking on unclassified networks remain. Government employees working in some military buildings are required to leave their phones at the door, and examples abound of military personnel getting in trouble for sharing classified information on the wrong network, intentionally or not.

Take the case of Marine Maj. Jason Brezler. A board of fellow officers decided to oust him from the Marine Corps in December for alleged substandard conduct after it was discovered that he had used his unclassified Yahoo email account to send classified information about a crooked Afghan police chief to fellow Marines in Afghanistan. Brezler was punished despite a groundswell of support from other service members who noted that Brezler wanted to get the information to Marines in Afghanistan as quickly as possible due to fears about the police chief's connections to the Taliban.

The problems aren't limited to the United States. Several Israeli pilots are now in jail for transferring classified maps to each other on their unclassified cell phone. All told, more than a dozen service members were disciplined in the case.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images