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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1



28 January 2015

NDIA SO/LIC 2015: A Look at USSOCOM’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) Programme

Always at the forefront of evolving equipment spirals, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community is witnessing an interesting dichotomy in the development of future protection systems. The past decade of operations has seen SOF operators utilised for a wide range of tasks ranging from direct action raids in complex urban and rural environments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, to more cerebral support and influence/surveillance and reconnaissance missions working out of embassies and other governmental/non-governmental organisations. It is no surprise that the amount of equipment required for such a diverse range of activities is broad to say the least. However, arguably the most interesting and ongoing development involves a USSOCOM effort, initiated in 2013 by former Commander Adm. Bill McRaven, who became frustrated at hearing of casualties and fatalities taken in the ‘fatal funnel’ stage of a breach of a target building.

Maritime Special Operations Forces prepare for a mission during a training exercise aboard the NIMITZ-class aircraft carrier USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN 73). (Photos: Mönch Archive)

The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) Programme

Current tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) see operators ‘stacking up’ outside an entry point before gaining entry and dominating a hallway, room or corridor. However, such choke points have left assaulting troops almost helplessly exposed to small arms fire from opposing forces, sometimes deeply entrenched in the building or compound.

McRaven’s idea was to provide an all-encompassing protective suit to almost guarantee a SOF operator the ability to gain entry into a building without the risk of injury or even death.

Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) programme - SOCOM dislikes any comparison to the Iron Man suit made famous in recent Hollywood films - it aims to provide ballistic protection and C4ISTAR capabilities alongside environmental systems to enable a soldier to operate for long periods of time in a fully-encapsulated suit.

As it stands, the programme encompasses a five-year effort and should a workable solution be presented to the then SOCOM leadership in 2018, the effects on equipment scales for SOF units worldwide could be huge.

The past decade of operations has seen a definitive shift to reduce the size and weight of protection systems, not to mention other equipment including weapons and munitions, as well as increases in power consumption for C4ISTAR systems.

Sources close to USSOCOM revealed to MT that working models of a ‘Gen-1’ TALOS solution had been delivered to the organisation ahead of trials at the US Marines Special Operations Command (MARSOC), at Camp Lejeune, NC, where 10 operators will trial the system over an assault course.
One source added: “This will enable SOCOM to make decisions on where to go for Year 2 [of the programme].”

Special Operations Task Group soldiers and their partners from the Provincial Response Company - Uruzgan (PRC-U) arrive back at Multi National Base - Tarin Kot after conducting a PRC-U led security operation in Uruzgan Province, Southern Afghanistan. 

One company already involved in the TALOS effort is Revision Military. Director for Programme Management, Brian Dowling, confirmed the two ongoing and future trends in protection to MT: “One trend is the usual reduction in weight by reducing coverage area, but what’s come out from the last ten years of combat is that even though you reduce weight and coverage area and increase mobility, you are still seeing those gunshot wounds and higher incidents of wound mapping throughout the soldier’s body. So the TALOS programme looked at a different approach to increase the amount of coverage of protection and then augment that weight or manage that weight through things like human augmentation, through things like load distribution.”

One such solution offered up by Revision is its Vertical Load Offset System (VLOS), which takes the form of a curved bracket which connects the top of a ballistic helmet to the shoulders of a robotic exoskeleton worn by the same operator, meaning ‘zero weight’ of the helmet is carried by the operator. “It also allows full articulation and range of motion but floats on top of the head and you don’t have that mental drain of a 7lb thing on your head anymore,” Dowling added.

It is a common thought across the SOF community that by decreasing the size and weight of protective systems, and thereby improving the mobility of an operator, a soldier will be safer when conducting kinetic operations.

However, Dowling warned: “That is one course but some of the quantitative medical results that have come out from USSOCOM have shown just because a guy is mobile, doesn’t mean he has less injuries. He also has to have some level of protection, so if you increase that coverage area, you increase weight so let’s figure out how to manage it versus continuing to reduce it.”

Protection of the Neck and Facial Areas 

According to USSOCOM figures and gunshot wound maps obtained by MT, 36% of injuries inflicted upon SOF operators are likely to wound the neck and facial areas. So, another option which is gaining traction in the community is that of maxillofacial protection, whose additional weight could be offset by systems similar to Revision’s VLOS.

This protection incorporates a variety of face guards ranging from Roman Legionnaire-type cheek protectors through to variants resembling wrap-around motorcycle helmets for a 360° protection of the head and neck.

Things like modular maxillofacial protection will allow an operator to conduct a breach and throw it off at breach point when it is no longer required. So you’re still getting that protection,” Dowling urged.

Readers of MT will be familiar with the ‘cutaway’ or ‘skater-boy’ helmets now being adopted by SOF units worldwide, a trend which has been adopted by every major ballistic helmet manufacturers worldwide including Gentex and OpsCore. The helmets have done away with the ear cups to protect the side of the head (most SOF units have now integrated Peltor ear defence and communications headphones covering the ears) and covered the helmet in Picatinny rails for the addition of torches, IR and coloured lights, cameras and IFF sensors, amongst other things.

Another company which continues to evolve such a design is 3M, which launched its latest variant AUSA 2014. Speaking to MT, a company spokesperson confirmed it was the company’s goal to lighten the weight of the helmet. “We hear it from SOCOM that to them, weight reduction means survivability, more than increased protection. So we are developing helmets that are extremely light weight.”

The company’s latest variant is the Ballistic Bump Ultra Lightweight (BB ULW) helmet, which is designed as a hybrid to allow an operator to carry a single helmet in theatre, as opposed to carrying separate ballistic and bump helmets. A ballistic helmet provides protection against small arms projectiles (traditionally 9mm and 5.56mm) while a bump helmet does not but can be used for less threatening missions including maritime counter-terrorism operations.

Up until now, people looked at the bump helmet as a really lightweight solution without ballistic protection but if they needed ballistic protection, they had to take on a weight that’s three times that of the bump helmet,” the spokesperson continued. “This option combines the two helmets. A Bump helmet is normally used for 90% of operations but an operator will need access to a ballistic helmet as well as and when required. So we have pushed the weight down to a combined helmet, meaning an operator doesn’t have to take off a ballistic helmet because it is too heavy and wear their carbon bump helmet alternative.”

3M’s BB ULW helmet provides 17-Grain (V50) protection against NATO sub-sonic rounds travelling up to 670m per second, which includes the standard 9mm round. “That is not bad. We are talking about picking up maybe a third of the weight more than a standard bump helmet weight but which offers ballistic protection. For a further 60g, you are getting into a legitimate, full protection helmet as used by current SOF operators. This meets similar requirements to the current [FAST Ballistic] maritime [as manufactured by Ops-Core] helmet as worn by US Navy SEALs.”

However, it is important to note that the Ops-Core helmet provides additional protection up to 2-Grain (V50) and rounds travelling up to 1,242m per second.

Referring back to USSOCOM’s TALOS programme, 3M admitted it was not actively involved and warned that they currently viewed the initiative as a “pipedream.”

However, one executive explained: “We can put together all these features and make something that looks like a motorcycle helmet. But, with a motorcycle helmet, it will have air circulation and you do not wear it for 20 hours a day. On top of that, you have got a lot of soft support in there without hard protection and you can do that and make it bigger because it is a thin lightweight shell on the outside. You ca not do that with a ballistic helmet. If you grow it that big it is going to be very heavy. So, from that perspective, it is not there. It is not something an operator can wear for 15-20 hours. Furthermore, if you give an operator mandible protection and visors, and put all that together in a helmet system, and start running in it, eventually [operators] will throw it away because it will start fogging up and will get very hot. USSOCOM wants it to look like that but you can’t operate it in the same manner as a motorcycle helmet.”

Current serving operators in the NATO SOF community have expressed concerns with a ‘motorcycle-type’ helmet system, warning of restricted situation awareness and tunnel vision. “What happens if your battery runs out, or if any of the integrated sensors fail to function?” one asked.

Special Operations Task Group soldiers and their partners from the Provincial Response Company - Uruzgan (PRC-U) arrive back at Multi National Base - Tarin Kot after conducting a PRC-U led security operation in Uruzgan Province, Southern Afghanistan.

SOF Operator Body Armour Developments

There has also been much movement in body armour as worn by SOF operators, again with substantial moves to reduce size and weight in order to increase mobility. Ballistic plates have gradually evolved into thinner and thinner variants with innovative techniques used to disrupt and fragment incoming rounds.

While conventional units operating in Afghanistan and Iraq were forced to wear large chest, back and side plates, not to mention groin, shoulder and neck protection systems, SOF operators have generally veered to lighter carriage systems for smaller and thinner chest and back plates. Additionally, the latter contain minimal soft armour components to counter blunt force trauma inflicted by incoming rounds.

Again, the idea here is for people who just want to wear the vital protection plate in a minimalist state. There’s not a lot of weight and more manoeuvrability, that’s what this is all about,” 3M officials continued.

Interestingly, the plate carrier has also been reduced in size and weight with companies like S&S Precision, based in North Carolina, offering up a ‘skeletal’ Plate Frame carrier to hold ceramic protection plates.

A spokesperson for the company, informed MT, “Plate Frame's lightweight, semi-rigid plastic design provides a rigid mounting platform and gives the operator the capability to scale their load up or down to meet operational requirements. It allows for easy attachment of accessory pouches and will accommodate standard MOLLE pouches. Weighing in at 1lb 6oz (without ballistic plates), the maritime inspired Plate Frame does not retain any water due to the use of non hygroscopic materials and welded seams.”

This is what the user is looking for. Weight reduction and performance to stay the same or get even better,” a 3M Ceradyne official said. “We are trying to reduce weight, whether they be contracts through US Army NATICK partners or through the Soldier Protection Systems programme. But the intent is to reduce weight from the systems as much as possible.”

Describing how such weight gains could be achieved, he described how the ceramic on the front of the ballistic plate was designed to ‘break up projectiles’ while backing materials (traditionally made from Kevlar or Polyurethane) were designed to ‘catch it’ before fragments of the projectile penetrated the plate. “So the idea is to reduce the weight in the system while making improvements in the ceramic and backing materials.”

Referring once more to the next-generation TALOS system, 3M Ceradyne executives added: “All these programmes are basically looking for the same thing. They are looking for weight reduction in plates, carriers, head protection and any other type of protection such as goggles and glasses. It is hard to say what the future holds. We think there will probably be a variant of TALOS, which may not be a fully protected , enclosed helmet but a lot will depend on the user. He may be issued it but he may not want to use it. It may be mission sensitive. From an overall perspective, TALOS looks good and is heading in right direction to protect the warfighter but potentially there could be variations that have to happen as it goes forward.”

It may well be the case that SOF units elect, funding dependent, to pursue both the all-up protection offered up by TALOS, as well as the lighter weight variations currently on the market. But, whatever happens, the face of the next-generation SOF operator is likely to change markedly over the next decade of operations.

1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, popularly known as Delta Force, is a US Army component of Joint Special Operations Command.

Andrew White started reporting in the defence industry over a decade ago and has, concurrently, completed multiple tours of duty with the British Army in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan providing a unique insight into the contemporary operating environment. He is a regular contributor to MT. 

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