TALOS: Honing the Art of Tactical Protection

COL Alex MacCalman
Program Manager
Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS)
U.S. Special Operations Command

From Armor & Mobility, May/June 2019 Issue

COL Alex MacCalman is the current Director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force and served as the Chief Engineer for the TALOS Project. He is a Special Forces officer with a functional area in Operations Research System Analyst. COL MacCalman served as an Special Forces Operational Detachment Commander for five years and led analytical studies for the Army and USSOCOM. He has a PhD in system simulation analysis, a MS in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School and a BS in Engineering Management from the United States Military Academy.

Armor & Mobility spoke with USSOCOM’s Joint Acquisition Task Force regarding the state of Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) acquisition for use with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF).

A&M: TALOS is organized into a Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) at U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) headquarters. What are some of the advantages of the JATF organizational structure? How does the JATF differ from USSOCOM’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate? Are there any overlaps and coordination?

COL MacCalman: The JATF organizational structure fosters a culture of experimentation to inform users through iterative prototyping of new technical solutions that enhance the Special Operations Forces (SOF) mission. The JATF serves as an elite SOF problem refinement tool with a disciplined experimental process that delivers insights to the Enterprise.

The potential insights that emerge from the process can be in many forms: They may increase knowledge on existing capability gaps, inform industry solicitations on SOF needs, derive key performance parameters and key system attributes threshold and objective levels, identify technology roadmap insertion points, provide technology readiness assessments, or refine basic research questions. The JATF team is comprised of SOF operators, engineers, scientists, acquisition experts and contracting personnel. This blend of professionals creates a unique organization with a mission to define problems, rapidly prototype, learn and scale successes. The JATF is embedded within USSOCOM’s Science and Technology (S&T) directorate and is led by an operational SOF Colonel or Navy Captain (O-6). The JATF complements the S&T Directorate by bolstering applied research on the Hyper-Enabled Operator (HEO) concept.

A&M: What is USSOCOM doing with the TALOS program?

COL MacCalman: The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) was never a program of record. TALOS was an applied research project that sought out disruptive technologies. TALOS was chartered to explore and catalyze a revolutionary integration of advanced technology to provide comprehensive ballistic protection, peerless tactical capabilities, and ultimately enhance the strategic effectiveness of the SOF operator of the future. To achieve this, the JATF focused on developing a prototype combat suit while acting as the prime integrator, accelerating and transitioning technologies, innovating processes and fostering persistent collaboration with an emphasis on non-traditional partners.

The key outcomes of the TALOS project include pioneering of innovative processes; technology spin-outs that increased survivability, human performance, situational awareness and surgical lethality; acceleration of USSOCOM research in human-machine interface technologies and the reinforcement of our need to experiment with prototypes and foster a learning culture.

While TALOS focused on the physical domain, but now the JATF will focus on the enabling technologies from the digital and cyber domains that affect the cognitive domain. As the TALOS project draws to a close in 2019, the JATF has refocused on the Hyper-Enabled Operator (HEO) vision and concept.

A&M: The Hyper-Enabled Operator, or HEO, vision and concept is an apparent shift in emphasis from the physical domain to the cognitive and cyber domains. In your opinion, what’s the underlying thought process behind this shift? Why do you think this shift is necessary?

COL MacCalman: The HEO concept emerged from the need to embrace USSOCOM’s future operating environment and is intended to focus on cognition at the tactical edge – the dismounted SOF professional operating in austere or denied environments who is empowered by technologies that increases situational awareness, reduces cognitive load, and accelerates decision-making. SOF Operators, along with the rest of the military will have to operate in a complex cross-domain environment involving not only the physical domain of land, air, maritime and space but also the virtual domain within computer generated environments or cyberspace, and the cognitive domain that involves reducing our own cognitive load and increasing situational awareness, and also influencing the minds of our opponents.

HEO also centers on the reality of data: Today’s technology produces exceptional amounts of data and information that can be processed, delivered to special operators at the right time to affect the outcome of an operation. USSOCOM must develop the architectures necessary to sense, monitor, transport, process, and analyze data to aggregate and present the information in a way that best informs tactical-level decision making.

Defining the HEO in these ways highlights the first SOF Truth, that “humans are more important than hardware,” and emphasizes the enabling technologies the tactical level operator will use and need while on a mission. Enabling technologies include data assets, adaptive and flexible sensors, scalable tactical communications, edge computing, embedded algorithms and tailorable human-machine interfaces.

Examples of HEO capabilities that can enhance cognition at the edge are real-time object recognition combined with other sensor modalities that aggregate a higher probability of identification and characterization; live language translation that enhance communications; software defined radios that acquire digital signatures; audio listening and computer vision capabilities that cue critical information requirements that can accelerate decision making; biomedical and human performance monitoring combined with spatial location of entities within the environment; social network visualizations that provide a contextual understanding of the human terrain, and many others.

A&M: Some of the TALOS technology developments are going to be further developed to advance HEO concepts. Can you elaborate more on what focus areas research and development will occur?

COL MacCalman: A few TALOS prototypes have accelerated our research in the HEO concept: The embedded computing environment and software architecture, the 3-dimensional audio headset that cues sound directions in both the ambient and RF spectrums, the visual augmentation and augmented reality systems, the biomedical monitoring suits and the operational stress heuristics that inform human performance.

HEO research focuses on identifying key opportunities to insert and integrate technology developed in the other capability areas in order to give the operator the full benefit of high-quality data and information at the tactical edge. Additionally, HEO research investigates the utility of these immersive technologies and their ability to enhance cognition. There will be many forms of HEO architectures that will be analagous to the Internet of Things architectures; the architectural form will be contingent on a desired use case and therefore, highlights our need to clearly define problems. HEO architectures will involve a variety of architectural designs decisions that will impact the scalability and compliance to security standards. These design decisions will involve sensor types, routing and protocols, networked communications, edge computing, cloud services, analytics, size, weight, and power constraints, and security.

A HEO architecture will be a networked multi-tiered node topology. Physical examples of nodes are end user devices the human interfaces with, sensors, radios, computing devises, routers, platforms, space assets or cloud types. These nodes are connected via various types of data links forming a topology that will constitute a deployment of a HEO architecture. Our research will experiment on various forms of these architectures in order to understand trade space decisions, technical limitations and interface standards. The outcome of our experiments will inform our users on the viability of various solutions that will enhance the operator’s cognition.

The HEO concept will continue to evolve as technological advancements emerge.

A&M: This year’s theme at SOFIC is “Accelerating SOF Innovation.” Based on your experience working with industry, how can a company who has never done business with USSOCOM organize to accelerate SOF innovation and support the HEO research and development?

COL MacCalman: USSOCOM believes that transformational innovation does not start with solutions, it begins with a clear understanding of a problem. A clearly defined problem will allow USSOCOM to generate ideas that potentially may solve problems. These ideas evolve into unsophisticated prototypes that are tested to learn if they are a viable solution to a problem. The faster we can arrive at this type of learning the better we can “Accelerate SOF Innovation.”

At SOFIC, industry learns about USSOCOM’s current programs of record, current requirements, research and development efforts and, ultimately how they can help USSOCOM make the acquisition process go faster to more quickly field the latest innovate and disruptive technology to SOF. It’s a great opportunity for someone new to learn, network, and engage with the experts to better inform their decision making.

Outside of SOFIC, there are several ways industry can continue engagement with USSOCOM. The S&T Directorate publishes broad agency announcements periodically with specific areas of interest:

USSOCOM conducts technical experimentation events to provide an opportunity for respondents to interact with operational personnel to determine how their technology development efforts and ideas may support or enhance SOF capability needs. The environment facilitates a collaborative relationship between government, academia, and industry to promote the identification and assessment of emerging technologies. For more information, visit https://www.socom.mil/SOF-ATL.

The USSOCOM Commercial Solutions Opening provides a means to fund prototyping opportunities with existing commercial solutions that enables a more rapid and tailored acquisitions pathway aligned with the Other Transaction Authority Acquisition reforms. For more information, visit FedbizOpps.gov and search for solicitation number H92405-19-S-CSO1.

The USSOCOM Cooperative Research and Development Agreement provides general access to USSOCOM gaps and needs to foster collaboration and allows for the formulation and execution of Individual Work Plans between the collaborator and SOF AT&L.

The Technology & Industry Liaison Office (TILO) is the conduit for the SOF AT&L Enterprise. TILO matches your company’s product/service/capability to the appropriate personnel within the command and schedules discussions or demos. For more information, visit https://www.socom.mil/SOF-ATL.

Vulcan is web-based platform that enables anyone to quickly describe technology and upload supporting documentation to a secure, shared, searchable, central database. For more information, visit https://www.vulcan-sof.com.