Combat soldiers have long dreamed of an exoskeleton that might make them more lethal on the battlefield. Hollywood and gaming are replete with such examples, from movies such as 'Edge of Tomorrow' to 'Iron Man', or the plethora of games like 'Call of Duty' and 'Halo'. Indeed, the concept is not new at all, with GE creating the first military exoskeleton back in the 1960s. But are such fantasies even remotely feasible with emerging technology, or are they just that: fantasies? Despite militaries investing in this technology for nearly 60 years, no nation appears close to cracking the illusive Iron Man model of soldiering.

The story so far

In 2013, the US Special Operations Command unveiled their plans to develop the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) in collaboration with Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. The US Army provided their own image of the future soldier in 2017 that looked much the same. What they revealed was a soldier who looked a lot like a robot. Covered from head to toe in a loadbearing suit, the soldier was also enhanced with increased armour and a fully enclosed helmet complete with a heads-up display and associated sensors.

While the future soldier does indeed look lethal in these images, is all of this enhancement actually practical for the battlefields of tomorrow, let alone those encountered today? Further, if such a suit has been in development (in one form or another) since the 1960s, is it actually any closer to being a reality? For our own part, the ADF has shown an interest in similar technological developments to reduce the loadbearing demands on combatants, with some showing far less promise than others.

Technological versus warfighting requirements

To break this down, let’s begin by addressing loadbearing aspects of such a suit. Any dismounted combatant is acutely familiar with the physical demands of loadbearing. Alleviating this demand would not only increase their effectiveness but would vastly alter the recruiting and training dimensions associated with generating such combatants. But strapping a suit across the body to achieve this poses a variety of challenges in fitting, storage, maintenance and the time spent putting on and removing the suit.

If the soldier can’t fight in the suit, then its utility is limited at best. Time spent removing a suit to fight could prove fatal in combat. If the soldier can fight in the suit, it needs to address the challenges of not inhibiting movement in and out of vehicles, access to pouches and applying first aid. Could a combat tourniquet be applied with the suit still on? If the answer is no, how much time does this add to mitigating massive haemorrhage, the most common cause of preventable death on the battlefield?

Assuming these challenges have been mitigated, what kind of power does the suit require? Even the US Army future soldier couldn’t imagine away the need for a large battery pack strapped to the soldier’s back. The thought of having to carry the very suit that was supposed to limit your load burden would be heartbreaking for a soldier when the battery runs out. A suit that doesn’t require power would mitigate this challenge but by default would negate its ability to affix the other electronic enhancements desired in the TALOS or future soldier image.

If the suit does possess the all-encompassing features that TALOS describes, where do we imagine such a suit being employed? Any environment near water poses risk of drowning for the (now much heavier) soldier.  Any environment that requires the soldier to talk to civilians (which is most), poses challenges of being able to relate to a person while looking like a droid. Such features limit the practical utility for these suits to environments outside of short-duration, direct action missions more commonly prescribed to Special Forces. But if the mission is short duration, the desire of such a suit to reduce the fatigue of the operator becomes far less important.

Trade offs

There are mitigations to many of the challenges highlighted above. But each mitigation requires a trade-off and each trade-off risks moving away from the intended goal. More countermeasures typically means more weight. More weight reduces the speed and power of the suit. More electronics means more energy requirements which equates to a larger battery and again, more weight. Of course, there are exciting developments in nanotechnology and human-machine teaming, but these elusive developments have always seemed just around the corner.

Where there is more likely to be significant potential for this technology is in support roles. The proliferation of such suits in manufacturing jobs offer similar possibilities for each of the services of the ADF. Reducing fatigue, injuries and the number of individuals required for a given job are all worthwhile pursuits for the ADF that could prolong an individual’s career, offer them increased employment options if they are wounded as well as increasing the available recruiting pool from the population. Such technology (along with robotics) will no doubt transform many roles in the ADF, but the combatant is unlikely to be one of them – at least for the foreseeable future.

The future...

When TALOS was given a quiet death last year, the US military may well have accepted this reality, although the allure of the latest technological development could very well reinvigorate such programs, as it has for the past 60 years. Gravity Industries’ ‘Jet Suit’ (while not strictly an exoskeleton) attracted such interest when it was launched off HMS Queen Elizabeth last year. Wanting our future soldiers to fly is an entirely separate discussion that poses its own unique challenges, so it might be best to go to back to basics and determine what exactly we want from our future soldiers. If the desire is to create humans that are more like robots, wouldn’t it be easier to just use robots?