Iron Man and Killing Geronimo*
Several years after the highly successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound by DEVGRUs Red Squadron, Admiral William McRaven revealed an ambitious dream for special operations forces (SOF). This vision included troops equipped with exoskeletons reminiscent of Iron Man, able to withstand bullets and swiftly neutralize terrorist threats. Although this idea never materialized, a decade later (yes, believe it or not, it has been that long), U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is exploring new high-tech capabilities, with an emphasis on something akin to complete knowledge rather than physical invulnerability. A marriage of sophisticated technology with supremely capable operators. More Bond than Iron Man.
This change in direction is driven by both practical considerations and an evolution in SOCOM’s mission and role. Developing real-world technology that mimics comic-book feats is fraught with challenges, and SOCOM’s expectations of its operators have transformed over time.
During Global SOF’s SOF Week conference, Col. Jarret Mathews explained SOCOM’s initiative to develop hyper-enabled operators. He described efforts to adapt to new mission areas such as internal defense, irregular warfare campaigns, and integrating deterrence with allied forces.
In future operations, especially those involving training foreign allies, SOF teams may lack certain tools previously employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as missile-equipped drones. Mathews expressed that SOF teams operating discreetly in various countries don’t have access to these assets but still need to support their partners’ goals.
SOCOM is embracing augmented reality and artificial intelligence to enhance its capabilities. In a demonstration, Mathews showed how an operator using augmented reality glasses could instantly translate written language, gather data on enemy locations, and alter or conceal electronic footprints, likening it to “seeing around corners.”
This technology push includes SOCOM’s “Automate the Analyst” project, aimed at creating a continuous advisory system for the operator. While civilian technology like ChatGPT and other AI models offers similar functionalities, they often rely on public datasets and extensive cloud resources unavailable to SOCOM operators.
SOCOM Partnering With Nvidia
To overcome this limitation, SOCOM is collaborating with companies like Nvidia (that’s right, the graphics card people) to develop an instant translator that functions without internet access, though this remains an ongoing endeavor.
SOCOM acknowledges that it’s lagging behind adversaries like China and Russia in some technological areas. Brian Sisco, who leads SOCOM’s Futures team, established in 2020, stressed that the U.S. has been too focused on counterterrorism and must adapt to challenge high-tech opponents.
Sisco emphasized the need to shift from traditional combat tactics to embracing innovative technologies, comparing the new direction to the gadgets provided to James Bond by “Q.”
Incidentally, in Bond’s world, “Q” is a job title rather than a name. It stands for “Quartermaster.”
He also warned that some enemies are advancing technologically faster than others, and the U.S. must boost its innovation rate. He contrasted the traditional “bad guy” with more technologically sophisticated adversaries, highlighting the importance of government-backed technology development and research programs.
In summary, the U.S. Special Operations Command is steering away from fantastical visions of bulletproof soldiers towards a more practical and sophisticated technological approach. This includes leveraging augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and other innovative solutions to enhance operators’ situational awareness, adaptability, and capability to counter increasingly tech-savvy adversaries.
*Geronimo was DEVGRU’s code name for Osama bin Laden during Operation Neptune Spear