High-Tech Warriors

The U.S. Military Is Building an Iron Man Suit


Iron Man 3

Photograph by Walt Disney Pictures via Everett Collection

Iron Man 3

While some may view the Mark series of suits in the Iron Man comics and movies as science fiction, the Pentagon sees a real-world goal.

A program to incorporate several technologies in a futuristic suit for U.S. special operations forces has started soliciting technical designs to help deploy the first one as soon as next year. The aim of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (Talos) is to give special ops fighters greater protection inside armor that can withstand bullets, all while downloading live video data from drones and other sources. The suit would have a powered exoskeleton that could help a soldier move quickly while carrying heavy weight. “It also would carry a built-in oxygen supply in case of poison gas, a cooling system to keep soldiers comfortable, and sensors to transmit the wearer’s vital signs back to headquarters,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The suit won’t imitate the movies in one critical way, at least for many, many years: There will be no zooming around the globe at jet speeds. Flight is a fanciful, Herculean technical hurdle, and isn’t core to the suit’s primary goals. A more practical challenge shared with the fictional Tony Stark is perfecting the proper battery to power such a suit, given the perennial conflict between size and weight and the need to keep the suit flexible and not burdensome.

The project is being overseen by the U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Unlike a traditional defense contracting program, the Special Operations Command is gathering technologies required for the project and will itself integrate them into a final suit prototype. A second demonstration of various components for the suit is scheduled for Nov. 20, roughly four months after the initial session in Tampa. About 60 products have been submitted so far, although no funds have been allotted to any company, said Lieutenant Commander Li Cohen. The first fighters assigned to the suits will likely be on “kinetic missions,” she said, where there’s a high probability of combat and weapons fire.

The program is on track to have a “first-generation capability” by summer 2014, according to a video produced by the command. “I am very committed to this because I’d like that last operator that we lost to be the last one that we ever lose, in this fight or in the fight of the future,” Admiral William McRaven, who leads the Special Operations Command, says in the video.

The program has attracted interest from dozens of mostly smaller firms, although Raytheon (RTN) is one of the larger Pentagon contractors that’s expressed interest in Talos and similar efforts. The company declined to comment because the work is competitive. One technology that Raytheon has been working on for several years is an exoskeleton system that would allow a soldier to move heavy weights.

Clark Gregg, the agent who plays Agent Phil Coulson in the Iron Man and Avengers movies and on the ABC (DIS) television show S.H.I.E.L.D., visited Raytheon’s research facility in Utah in 2010 to observe and test the exoskeleton. Raytheon posted a video on its YouTube channel. Consider it a teaser trailer of sorts.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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Companies Mentioned

  • RTN
    (Raytheon Co)
    • $92.96 USD
    • 0.86
    • 0.93%
  • DIS
    (Walt Disney Co/The)
    • $86.89 USD
    • 0.03
    • 0.03%
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