SOCOM’s TALOS: Build It Fast, Build It Right

A prototype for DARPA’s Warrior Web program, which aims to develop a soft, lightweight undersuit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve soldiers’ ability to efficiently perform their missions. Similar to SOCOM’s TALOS program, DARPA wants to create a working prototype that significantly boosts endurance, carrying capacity, and overall effectiveness—all while using no more than 100 watts of power. (DARPA)

SOCOM innovates acquisition to make TALOS a concrete concept and eventual reality.

By George Jagels

The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) has generated much attention over the past year, even though it does not yet exist. Dubbed the “Iron Man Suit” in reference to the comic book hero, TALOS is a U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) project to build a full-body system that improves survivability, physical performance, and situational awareness. It received $4 million in funding for FY 14.

ADM William McRaven, SOCOM Commander, conceived of the idea and has pushed it strongly. In May 2013, he asked industry to work with SOCOM to develop a “revolutionary capability” to include ballistic protection, sensors, computers, antennae, and an exoskeleton to help shoulder the load without inhibiting the operator. The command is also working with federal and academic research institutions on the project.

According to James Geurts, Acquisition Executive at SOCOM, McRaven wants to improve the capabilities of special operators who come face to face with the enemy. “We’ve done a lot of great stuff with platforms, but for the special operator, the last fifty feet from the door are still the same,” said Geurts.

The TALOS team took nine months to research the state of technology and to create concepts for the final configuration, then issued a request for information in May 2013. A three-day technology demonstration followed in July, which included 46 companies.

Despite many unknowns surrounding the program, McRaven’s attitude is that action is required, possibly to help sort out some still vague project details. “We’re playing a short game and a long game,” Geurts said at an April event in Washington, D.C. “The boss wants something in five years, but said deliver me three suits in June. That forces you to keep it real.” And, unlike many programs, the TALOS is on schedule: Three unpowered prototypes will be ready in less than two months.

The TALOS effort is also unorthodox in its acquisition process. For a project so forward thinking and still undefined, the traditional government contracting process is not ideal. Geurts stressed that he wanted to avoid instituting a business model in which “government guys get together, come up with a big designs, put an RFP together three years from now, and deliver something irrelevant five years after that.”

Guerts signed a blanket Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), a government-industry agreement that allows the sharing of resources and technical expertise, that allowed program executive officers at SOCOM to arrange their own CRADAs with industry. Specialists of every type from every operational element of SOCOM are now working on the TALOS team.

To push TALOS forward, non-traditional suppliers and entrepreneurs might be needed. “I don’t think a prime contractor can solve this,” Geurts said. “I don’t think [the special operations acquisition center] or the Army Research Lab (RL) or Air Force RL or anybody can solve this alone. This is about how we get all the best ideas together. We’ve incrementally acquired pieces of them, which we haven’t applied to whole problem.”

And there are issues to solve: In particular, powering the exoskeleton is a major technological challenge. The Acquisition Executive suggested that one way to further innovation—and expand business—is to improve operator-industry interaction. “Why isn’t there a system where company X can send one of its guys to learn about Special Operations Forces?” he wondered. “Why don’t I have a room where someone from industry can come to Tampa for six months, take off the company badge, and sit with [special operators] and learn what their problems are and help solve them? Wouldn’t that be value added for companies as well?”

Top photo caption: A prototype for DARPA’s Warrior Web program, which aims to develop a soft, lightweight undersuit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve soldiers’ ability to efficiently perform their missions. Similar to SOCOM’s TALOS program, DARPA wants to create a working prototype that significantly boosts endurance, carrying capacity, and overall effectiveness—all while using no more than 100 watts of power. (DARPA)

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armor & Mobility.