The U.S. Army is developing an "Iron Man" suit. Image source: HarshLight via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.

It's been nearly a decade since we last heard anything substantive about the U.S. Army's Land Warrior program. But we've just learned that the Pentagon is getting back into the "Iron Man" business nonetheless.

Earlier this week, CNN ran an interview with U.S. Special Operations Commander (SOCOM) General Joe Votel, the man who took over the SOCOM job from Admiral Bill McRaven last year. With that job came control of the TALOS project, whereby SOCOM aims to develop an integrated combat suit to protect its first-line operators at DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team 6). In the course of the interview, Gen. Votel gave a quick rundown of TALOS, what it is, and where it's at in its state of development.

Here's what we know:

What TALOS is
TALOS, short for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, will incorporate "all aspects of armor, visibility, of communications, of situational awareness, [and] of weapons" needed to keep a DEVGRU operator alive through the first moments of contact with an enemy. The initial specs remain in flux, but SOCOM is aiming to build a first-generation TALOS suit with the following attributes:

  • Ballistic body armor covering about 60% of the operator, or three times more than current coverage 
  • An even broader exoskeleton to distribute weight evenly across the wearer
  • An armored helmet integrating communications and optical gear
  • A power supply to run electronics and the exoskeleton for up to 12 hours without recharge
  • And all at a total system weight of less than 400 pounds

In future generations of the kit, Votel says SOCOM wants the powered exoskeleton to not just carry heavier loads, but enhance an operator's strength and mobility, to build heads-up displays into the helmet, incorporate cooling and heating gear to regularize body temperature, and add medical sensors to monitor an operator's health.

To achieve these goals, SOCOM is collaborating with DARPA's Warrior Web project, and enlisting the aid of nearly 100 different corporations, government agencies, and academic research institutions. Known participants include... everyone you can think of, and a few that probably haven't crossed your mind. Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) and General Dynamics (NYSE:GD), obviously. But also Adidas and Nike (NYSE:NKE), and virtual unknown Revision Military.

Revision Military, (privately held, according to S&P Capital IQ) is helping to build the soldier suit of tomorrow. Image source: Revision Military.

How much TALOS will cost
The Pentagon isn't exactly known for its fiscal restraint on transformative mil-tech projects. The widely panned Land Warrior effort of a decade ago cost taxpayers as much as $500 million over 15 years. So it's not particularly encouraging to hear Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Allen admit that the Pentagon does "not know how much TALOS will cost."

At present, the best estimate we have is a mention that SOCOM plans to spend $80 million on research and development of the TALOS suit. How much of this they've already blown through remains unknown.

When will we get it?
What is known is that the Pentagon is working hard to get a prototype TALOS suit ready for testing by summer 2017, and a working model ready for deployment to come the following year -- and that things seem to be going well with this deadline. Two years ago, in a conference held in May 2013, Adm. McRaven set August 2018 as his target date for deploying the first TALOS suit. This week, Gen. Votel  reiterated that date, promising that DEVGRU operators should receive "the first of its kind, fully integrated, independently powered prototype by the end of August 2018."

Why it's important
So DEVGRU may receive its first honest-to-goodness Iron Man suit as little as three years from now. That's great news for the next guy who has to become the "first man through the door." And here at The Motley Fool, where we keep a close eye on all the biggest developments in the military sphere, we're glad to hear it. But as investors, what we really want to know is how development of the TALOS suit will affect the bigger picture in military spending -- and that's just as interesting a story.

You see, according to SOCOM TALOS project manager Michael Fieldson, TALOS is "more than just a suit... It's about changing the way we do acquisition" at the Pentagon. Developing the TALOS suit on the fly, SOCOM is encouraging contractors to make use of rapid prototyping of potentially useful technologies, using everything from clay sculpting to 3D printing.

The goal is to shake up a calcified Pentagon acquisitions process, and make acquisitions smarter, faster, cheaper -- and better. Part of this includes reaching out to smaller contractors with novel technology, such as Revision Military (noted above). But another aspect, according to one member of the TALOS project speaking on background to DoD News, is that TALOS is being designed with an "open systems architecture, so if a new technology rises we can swap it in."

By not waiting until every possible box on its wishlist is checked, and getting a good-enough TALOS suit into the field as soon as possible, DEVGRU should be able to furnish its operators with Iron Man suits in as little as three years. That's a big improvement over the Pentagon's usual timeline, where new technologies can take as long as 20 years to come to market. It also permits smaller, more innovative and nimble companies -- those that may lack the cash reserves to wait 20 years to make a sale -- to play a greater role in furnishing the military with the weapons it needs.

Smaller, faster, cheaper, and better? This sounds great for DEVGRU's operators, for small military contractors, and for the investors looking for a chance to buy into them. Good news all around.

"Iron Man" suits -- soon to enter mass production for the military? Image source: HarshLight via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.