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Special Forces Veteran Speaks Candidly About the Necessity of Military Exoskeletons

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For the last few years, the U.S. Army has seemed intent on developing exoskeleton technology. From the ONYX suit prototypes created by Lockheed-Martin to the now-defunct TALOS suit inspired by Iron Man, these exoskeletons are intended to allow American infantrymen a mechanical advantage in carrying supplies while on foot patrol: supplies and gear that, according to the Modern War Institute at West Point, can weigh upwards of 100 pounds, far exceeding the recommendations set forth by S.L.A. Marshall in his 1950 book Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, which argued that a soldier could optimally and effectively carry 33% of his bodyweight in training, with a 20% reduction of that weight in combat. 

Despite Marshall’s long-standing recommendations, the weight carried by modern warfighters continues to increase. A 2016 article in The Marine Corps Times noted that Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course (IOC) candidates were required to “carry a ‘sustainment load’ of up to 152 pounds for 9.3 miles at a 3-mile-per-hour pace” in order to successfully complete the Combat Endurance Test, a prerequisite for graduation. This trend towards more gear – despite admonitions in at least one Army field manual that commanders should “resist the mindset to carry everything to be prepared for every eventuality” and that subordinate leaders should “enforce load discipline to ensure that Soldiers do not voluntarily carry excess weight” – is what informs the push towards technology aimed at easing the burden. 

Army Techniques Publication 3-21.18 Foot Marches writes, “the ability of Soldiers to march and fight is directly influenced by their combat load. Soldier loads should be limited to mission essential equipment. Excessive loads significantly reduce the Soldier’s ability to accomplish the mission.” Given all the evidence, why not find ways to make these loads lighter? 

To get an infantryman’s point of view, I asked former Special Forces Weapons Sergeant Chris Papasadero for his opinion on the technology. “The exoskeleton is probably a good idea for people who need to lift stuff repeatedly in a warehouse,” Papasadero said. “For the warfighter, we have been trying to up-armor and overburden the infantryman for far too long – it’s no exaggeration to say that you could be carrying a hundred extra pounds of kit into battle. That’s insane from a shoot-move-communicate perspective. In many cases, it’s far better to be light on your feet and to be able to quickly move up, down, and around on the battlefield three-dimensionally, and an exoskeleton is just more crap that breaks, crap that needs batteries, and crap that slows you down. I’d rather see money go to better and lighter armor, improved integration of force multipliers like drones, and better attitudes in the military towards a good offense making a good defense.”

In The Overweight Infantryman, a 2017 editorial, U.S. Army Major James King agrees. “Many of these technologies are still in their infancy and not quite ready for combat,” King writes. “While not as sexy as a new fighter jet or aircraft carrier, more resources should be allocated towards the objective of reducing a soldier’s load. Doing so will directly impact battlefield performance.”

As cool as these suits or devices might seem, they may very well be impracticalities powered by pro-innovation bias and the desire to have the latest technology by those most removed from the realities of infantry combat.

“This sort of thing is one part gear-nerd fantasy, one part recruiting tool for the videogame generation, and one part defense spending foolishness,” Papasadero continues. “Has anyone asked the infantryman what he wants, what would make his day easier? I promise you it isn’t more kit.”

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