The U.S. Military Is Trying to Build an "Iron Man Suit." It's Not Going Well.


Credit|||Iman1138/Flickr Creative Commons

"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.

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  1. Looks like Robert Downey Jr. will be the only person to be wearing an Iron Man suit for the foreseeable future.


  2. As Iron Man 2 demonstrated, it’s easier for the government to just eminent domain someone else’s Iron Man suit than build their own.

    1. Well, it would certainly work better and be more efficient.

  3. By the way, with The Winter Soldier than most compelling character in the MCU is now Captain America.

    Too bad they wrapped up the Hydra/SHIELD conspiracy so neatly by the end of the movie.

    1. I hope they stay as far away from the Civil War nonsense as humanly possible.

    2. Too bad they wrapped up the Hydra/SHIELD conspiracy so neatly by the end of the movie.

      Someone didn’t stay until the end of the credits…

      1. Or watch Agents of Shield

  4. the military has enlisted a large range of groups for help: 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities, and 10 national laboratories

    No, no, no. That’s the wrong way to do it. You lock Tony Stark in a cave with some scrap and no booze until he throws it together!

    1. Ah – but the problem with almost all government plans is finding their ‘Tony Stark’ in the first place.

  5. The bold, rockstar-leader Erik Shinsheki was once in charge of the Army’s 20-billion$ ‘Future Warrior‘ project

    This exciting combination of Silicon-Valley finance levels and Big Army dynamism and creativity brought us such marvels as the ARPAT uniform, a favorite among troops and enemy alike for its easy-to-recognize features across all types of terrain…

    Needless to say, there were some ‘less rewarding’ investments, such as the “how much non-essential combat support gear can we make a human being carry before they either die from heat exhaustion or suffer spinal-compression injuries”-program…

    But that shouldn’t dissuade people from *investing into the future*. We’ve got Top Men in charge now.

    1. But Shinseki told us we were all elite and gave us black wool berets!

      He sure loved change for change’s sake…needed or not.

    2. Oh and Needless to say, there were some ‘less rewarding’ investments, such as the “how much non-essential combat support gear can we make a human being carry before they either die from heat exhaustion or suffer spinal-compression injuries”-program…

      + 105lbs full combat load

      1. because the lesson of Vietnam was =

        “we’re far too mobile and flexible when dealing with guerrilla-warfare insurgencies”

        1. Its funny – we need to give you light armor to make you more mobile and flexible, but we also need to pile a ton of shit onto your backs to counter that.

      2. Time to hit the PEDs

        That’s bloody ridiculous amount of stuff to be carrying around…in the mountains of Afghanistan no less.

    3. Shinsheki was too busy modeling his black beret in the nude to pay attention to anything else while CSA. No way you can lay that at his feet.

    4. Well, enjoy.

      At least you army dudes only had to deal with the one major uniform change over the last 20 years.

      Navy went through *3* in the same time-frame. And none of them were for actual *combat* uniforms, just ‘image’ bullshit.

    5. “They actually did a test and it performed pretty well, but as you can imagine, anything that’s universal doesn’t work that well in all situations.”

      The people running the government seem to have to relearn that lesson constantly.

  6. They should just use kickstarter! Way more cheaper.

  7. Whatever happened to the F-117? Has the F-22 proved it’s worth yet.

    Not that I support billion dollar death machines, but I have a fondness for an aircraft that can fly over the enemy’s capital, unseen, and cripple the telephone system of the entire country.

    1. Those platforms are too valuable to risk over enemy territory, so they have not been put to good use.

    2. I hope the F-117s are still in use though there hasn’t been much call for them recently(?). I don’t think the F-22 has seen action yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does only after all our other fighters have been shot down.

    3. “”Has the F-22 proved it’s worth yet.””

      I can guarantee you, there is no other nation on earth with a 5th Generation Air Supremacy Platform Circling Endlessly Over Its Own Territory.

      We will be leading in the ‘drawing doughnut holes in the sky’-race for generations.

    4. The F-117 was retired years ago (after much Congressional gnashing of teeth). The F-22 capabilities are nothing short of astounding.

      1. The F-22 capabilities are nothing short of astounding.

        I thought I saw somewhere that they are amazing, when they are in the air, but its really hard to keep them operational, and in a prolonged combat environment we are going to have most of them in the hangar at any given time.

        1. They will still represent the finest hangar-bound airpower in the world; because winning on paper is the first and best kind of winning.

          1. Then we must focus on tricking enemy aircraft into flying right in front of our open hanger doors, or through them even.

          2. Believe what you will. When I left Wright-Patt in 2006 it hadn’t lost an engagement with a Gen 4 fighter (after hundreds, if not thousands).

            It’s the real deal.

            1. Now if we could only force enemies to behave like our simulators.

              1. Those weren’t simulators.

                Real F-15s, 16s, 18s… with American pilots.

                1. Proving my point yet again = We are our own worst enemy

                  1. No, GILMORE, your point is NOT proven. Several nations have Gen 5 fighters, to include the Russians (T-50) and Chinese (J-20). Think they’ll sell them at some point?

                    1. The T-50 is vaporware and the J-20 is still a good decade away from service

                    2. So what you are saying, Rasilio, is the J-20 will be 10 years more advanced when fielded AND if we didn’t have the F-22 we’d be defending against Gen 5 threats with Gen 4 aircraft for 20+ years until we could field a counter. Of course, in the meantime, they’d be working on Gen 6.

                      If you get behind in this game, it is nearly impossible to catch up, as the Russians found out.

                2. So, if the F-22 faces off against our own pilots in inferior aircraft it will dominate the skies? Great.

                  I am sure all our potential adversaries are aware of this. Do you think they will respond by a) giving up, or b) some other option?

                  1. They will attempt to build one to defeat it, and they have. OR there will be some revolutionary technology rendering it ineffective.

                    The good news is, this will most likely be the last generation of manned fighters as those revolutionary technologies are on their way.

        2. There is probably some truth to the argument that they are more maintenance intensive, but MX methods improve and the capability increase is orders of magnitude above the F-15. Given these capabilities there is no scenario where they will need to be involved in a prolonged combat environment.

          It’s an air-to-air fighter. Once you destroy the enemy’s air forces, its services are no longer required.

          1. yes, and we’ve seen how much the taliban has been investing in their own Air-To-Air combat capabilities.

            Asymmetry? How does it work?

            Well rather than worry about that, let’s invest another $100bn into platforms intending to combat the Future Chinese Mecha-Godzilla-Lazer-Hovercrafts.

            1. Now just one minute pal! The Navy has counter Chinese Mecha-Godzilla responsibility. The DDG-$1BN will stop ’em!

            2. GILMORE, it is naive to believe that the only people we will be fighting for the next 20+ years will be third world buffoons. Without control of the skies, NO other force can operate.

              It takes 20+ years to develop and field a new fighter. That means, for it to remain survivable, it needs to be able to counter not only existing threats, but predicted threats and those systems already in development elsewhere. And in order to bring a rapid end to hostilities, yours needs to maintain some margin of superiority for that 20 year period. The smaller the margin, the longer the conflict.

              Asymmetry, yes. But asymmetry only works against a foe who is unwilling to fight a total war. So IOW, it works against us, but it would not work if the capabilities were reversed, as the enemy wouldn’t have any problem killing our children.

              1. Cost-Benefit.

                (drops mic)

              2. It takes 20+ years to develop and field a new fighter.

                This is the #1 – #100 problem with our military in this country.

                We treat our weapons platforms like an old 1980’s company treats its IT projects. It’s really expensive, so we need to go slow to decrease “project risk” which means increasing the expense as it drags out longer, which means more checkpoints to decrease risk- when everyone knows that every single checkpoint could be failed and we would still continue paying for it, because we’ve already sunk so much money into it.

                In 10 years we have seen nearly a dozen different Drone platforms arise while we continue to dick around with the F-22. In WW2, we iterated through dozens of air platforms, ships and other platforms- partially because we were paying for it, but also because we got really good at failing fast.

                1. My only exception to your comment, Overt, is that it isn’t a problem with the military. It’s the Congressionally mandated acquisition laws. They make it impossible to efficiently acquire the systems and then turn around and blame the military when it overruns/is late/doesn’t work.

                  Place the credit where the credit is due.

                  Other than that, you are spot-on.

                  1. I think it is a broad problem including the military. No general wants to go down as the guy who started a project and shitcanned it as a failure. But that is what they want.

                    Sure, Congress is the majority problem. But the entire government needs to figure out how to be more Agile ™.

                    1. At the rate these systems are developed, the General who starts a program will be having someone change his Depends when it rolls out.

                      They need to scrap the entire system and start over. Which may require a Constitutional Amendment to fix the two year money problem.

            3. Speaking of asymmetry, here is a game that might be of interest to some here…

    5. The F-22? I figured if you wanted to talk serious Military / Industrial boondoggles you’d bring up the F-35.

      What an absolute fucking crock.

    6. The F-117 was retired from service.

      The F-22 no but if we ever fought a major war against Russia or China it probably would be as dominant of an air superiority platform as advertised because unlike the F-35 boondoggle it was built to do 1 thing very well. Problem is we have so few of them they wouldn’t really be much of a factor in a war of that scale and they are really rather pointless in any war smaller in scale than that.

  8. Heinlein must have blueprints somewhere…


    1. That was my first thought.

  9. The government funding TALOS research is going to piss off the Aldmeri.

    1. Yeah, how is this not a direct violation of the White Gold Concordat?

    2. It’s all good. When the Nerevarine returns from Akavir, the Aldmeri Dominion is doomed.

  10. Looks like Robert Downey Jr. will be the only person to be wearing an Iron Man suit for the foreseeable future.

    That’s what you think. (Goes back to welding, and duct taping bottle rockets to boots)

    1. At least get some Estes D engines.

      You know, I wonder if Estes categorized it’s model rocket engines the same as cup sizes on purpose.

  11. Why don’t they just hold bonfires of cash? Jesus.

    1. We could at least use the heat to launch a couple of barrage balloons.

    2. It’s hard to burn it fast enough.

  12. I’d prefer if the president blasted off more in the vein of Team Rocket from Pokemon, or maybe a bit like the Columbia space shuttle.

  13. The government, or anyone else really, would be better off trying to build Jaegar or Patlabor-style mobile weapons platforms, or maybe the AMP suits from Avatar, then scaling down as power sources become smaller and more efficient.

  14. The government has been working on something like this since the 1980’s, at least. God knows how much they’ve spent on it altogether.

    Onward and upward,

  15. My worry is similar to the skeptics: We are becoming too dependent on expensive and fragile technology. It reminds me of the Germans in WWII: they had the best tanks, only not nearly enough of them and some were hard to keep in the field, and were beaten by inferior technology that swamped them.

    Robust and simple should be our lodestone for military technology, not complex and fragile.

    1. “Here’s a Mosin-Nagant and 200 rounds. Try to line up 2 or 3 at once.”

    2. But complex and fragile military technologies = beaucoup jerb creation in key congressional districts!

      There is no other consideration whatsoever involved.

    3. …the Germans in WWII… had the best tanks

      The Germans actually had better tactical doctrine regarding their tanks. They were quite surprised when the Russians first rolled out T-34s with sloping armor. They learned quickly from that, but so did the Russians regarding how to use tanks.

      1. There was an excellent documentary I saw once about the Tiger tank (can’t remember the name of the doc), which pointed out that the Tiger was actually a horrifically bad tank for the Germans to develop. It was resource intensive to produce, difficult to service and keep on the field, and couldn’t be produced in sufficient quantities to be a major factor in winning battles. Basically, the cost-benefit was way in the red.

        And that’s true of most high-tech equipment the military (ours or other countries’) develops. The F-35 and F-22 might be the most dominant equipment the Air Force has ever produced, and they might do wonderfully in their roles. It means nothing if a) you don’t have enough of them and b) if their cost is astronomical enough to prevent you from doing anything else very well. I haven’t followed the F-22’s development that closely, but the F-35 is basically a Tiger-sized budget killer that should have been abandoned long ago…it sucks up resources that could be more efficiently and effectively allocated elsewhere, to better effect.

    4. I can sort of agree with that.

      I was always amazed during the Iraq war when a multimillion dollar Apache chopper got shot down by a grenade fired out of a $5 metal tube.

      1. Are you referring to RPGs?

        1. Yeah. Clearly, I may have dumbed the mechanism down for the sake of my point. But they are exactly expensive pieces of cutting edge tech.

          1. *aren’t, natch

    5. IMAGO (In My Armchair General Opinion) it’s part of the “software” problem many Western militaries are experiencing.

      Training in general is difficult (not really) and time consuming (the former and the latter due to extraneous regulations).
      Training with guns and explosives etc is icky and dangerous.
      Meanwhile sensitivity training (don’t rape!) and diversity nonsense topped off with patronizing micromanagement is doubleplusgood.

      In related news the Army wants to procure a new handgun (the MHS, Modular Handgun System) to replace the M9. That should go well, just like procuring the new uniform!

    6. hey had the best tanks, only not nearly enough of them and some were hard to keep in the field, and were beaten by inferior technology that swamped them.

      This is not an accurate read of Germany’s woes. At the beginning of the war, Germany’s technology and doctrine advantage was a force multiplier- it made one Nazi soldier worth far more Soviet soldiers. The problem for the Germans was twofold:

      1) a 3:1 force multiplier is great, unless you are outnumbered 3:1. The Germans lost around 4.5 million soldiers, and the Soviets lost 2 to 3 times that.
      2) As the war advanced, the Russians adapted, creating much better tanks and doctrine. Their late war tanks tend to top everyone’s “Best of”

      1. Their tanks weren’t better (quality-wise). Their tanks were simpler and cheaper to construct in large quantities and much easier to replace.

        One of the often overlooked advantages Allied force had during WWII was our far superior logistics and maintenance capabilities in regards to our equipment. We did a much better job recovering and repairing/replacing damaged equipment on the battlefield than the Germans did. They couldn’t get their damaged equipment recovered and repaired as quickly as we did, and their best equipment was too expensive to be easily replaced with new stuff.

        Which is the kind of thing that happens when the guy drafting your plans didn’t hold a military rank above corporal.

  16. Police around the country are eagerly awaiting their chance to get ahold of second hand iron man suits from the military, thus ushering in a new era when pigs fly.

  17. The DoD has also paid $15 million to Black Sabbath for the rights to the project’s theme song.

    1. Which is why the army totally needs to fund its own Department of Ballsy Metal to generate new, in-house Metal Anthems that initial surveys suggest that kids will just love.

  18. “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. “

    And there is the rub. We’ve probably had the bulk of the technology that we’ve needed to build a reasonable fascilime of an Iron Man suit for a decade now, the problem has always been the power supply and we really aren’t anywhere near capable of building a power supply with enough energy to keep the thing running which makes all the rest of the research a waste of time.

    If the army REALLY wanted to get a working iron man suit up and running they would have taken the $10 billion and used it to fund a Robot Fighting league that operated as a for profit business.

    1. Old news. These kinds of suits and exoskeletons have been in development hell for at least the last couple of decades. People brought it up after Starship Troopers and the Army said they had an exoskeleton that could dramatically increase the strength and mobility of the soldier inside…once they figured out how to operate it without killing the soldier inside, of course. 🙂

  19. Thy have actually had great success with the technology for the suit itself.
    The problem is powering it. Batteries, super-capacitors and fuel cells are not there yet to be light enough or carry enough power to make it work.
    Technology did not lose Iraq or Afghanistan. Stupid politicians and administrators who had unrealistic ideas did that……
    Super soldiers with suits would still die from IEDs….

  20. You know what sucks about this?

    They *will* spend a billion s dollars on it. And get a functioning product about out to a small group of elite testers at about the same time it shows up as a commercially developed product in the civilian market. And 5 years later, civilians will be able to buy cheaper, better versions while the military will be still be using its DARPA developed mkI.

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