U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program, where partners within the Defense Department, industry and academia work together to solve an operational challenge and earn prestige and prize money, is the future of doing business with industry, according to head of the command.

USSOCOM chief Adm. William McRaven said Tuesday the command is teaming with 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities and 10 national labs on the TALOS program to leverage the expertise from leading minds throughout the nation and redefine state-of-the-art in survivability and operational capability. TALOS, also known as the “Iron Man Suit,” is McRaven’s vision to provide operators lighter, more efficient full-body ballistics protection and super-human strength, according to a DoD statement.

U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) chief Navy Adm. William McRaven. Photo: Navy.
U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) chief Navy Adm. William McRaven. Photo: Navy.

Antennas and computers embedded into the suit should increase the wearer’s situational awareness by providing user-friendly and real-time battlefield information. Integrated heaters and coolers would regulate the temperature inside the suit. Embedded sensors would monitor the operator’s core body temperature, skin temperature, heart rate, body position and hydration levels. In the event the operator is wounded, the suit could feasibly start administering the first life-saving oxygen or hemorrhage controls.

McRaven said three unpowered prototype suits are currently being assembled and will be delivered to USSOCOM in June. The command is also shooting for a deployable suit in August 2018. USSOCOM is the only combatant command with acquisition authority.

McRaven said the concept for TALOS procurement came from a perceived reluctance from industry to share ideas with others. McRaven challenged industry and defense representatives at a USSOCOM conference in May to come up with the concepts and technologies to make the suit a reality.

“I have personally gone out to industry and challenged them to figure out how to work more collaboratively on this particular TALOS suit,” McRaven said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s (NDIA) special operations/low-intensity conflict (SO/LIC) conference in Washington. “I think that is important because, invariably, you get the kind of ‘big industry’ who has the big ideas, but as always, they’re a bit reluctant to share some of their intellectual capital with others, and that becomes a problem…I want a way of coming together.”

McRaven wants to use the “carrot” approach to generating greater interest by requesting permission from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Frank Kendall to award a prize for TALOS. McRaven said he’d like to award a $10 million prize, but Maureen Schumann, spokesman for Kendall’s office, said DoD has not yet received a formal request from USSOCOM. According to law, the defense secretary, acting through the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering and the service acquisition executive for each military department, may award cash prizes that do not exceed a total of $10 million for one fiscal year. The fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) extended DoD’s authority to award cash prizes through Sept. 30, 2018.

McRaven said power is the biggest technological challenge with TALOS as the exoskeleton needs a power supply and can’t be hooked up to a generator. Though he can’t get deep into the capabilities of TALOS to preserve an operational advantage, McRaven said USSOCOM will remain “pretty transparent” about the suit and its progress, citing a handful of public hearings and presentations he’s already given.

The command is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as the Army and other DoD organizations, to tap into projects already underway. DARPA, for example, is working on its Warrior Web project, which is designed to boost troops’ stamina and carrying capacity without sacrificing speed or agility. The concept includes a lightweight undersuit that would augment the efforts of the wearer’s own muscles.

USSOCOM has also invited those who have never before worked with the command to participate. McRaven said USSOCOM will host a “monster garage” type of event to pair the creativity and ingenuity of local garage “tinkerers” with the expertise of professional engineers to build components, or potentially a complete suit, in a collaborative environment.

Another departure from a traditional procurement project is that the command’s acquisition center staff established an innovation cell to lead the effort, advised by operators and focused on transforming business practices to solve the extreme integration challenges associated with TALOS. USSOCOM’s TALOS project manager, Michael Fieldson, said the government is going to take more ownership than it typically takes.

“We are going to go in and make some decisions that we sometimes rely on industry partners to make for us,” Fieldson said in a December statement.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] spokeswoman Melissa Hilliard declined Tuesday to say if the company was participating in the TELOS program, but said Lockheed Martin continues to meet with potential customers to evaluate their needs and provide prototype exoskeleton systems for concept demonstration purposes.

McRaven said simply if TALOS is done right, it will be a huge competitive advantage over enemies and provide additional financial incentives for participants. Readers can view the request for information (RFI) at Federal Business Opportunities (FBO).

“This unique collaboration effort is the future of how we should do business,” he said.