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."
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