What the Fighter of the Future Will Look Like

The next 15 years will change troops’ gear in virtually every respect, from body armor to communications to robot interactions.

New technologies will replace a number of jobs in the next 15 years, but one occupation that’s unlikely to go away is the most dangerous one in the world—soldier. The Pentagon spends billions of dollars to make sure front-line troops are better armed and trained than any adversary they come across. But as commercial technology advances faster than the military can keep up, securing that edge is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition. 

So how will technology change soldiering in the year 2030? Short answer: In virtually every respect, from body armor to communications to interactions with robots. Here are a few key areas:

Exoskeletons and Smart Armor

The Army’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program, or TALOS, represents the point at which comic book fiction meets reality. It’s a concept for a so-called exoskeleton that could shield soldiers from bullets and injuries. One of its most important roles will be to decrease the load for ground troops. That’s important because the military is placing a heavy weight on the backs of soldiers in the literal sense. In 2007, a Naval Research Advisory Committee study found that the average Marine “assault load” can vary from 97 to 135 pounds. The recommended load is 50 pounds. 

One potential solution to troops’ weight problem: Get robots to help carry the load. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Squad X Core Technologies program would put load-carrying robots like the Boston Dynamics Big Dog on patrols with dismounted troops, military speak for fighters moving around the battlefield on foot, not in vehicles. The robots would be able to carry much more of the load, but not all. That’s what TALOS is for.

Former chief of U. S. Special Operations Command Adm. William H. McRaven announced the TALOS program in 2013. The hype has since faded and the program is facing challenges. In 2014, the House Armed Services Committee sounded a skeptical note on the project, saying that “overall efforts lack proper coordination and oversight, systems integration and collaboration, and prototype evaluation.” The program could wind up costing hundreds of millions of dollars beyond the $80 million that’s already been allocated for it. 

“We’ve got some skeptical press over the last two years . . . the idea is not about putting a nuclear reactor in someone’s chest.” SOCOM technology chief Tony Davis remarked at an event in January, a reference to the so-called Arc reactor that powers Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit in the popular comic and movie franchise.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Special Operations Command, has said the program is “on track” for deployment by 2018.

That difficulty in coordinating research programs speaks to the ambitiousness and the scope of the project. Bullet-resistant body armor today weighs between 9 and 12 pounds per square foot. If you strapped enough armor on soldiers to cover every inch of their body, you would add 500 to 600 pounds to their frame, rendering them virtually immovable. To avoid this, TALOS would employ various robotic elements powered by a 3- to 5-kilowatt power source. The project, in other words, will rely on breakthroughs in materials science (bullet-resistant material), energy, electronics and human-machine integration—a tall order. Even if the suit doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations on the day it’s deployed, its broad scope will advance a variety of fields, all of which could affect soldiering. 

The military is collaborating with the Energy Department’s National Secure Manufacturing Center and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, as well as traditional development contracts, to achieve the power portion. For the other breakthroughs, Special Operations Command has turned to public prizes. The Novel Armor Design contest, which closed to new submissions in early June, sought “armor designs that would provide maximum ballistic protection without restricting the operator’s mobility,” the SOCOM requirements said.

The command will also launch a competition for software developers to create a simulation to better guide the process of building the suit and flag pitfalls. “Currently, no simulation environment exists that will adequately inform developers toward optimum design paths. Models for human interaction and control of an exoskeleton are particularly critical to reaching a timely and effective design,” said SOCOM. 

Media reporting on TALOS tends to focus on the super-human physical abilities it would impart to the wearer. But equally, if not more important, is the enormous amount of data the suit would collect on the physical and mental state of the trooper inside, everything from heart rate to body and skin temperature, position and hydration. Think of the Apple Watch or FitBit as a suit of armor and built for war. In the event of a bullet wound or other life-threatening injury, the suit could immediately dispense first aid to the affected area.

As the program progresses, new elements could be incorporated, such as cognitive sensing headgear, an Army Research Laboratory project to develop helmets that pick up the brain’s electromagnetic signals for “brain network communication” and “human performance.”

Performance is key to understanding the real value of programs like TALOS. The treasure trove of data will have potential well beyond immediate tactical uses, improving the abilities of the troops inside the suit, both physically and mentally.  

Data for Performance 

Every military wants the most physically strong, quick and adaptive troops possible. There are a wide number of chemicals a person can take to achieve those effects, and the military has investigated many of them. For instance, the Air Force sanctioned the use of amphetamines—on a limited basis—during the Vietnam War to improve vigilance and stamina, according to University of California ethics professor Patrick Lin, and dextroamphetamine is still authorized for some missions lasting more than 12 hours. For the most part, the military imposes restrictions on itself in terms of performance enhancing drugs. As many as 60 percent of service members are taking some sort of simple dietary supplement, according to a survey appearing in a 2010 issue of Military Medicine, but evaluating the effectiveness of these supplements has been a difficult task. A 2010 report titled “The $100 Genome: Implications for the DOD” looked enthusiastically toward a future in which the military harnesses next-generation genetic manipulation as a means of improving the abilities of troops. But such solutions are years away from the battlefield (assuming they pass the ethics test). 

In recent years, the military has emphasized fitness as a means of performance enhancement. The most notable effort is the Defense Department’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program. 

Round the clock data from soldiers outfitted with sensors, coupled with electronic medical records, could lead to breakthroughs in performance. Andrew Herr, a Georgetown University professor in security who has worked with the military on performance enhancement methods, says some of the techniques he developed while working with Defense can lead to a 20 percent increase in both mental and physical performance, using only health and fitness regimes and some natural supplements. Data collection suits like TALOS could be key to improving troops’ natural ability to think and act.

“The beauty of getting data from a system that people would consistently wear during training and operations is that it would allow you to identify relationships between physiology and performance that help at every step of developing and implementing a performance enhancement system,” Herr says. “These relationships help you to identify physiological targets for tailored enhancements. They would tell us when performance enhancement is needed: Do the military personnel need a boost before or during a mission? And, it would allow us to monitor the effects of enhancements to make sure they’re working as expected. So, this kind of data would enable the whole performance enhancement life cycle.” 

It’s something that’s core to future soldiering, he adds. “The value of performance enhancement technologies will only be emphasized by the fact that each soldier, Marine, sailor and airman is likely to play an even more important role in future conflicts,” Herr wrote in a recent piece for Joint Forces Quarterly. 

Real-time information, electronic health, performance and training records are critical to taking natural human performance to the next level. Some of most important data will relate to what troops experience in combat. But getting secure information to or out of the battlefield is no easy task. 

Electronica and Sensors

Much of the added weight troops carry into battle comes in the form of batteries, computers and communications equipment. In the future, that could include everything from rapid DNA readers to tiny bug-like surveillance drones, such as the 18-gram PD-100 Black Hornet personal reconnaissance system—a device that today’s special operations troops are experimenting with. In the years ahead, troops will carry a lot more sensors and data collection devices into battle. 

“We need to reduce our reliance on airborne platforms,” for intelligence gathering, Air Force Col. Matthew D. Atkins, chief of SOCOM’s Intelligence Capabilities and Requirements Division, remarked at a recent conference. “We’re going to be putting considerable energy into exploring and understanding our way to expand ground-based and maritime-based [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance],” he said, to reduce dependence on aircraft that is costly and not always available. “The body worn sensor investments are ones we’re really trying to get into,” he added.

Future brain-network communication could give rise to entirely new methods of communication called “synthetic telepathy,” which would basically reduce brain signals to crude code that could be picked up by a helmet sensor and then broadcast into the helmet of another trooper. The Army first began funding research in synthetic telepathy in 2008 to develop a system to translate brain signals configured as code between helmets. In the meantime, the military will continue to work on microelectronics and ever smaller and more secure communications. The program is an example of how the Pentagon has a keen interest in shrinking the size, weight and power of every piece of electronic equipment that a trooper brings to battle. 

The bottom line: A wide assortment of technologies will fundamentally alter the job of soldiering by collecting or transmitting information. Much of that information will be from troops and much will be derived from their environment. By 2020, the human race is expected to generate 40 zettabytes of data a year—the equivalent of about 250 billion DVDs. This will be the technological context for every future military action involving every future trooper.