"Basically, I'm here to announce that we're building Iron Man," President Barack Obama joked last February at a press conference for his high-tech manufacturing hubs plan.
"I'm going to blast off in a second," he went on. "This has been a secret project we've been working on for a long time. Not really. Maybe. It's classified."
There is a bit of truth in the president's jest about the Marvel character. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the military is creating a "suit to protect and propel elite U.S. troops by encasing them in body armor equipped with an agile exoskeleton to enable troops to carry hundreds of pounds of gear." The project is called TALOS, which stands for Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit but its nickname is the Iron Man suit.
And the project is indeed not so secret. In fact, the nickname Iron Man suit was picked precisely "to attract the attention and excitement of the industry and academia and, yes, the media," Mike Fieldson, TALOS project manager told Defense News.
That attention may have something to do with diverting eyes away from the project's hefty price tag. U.S. Special Operations Command has spent $10 million so far on the high-tech suit. But there is no fixed budget because it isn't an official Pentagon program. And at least one defense firm official has said, "To do it right, they need about a billion dollars."
The military's plan certainty is ambitious:
Exactly what capabilities the TALOs will deliver is not yet clear, explained Michael Fieldson. The goal is to provide operators lighter, more efficient full-body ballistics protection and super-human strength. Antennas and computers embedded into the suit will increase the wearer's situational awareness by providing user-friendly and real-time battlefield information.
And the military has enlisted a large range of groups for help: 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities, and 10 national laboratories. These numbers include Legacy Effects, the special effects team that made the Iron Man costume for the movie. They'll be using 3D printers to create prototypes of the body armor designs. Other groups involved:
A Canadian company that is studying how sumo wrestlers fight while carrying so much weight, researchers in Florida studying medieval suits of armor, and Ekso Bionics, known for designing an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk.
But skeptical military veterans such as Peter Nealen have pointed out that the U.S. doesn't have the best record for developing smart-soldier technology.
The U.S. military has, especially over the last couple of decades, become convinced that high-tech is the solution to all problems. Any battlefield or tactical problem can be solved with the latest piece of kit. The result has been the F-22 (only 195 built at a unit cost of $150 million, and a program cost of $66.7 billion), the Crusader howitzer system (cancelled due to a projected unit cost of $23 million each, minimum), the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (cancelled after over 10 years, at an estimated unit price of $22.3 million, and a total program cost of over $15 billion), to name but a few.
Early prototypes of Iron Man suit haven't been very successful. Currently, researchers say they'll need about 365 pounds of batteries to power the suit that the millitary has envisioned because unlike Tony Stark, they don't have an arc reactor.
Looks like Robert Downey Jr. will be the only person to be wearing an Iron Man suit for the foreseeable future.