After more than six decades of pursuing the dream of a heavily-armored infantryman ripped from the pages of Starship Troopers or a real-life ‘Iron Man’ suit, the U.S. military is once again taking a crack at building a suit of powered armor to support the soldier of the future. Eventually.
Dubbed the ‘Warrior Suit,’ the idea of a brand new combat exoskeleton for soldiers is a “far-term” element of the Army’s robotics strategy, according to an unclassified April 2022 presentation from the Maneuver Capability Development Integration Directorate (MCDID) at Army Futures Command, an initiative that likely won’t see action until the 2040s at least.
While details regarding the notional armored exoskeleton are scant, potential Warrior Suit capabilities were first publicly discussed by Ted Maciuba, the then-deputy director of robotics requirements for the MCDID, at the Eurosatory defense exposition in Paris last year — most notably, the ability to lighten already-exorbitant combat loads for infantry forces.
“We will build that Warrior Suit in baby steps,” said Maciuba at the time, according to Defense News. “The first thing is: how are you going to allow a soldier to carry that extra 50 pounds and not feel like they’re carrying it? And then we will work our way up to upper body and we will start to integrate it so that it will be a Warrior Suit by 2040-ish. We have to take it in small steps.”
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As Task & Purpose previously reported, Maciuba was directly inspired by Starship Troopers in his conception of powered exoskeletons, even paraphrasing the sci-fi classic author Robert Heinlein in a 2018 article for the National Infantry Association on battlefield robotics: “The beauty of an [exoskeleton is that] you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it: you just wear it, and it takes orders directly from your muscles.”
At the moment, it’s unclear what the exact status of the Warrior Suit looks like. While Macubia had previously stated last June that the Army wanted to release a requirements document “within the next year to 18 months,” such requirements have yet to materialize (Macubia left the Army in December; he did not respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose).
When reached for an update on the initiative, an Army Futures Command spokesperson stated that while the Warrior Suit exoskeleton is “not actively being worked on or currently on [the] plate” of the service’s Robotics Requirements Division, the organization is “constantly reviewing projects and adjusting as the mission requires.”
“The project has not been abandoned, [it] just isn’t on the active list of requirements at this time,” an Army spokesperson told Task & Purpose in an email when asked for clarification.
Moving thoughtfully and with purpose toward eventual exoskeleton requirements may not be the worst approach. While the U.S. military has experimented with powered armor since the early 1960s to produce “servo soldiers” that can move faster and carry more than standard troops, robotics technology has lagged behind the agile and responsive exoskeletons envisioned by overzealous military planners.
Most recently, U.S. Special Operations Command spent five years developing the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) system that, colloquially known as the ‘Iron Man’ suit in the press, was abruptly abandoned in 2019 amid challenges integrating the complex latticework of unique subsystems into one cohesive whole. In short: TALOS never hit the Starship Troopers-level of system interoperability that allows you to, in Heinlein’s (and Macubia’s) words, “just wear it” during a combat situation.
Those failed attempts at building a unified system of systems that could effectively serve soldiers on the battlefield haven’t stopped the Army from forging ahead with new technologies. Speaking at a 2016 Center for Strategic & International Studies event in Washington, DC, then-Army Chief of Staff (and future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Gen. Mark Milley stated that exoskeletons remained a modernization priority in terms of increasing soldier lethality and reducing soldier load in the field.
Current exoskeleton efforts are “not ready for prime time,” Milley said at the time, before adding they would be “very, very possible” on the battlefield in the next decade.
The Army has certainly attempted to make good on Milley’s prediction. In September 2020, service officials (including Macubia) told Task & Purpose that Army Futures Command was working on formal requirements to fast-track prototyping of a lower-body powered exoskeleton to help reduce soldier fatigue. In 2022, the service unveiled a “soft, lightweight, unpowered exoskeleton” called the Soldier Assistive Bionic Exosuit for Resupply (SABER) designed to reduce lower back pain and stress among soldiers, an incremental step towards prototyping and fielding a powered cousin.
But the Army’s focus on exoskeleton research has wavered in recent years. According to budget documents, the service’s formal soldier lethality-focused exoskeleton project (aptly titled ‘Exoskeleton: Technology for Man-Machine Interface’) was terminated in fiscal year 2022, with the last year the project received funding being just $1.5 million in fiscal year 2021. Based on budget documents, the research efforts appear to have downshifted from rapid prototyping to a research-heavy attack not just on the system integration issues that plagued the TALOS and its powered predecessors, but the complementary relationship between human operator and machine.
The Army’s exoskeleton effort “encompasses conducting applied research to develop metrics, measures, tools, and techniques to quantify and understand the relationships that enable maximum effectiveness of integrated soldier-augmentation technologies,” according to the Army’s fiscal year 2024 budget request released this past March. “The resulting data are the basis for physical augmentation systems and equipment design standards, guidelines, and intelligent agent requirements to improve equipment operation and soldier-system synergy.”
Whether Army Futures Command and other associated sectors of the service can overcome the system interdependencies and human-machine interface challenges posed by the current exoskeleton effort remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: so long as military robotics technology continues to evolve, the dream of powered armor will never die.