The Complex

Exclusive: Meet the First Companies Working on the Military’s ‘Iron Man’ Supersuit

Will Tony Stark wear Air Jordans? Almost anything seems possible now that the United States military has been in discussions with companies ranging from Nike to Boeing as it works to develop a new space-age suit for elite Special Operations troops that could include super-human strength, sophisticated sensors that respond to brain functions, and an exoskeleton made of liquid armor.

The system is commonly known as the "Iron Man" suit, a nod toward the futuristic technology worn by the wise-cracking comic book hero popularized in a series of hit movies starring Robert Downey Jr. With no public notice, the military's Special Operations Command just unveiled a list of collaborators on the project that includes traditional defense contractor titans like Lockheed Martin, athletic apparel companies like Under Armour and Adidas, and a bevy of smaller firms whose specialties range from developing robotics to producing underwater breathing equipment for divers.

The list appears on a new website for the program, formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. The site's development is part of a broader effort to actively recruit companies, universities, and other organizations with high-tech experience to participate in the project. Adm. William McRaven, SOCOM's commander, wants to begin testing prototypes of the suit by this June, with a high-powered version of the suit fielded to U.S. commandos by 2018.

"Ultimately, we're trying to get the word out about what companies can do and where we need help," said Mike Fieldson, the civilian who oversees the TALOS project.

For the moment, the military has inked just a handful of deals with firms interested in working on the project, including tactical equipment maker Revision Military of Vermont, robotics specialist Ekso Bionics of California, and cooling systems developer Rini Technologies of Florida, Fieldson told Foreign Policy. The deals, not previously reported, are tiny by the standards of the military acquisition world, where planes can cost $50 million a pop and programs routinely run billions of dollars over budget. The Rini deal, for example, is a sub-contract of an existing $2.1 million deal the company has with the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. The company will provide miniature, wearable three-pound refrigerators that will be used to keep the commandos wearing the suit cool through a network of tubes inserted into their shirts.

"We're still doing our piece of it in our shop," said Daniel Rini, president of Rini Technologies. "We're probably going to be delivering our prototypes to them within four to six weeks from now."

The Rini refrigeration system will be paired with a variety of other equipment from Revision as part of the military's tests of the Iron Man suit prototypes later this year, according to Brian Dowling, a Revision spokesman. The company, which has supplied everything from combat helmets to ballistic sunglasses to the military in the past, will provide an "operator head protection suite" that includes a helmet with communications gear integrated (above), an exoskeleton known as the Prowler Human Augmentation System, and high-tech armor designed to protect the torso from bullets and shrapnel.

"We're excited to move beyond current-day technology and current-day production requirements to innovate for SOCOM," Dowling said.

The interest from SOCOM may explain Revision's recent purchase of a small Ottawa-based company, Panacis, which develops rechargeable lithium ion batteries. The two companies had previously worked together on several projects, including the Prowler exoskeleton. The company and SOCOM alike remain relatively secretive about the technology. No photographs of the most recent iterations are posted on Revision's website, and the company declined to release any to Foreign Policy for this story.

Ekso Bionics, meanwhile, will provide the "chassis" of another Iron Man prototype, said Heidi Darling, a company spokeswoman. The company, founded as Berkeley Bionics in 2005, has been a pioneer in developing robotic exoskeletons and worked previously with the Defense Department. Their commercially available suits have been used in years for physical therapy, reteaching individuals to walk after they have sustained injuries. It includes battery-powered motors in in the legs, assisting those with limited physical ability.

SOCOM has more TALOS events coming up soon. Beginning next week, the command will host a two-month "rapid prototyping session" in Tampa, Fla., to jump-start collaboration between the military, private companies, and academic experts, Fieldson said. Military officials will examine options for protecting commandos in the suit, powering it up, keeping it cool, and monitoring through biomechanics. Those in attendance must all require a three-day session from April 14 to 17, and then spend an additional two weeks on site in the following two months.

SOCOM will get help from several high-tech military organizations as it examines its options for the suite, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, SOCOM officials said. Battelle, a nonprofit science and technology institute with headquarters in Ohio, is working with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory of Massachusetts, and Aegis Technologies of Virginia to integrate the many components of the "Iron Man" suit together, said Katy Delaney, a Battelle spokeswoman.

The other corporations listed on the TALOS website have pitched ideas for the supersuit to SOCOM without yet signing a deal. Adidas, for example, suggested an electronic monitoring system it developed for athletes, Fieldson said. It isn't clear what the other companies listed have offered to provide.

Photo courtesy Revision Military

The Complex

Check Out the Syrian Rebels' Insane New Missile Launcher

A new video posted on YouTube earlier this week appears to show a Syrian rebel fighter launching a U.S.-made anti-tank missile at what is said to be an enemy tank, raising new questions about whether Washington has begun to supply powerful weapons to groups trying to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

If the TOW missile system were supplied by the United States -- and analysts cautioned Monday that its pedigree was unclear -- it would signal a dramatic change in the Obama administration's policy towards arming Syrian rebels. The U.S. government has been reluctant to supply heavy weapons such as anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, which could be used to shoot down military or civilian aircraft, for fear they'll fall into the hands of religious extremists. The fighter in the video appears to be a member of Harakat Hazm, said two analysts, which is part of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group generally seen as more moderate than some of the Islamist fighters who are also trying to overthrow Assad.

The video, which was uploaded to the site on Saturday, April 5, shows a man in a black sweater firing a TOW missile at what a narrator claims is a Syrian tank at a checkpoint in the village of Heesh, according to an analyst who translated the video from Arabic. In the video, the missile smashes into the target, which disappears in a cloud of smoke as unseen militants chant "Allahu akhbar," Arabic for "God is great."  The TOW system was built by the United States and has been in used by the American military since the Vietnam War. It's also used by around three dozen other militaries around the world.

But the TOW missile has never shown up in the hands of rebel fighters in Syria, analysts said. That in and of itself marked a potential shift in the course of Syria's three-year old civil war. Regardless of who supplied the weapon, it could give the rebels a leg up against Syrian military tanks. A video uploaded on April 1 also appears to show a Free Syrian Army fighter from the same group firing a TOW missile.

Older videos have shown rebels using Chinese-made anti-tank missiles whose origins are likewise difficult to ascertain. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been two sources of weapons flowing to fighters in Syria. The CIA also has a base in Jordan where it has trained Syrian rebels. Reuters reported in January that the Congress has secretly approved funding to supply the rebels with small arms.

Rebel fighters sometimes film themselves firing heavy weapons, including portable missiles, to demonstrate that they're not falling into the hands of extremists, which could be an inducement for foreign countries to keep the arms flowing, said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.

"We have seen uptick in anti-tank missiles of various sorts being used by the Free Syrian Army," said Shahbandar, noting that the weapons have been effective against Syrian forces. "Whether this weapon is coming from the United States is difficult if not impossible to verify, because the U.S. works with regional partners," he said.

Eliot Higgins, a long-time chronicler of the Syrian civil war who blogs under the name Brown Moses, said the TOW in the video probably didn't come from the United States and was more likely taken by the rebels from Hezbollah forces, who've fought alongside Assad's troops in Syria's three-year old civil war.

But in March, administration officials said that the White House was considering allowing portable surface-to-air missiles, known as "manpads," to be shipped to rebel forces inside Syria. Those weapons would likely come from the Saudi government, which has them stockpiled but hasn't yet sent them to rebels because of U.S. opposition and concern that they'd fall into the hands of terrorists.

U.S. intelligence officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about the video and who may have supplied the TOW missile.

Screenshot via