Today’s military is much more technology-based than in previous eras but while the high-tech gadgets make the soldier’s job easier and much more lethal on today’s battlefield, it also weighs them down more than ever before.

The price of having the technology at their fingertips is that, while all of that gear works and is vital, but it also has to be carried and all of it adds up. Eventually, normally many years later after toting the gear a pack animal used to carry, those long humps under a heavy rucksack will take their toll.

It is common for Special Operations troops to have a very high preponderance of knee, back and shoulder woes after a career in the military. In our day, we used to joke about carrying over 100-lbs of ‘Lightweight’ gear.  And it is only going to get worse down the road considering how much more they have to carry now.

Operators today carry more weight into combat than any army in history. Think about that for a moment and the long-term ramifications for the health of the force. Take a look back in history and it plays out.

The Roman Legions did have pack animals, but only one for every eight Legionnaires. So, the average light infantryman carried about 60-100lbs of gear plus his arms. They were expected to complete 20 Roman miles (29.62 km or 18.405 modern miles) with 20.5 kg in five summer hours, which was known as “the regular step” during the march.

During the Revolutionary War, both the Redcoats and Rebels carried about 60 pounds of gear with them on the march. That remained the same during the Civil War. Although the soldiers wore the thick woolen uniforms which made their marching in the summer an exercise in itself.

But during the 20th century that would change. During World War II, the normal infantryman for the United States carried about 82 pounds of gear into battle. If that man was a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifleman) gunner, it would jump to 99 pounds.

During the Falklands War between the Brits and the Argentinians in the early 1980s, British infantrymen were frequently toting rucksacks in excess of over 120-lbs over long distances. During the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, a Marine officer, Aaron Ferencik wrote about his troops at one time carrying nearly 200-pounds. Think he’s exaggerating? Think again.

Which is why the military needs to perfect and begin to field the new exoskeletons that are currently being tested by the U.S. Army’s Natick Labs.  We’re not talking about a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ TALOS Iron Man suit which isn’t even close to being ready for testing. That is probably at least a generation away.

No, the one being tested, right now is the very workable version by Lockheed-Martin is called the ‘Onyx’ and it is a computer-controlled exoskeleton that counteracts overstress on the lower back and legs and increases mobility and load-carrying capability. It boosts leg capacity for physically demanding tasks that require repetitive or continuous kneeling or squatting, or lifting, dragging, carrying, or climbing with heavy loads.

Perfecting an Exoskeleton for SOF Needs To Happen Now

We wrote about this system about 18 months ago after seeing it at SOFIC (Special Operations Command’s Industry Conference) and speaking with the techs involved with the project in Tampa. The Onyx is designed to enable SOF operators the ability to carry heavy loads for long distances without using up their own energy, especially when climbing steep inclines, such as troops are doing on a daily basis in Afghanistan. Operators can climb 60-degree gradients without a loss of energy from a human standpoint, the idea is they want to maximize the metabolic efficiency of the operator.

Onyx uses the FORTIS Knee Stress Release Device (K-SRD). The K-SRD system is a computer-controlled exoskeleton that counteracts overstress on the lower back and legs and increases mobility and load-carrying capability. It boosts leg capacity for physically demanding tasks that require repetitive or continuous kneeling or squatting, or lifting, dragging, carrying, or climbing with heavy loads.

Sensors on the exoskeleton report the soldier’s speed, direction, and angle of movement to an onboard computer that drives electro-mechanical actuators at the knees. The exoskeleton delivers the right torque at the right time to assist knee flex and extension. FORTIS K-SRD ultimately reduces the energy needed to cross terrain, squat or kneel. These benefits are most noticeable when ascending or descending stairs or navigating inclined surfaces.

The Army is testing it with grunts from the 10th Mountain Division. When we met with the good folks at L-M last year, they told us about some operators from an Army Tier 1 unit that had already put it thru its paces, carry heavy weight, navigating small narrow streets, climbing up and down hills, even crawling thru a tunnel. One operator after just a few minutes of training leaped with all of his gear on to a table.

Both the Russians and the Chinese are experimenting with testing out their own exoskeletons. The Chinese version looks much like the Lockheed-Martin one does….imagine that?

The ‘Onyx’ isn’t bulky or too cumbersome and allows the operator the freedom of movement where he can be as agile and nimble as without it. It will, however, allow the operator to do his job without all of the weight he’s carrying be subjected to his own joints.

Not only will this save the operators’ bodies now and to be fresher during ongoing missions, but they will suffer fewer long-term injuries. That may not be visible today, but 10-15 years down the road? Most definitely.

After rucking three times during the past week, I can feel the aches and pains creeping back in my own knees and back. And I don’t wish that on anyone today…well maybe our enemies…DOL

Photos; Lockheed-Martin