My Apologies to Iron Man: Why Power Armor Doesn’t Make Sense

Spam-Can

The contents of Iron Man’s suit after the third explosion.

My argument is somewhat more elaborate than this, but the gist of it is thus:

  1. Place monkey in tin can.
  2. Shake can vigorously.
  3. Remove pulped monkey from can with preferred utensil.

***

What’s the deal with power armor?

I love science fiction, and I often enjoy seeing science fiction become science fact (even if it is scary at times).  Plenty of things that we’ve dreamed up in our stories eventually come to pass in real life, whether it is because they inspired others to make them or because they were the product of careful forethought on the part of an author.  But what about power armor?  It’s been a staple of military-oriented science fiction for decades.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume that power armor is an armored exoskeleton which offers its onboard human operator enhanced strength, mobility, and protection (sounds pretty cool, right?).  Yet while I’m usually pretty excited about science fiction becoming reality, I’m not so sure about seeing power armor become real.  Let me explain.

The Army’s TALOS project is now pushing for an armored exoskeleton, something which is essentially power armor.

R&D has a reputation for being a little bonkers sometimes; people fixate on really cool ideas and try to make them work, regardless of whether or not the ideas are practical or have any clear application.  That’s perfectly alright, in my opinion, as we never know where such things might take us.  Military R&D often turns that fixation up to eleven, which becomes a bit more problematic.  Sometimes the things we develop are impractical or nonsensical to implement (like 747s mounting lasers to provide missile interception), sometimes the tactical or strategic role intended for a weapon disappears before it is completed (as with Japan’s WWII submarine aircraft carriers), and sometimes the intended capabilities don’t make very much sense in the first place.  In the case of power armor, it all has to do with these things called “bodies.”

The human body is mostly made of squishy things, and these various squishy things perform poorly when they are accelerated rapidly or subjected to sudden shock (even if said squishy things do not move very far as a result).  Nearly every fantasy about power armor neatly sidesteps this problem by introducing inertial compensators of some sort.  These compensators also feature prominently in space operas that pay some attention to science (hi there Honor Harrington), and basically let us wave a magic wand that prevents people from being turned into paste due to standard maneuvering.  There’s a problem though: while we’re starting to build things that look like and may act like power armor, we don’t have inertial compensators.

Tony Stark clearly has access to inertial compensators of some sort, because he didn’t turn into pulp early on in the first movie.  The sudden acceleration of being caught in an explosion and the sudden deceleration of impact, even if one’s armor is never penetrated, would probably be enough to burst or damage all the important fluid filled bits in the human body.  Until we have inertial compensators, our attempts to put humans in armored and powered shells won’t actually offer much more protection than just wearing armor.

I’m not saying that better armor would be a bad thing.  Protection from small arms fire is vital for infantry, and there are some pretty cool items in development that could make a huge difference on that front (e.g. the MIT-affiliated armor project which is associated with TALOS).  But a combination of young exoskeleton technologies and insufficient energy storage density, sufficiently powerful and widespread heavy weapons, and those pesky old meat-suits we have to wear all come together to make power armor’s tactical role suspect at best.

Taking those in reverse order, I think I’ve pretty well addressed the trouble with human bodies.  We’re fragile, and sudden shocks hurt us quite a bit.  Any of the zanier and cooler things that you might want to do with power armor (deploying to a combat zone by means of high altitude drops, jumping from the top of a tall building, anything involving a sudden start or a sudden stop) is likely to result in injury to the user.  Furthermore, even if our bodies are protected from shrapnel and bullets, IEDs already in use can produce sufficiently large explosions to harm us.  I doubt that the armor mounted on an exoskeleton would outperform the armor of a tank or an MRAP vehicle, and the lower total mass of a suit of power armor would protect less from the concussion and sudden acceleration created by an explosion which a heavier vehicle (and its occupants) might survive.

Continuing that thought, there are heavier weapons in common use which would be easily capable of countering power armor.  An RPG (hey, this time I do mean rocket-propelled grenade!) would almost certainly kill or disable a person in power armor.  As I mentioned before, IEDs could do the same.  It also follows that while fragmentation grenades might lose some of their sting, concussion grenades would most likely still be highly dangerous.  I don’t wish to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but let’s keep in mind that power armor, even with fancy new armor that is currently in development, probably won’t be as protective as we would like it to be.

Rounding out the earlier list, there’s the problem of how to power your power armor (sounds funny, doesn’t it).  In order for power armor to be anything more than a whole lot of extra weight, you have to be able to supply energy to the various systems it uses.  With the exoskeletons currently in development, this is generally accomplished by means of a tether.  Powered exoskeletons are attached to some form of generator by means of a series of cables, and they can only operate while still connected.  This is deeply impractical for any sort of combat situation.  Some exoskeletons instead utilize large batteries, but their life is measured in hours, if not minutes, which again curtails the tactical options available to any implementation of the exoskeletons or power armor which relies on them.  There are other alternatives, like the engines that are used for heavy drones like Big Dog, but those are so noisy that they shred any hope you had of catching your opponent unawares, and they still leave you reliant on fuel.

I should also add that exoskeletons (and all the things that would be added to them in order to make power armor) are heavy.  Current exoskeletons generally aren’t terribly nimble, either.  This leaves someone wearing power armor in a bit of a predicament.  Even if we assume that you are immune to small arms fire and don’t have power issues, the weight of your armor will make you less able to handle the wide variety of terrain generally encountered by infantry and leave you second guessing whether any given building might be able to support your weight.  Meanwhile, your reduced agility will similarly reduce mobility.  With all those self-imposed restrictions, why wouldn’t you prefer to bring a tank to the fight instead?

Basically, we’d need some exceptional developments in materials and energy storage to give power armor a real purpose on the battlefield, and we’d need inertial compensators or something similarly magical to make power armor more widely tactically applicable.  The various ideas and technologies which are being pulled together by the TALOS project seem cool and useful, but I suspect that the utility of power armor built with today’s technology would be less than the sum of its parts.  This seems like an appropriate moment to draw a parallel with Land Warrior, a long running and expensive project which seems to have been rendered obsolete by the smart phone.

So while I think it makes sense for development in the various sub-projects to continue, where would a responsible writer of science fiction take things from here?

The clearest path forward in my mind is as follows: armor technology will likely continue to improve, and there will probably be power-assist exosuits available some time in the not-too-distant future, though their applications will be limited by developments in energy storage.  The two will probably not be combined on the battlefield for some time, and infantry will instead continue the current trend of wearing well armored but unpowered combat suits with a focus on mobility and (relative) stealth.  They will be accompanied by drones and expected to use fire support for hitting heavier targets, whether that means using artillery, air support, or something else.  The drones deployed with the infantry will likely be used primarily for reconnaissance, with some possibly being intended to support or lead assaults as mobile heavy weapons platforms.  If and when power armor does finally hit the scene it will have fairly limited effective tactical applications, and will only really shine when hitting compact groups of enemy forces that have been deprived of heavy weapons or explosives.  Their utility could likely be measured in how many seconds it takes for the enemy to hit them with explosives.

Does any of this interest you?  What are your thoughts?  The impetus for writing this came from a combination of thinking about Iron Man and hearing about the TALOS project.

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4 responses to “My Apologies to Iron Man: Why Power Armor Doesn’t Make Sense

  1. I’m am just up to Honor among enemies and really enjoying the series.

    Inertial compensators would be amazing. We could make short trips to space easier if we could stand the higher G loading.

    The concept does have to prove out being viable but I think there are technical challenges not an inherent tactical impracticality.

    Soldiers currently wear armor.

    Currently army gear represents and impediment to movement that is a heavy trade off point. If an exoskelleton can offer an improvement or even an equal trade off in some cases then we will likely have powered armor.

    Light weight materials will help this trade off.

    Xos exoskelleton seems sufficiently agile. One persisting problem I’ve seen so far is efficiency of energy consumption. My understanding is Xos doesn’t take much advantage of human rhythm and has no spring in it’s motion. Each motion is powered with no regeneration or conservation of dynamic motion. To my knowledge there is research on going in this area.

    Engines provide our best current power density assume that can be used purposefully efficiently. Wheels are darn efficient. Tank tread less so but it has other advantages. Walking has a lot of draw backs but some necessary and essential uses in battle.

    A parallel hybrid electric system could cover your stealth concern but I’d rather see developments in fuel cells.

    Engines can be made with lower noise but I think the power density might be a problem then.

    For powered armor to make sense it needs to improve infantry performance.
    An RPG or IED will kill an infantry man but has that stopped the need for infantry men? Higher mobility with heavier body armor and equipment would seem to me to have tactical benefits in building to building combat especially. If additional weapon options and mobility can be opened up that would be of benefit.

    IED’s work when the attacker knows where the victim will be. Bombings can’t be avoided and the attacker can scale to the victim but making a harder target that can take more routes and reduce the opportunity of attack increases the difficulty of the attack.

    I don’t think of powered armor as a replacement for an MRAP I think of it as a potentially heavier more resilient more capable soldier.

    • A number of good points. Yes, exos make good sense as a platform for better armored infantry, and for giving them the ability to carry more weight without additional personal strain. I think I inadequately stated my concerns about weight and mobility though. My original point stands: we won’t see an Iron Man suit (or something like the power armor from Ringo’s Posleen series) any time in the near future. And my subsequent point about mobility is even more of a concern given our current technological limitations.

      It will take considerable advances in materials and engineering to be able to create a weight-carrying exo that has anywhere near the range of motion and articulation of a human body. That agility is important in city fighting because of the highly irregular terrain which a soldier will commonly encounter, and limiting that agility will limit the ability of any so-equipped force to maneuver or deploy with any speed. Anecdotal evidence from a friend who served in Afghanistan bears this out: crossing a sewage ditch on a bridge made of a single wooden plank would be right out for anyone in an exo, while normally equipped soldiers can do so (however reluctantly).

      In addition, the weight of the exo (and the additional weight which it would allow a soldier to carry, regardless of how light the exo itself is) become problems in and of themselves. Exos would probably not have substantially larger surfaces in contact with the ground, and would therefore exacerbate the problems of poor terrain already faced by soldiers. For example, moving on sand is bad enough when you’re only 230lbs with your gear, but moving over scree that is more likely to break and shift as you get heavier becomes even more problematic. And trying to deploy in buildings’ upper stories or on their rooftops (all of which may already be structurally compromised by previous damage) becomes almost impossible. If a 180lb soldier with 50lbs of gear has to go prone to avoid going through a roof or rickety floor, how are you ever going to get an exoskeleton up there, let alone one carrying the squad’s machine gun, tripod, and ammunition (which it probably would, because you’re using it as a pseudo-mule in the first place)?

      So yeah, I agree that exos make sense in terms of giving additional protection and a carrying assist, but it seems to me that they can’t really replace infantry (or fulfill its current combat roles), due to the implicit weight, mobility, and agility restrictions that they impose.

  2. I basically think that if you’ve made a so-called ‘power armor’ device, you’d be better off just putting the operator somewhere else to keep him safe… and if you’ve done that, there’s no need for it to be a biped- that just serves to make navigation and balance more difficult. At this point you’re basically back to boring old drones.

    The more practical application for a power-assisted exo suit is in ordinary industrial situations, like construction or cargo moving.

    • Exactly! Why put the squishy human anywhere near the danger? You could make arguments about response time and security (as with manned flight vs. drones, where manned planes come out on top in air combat), but you’d still need a number of technological advances before power armor could compete, and those same advancements would probably make yet other approaches just as viable.

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