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From Iron Man Dreams to Real-World Super Soldiers: The Rise of AI-Powered Hyper Enabled Operators

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The Vision of AI-Enhanced Elite Troops Edges Closer to Reality

As day transitions into evening, the unease among the American elite forces intensifies. Stationed in a bustling urban heart of a region fraught with political instability, they've noticed the streets and markets swelling with activity, far surpassing the usual urban hustle. Intelligence reports indicate a heightened risk of danger in the area, though details remain unclear. With the necessity to avoid drawing attention — and the risk of escalating conflict with aggressive factions — the team opts for a strategy of stealth. Choosing to forego the obvious tactical attire, one of the operatives ventures into the main street of the neighborhood under the guise of an ordinary civilian, hoping to gather critical information.

At the press of a button, the user gains access to an array of information. Mounted on his visual gear is an advanced sensor system that begins to gather data from his surroundings immediately. This includes analyzing the nuances of body language, monitoring pulse rates, decoding facial gestures, and capturing fragments of conversations in the native tongues. This data is then swiftly fed into the high-powered computers he carries, where it's processed by sophisticated artificial intelligence. The data undergoes quick evaluation and simplification before being presented back on the user's display. The AI companion's verdict is reassuring: the local area is buzzing with seasonal festivities, and the mood among the populace is one of joy and anticipation, posing no immediate danger to the operatives. Thus, any potential crisis is deftly avoided, at least for the moment.

In recent discussions about the evolution of US special operations forces, Defense Department authorities have frequently outlined a variety of possible futures. These elite units, known for taking on the globe's most daunting challenges as the forefront of the US military effort, are often the subject of both official and speculative futuristic visions. While the imaginations of both military planners and speculative fiction writers have flirted with ideas of warfare involving neural enhancements and performance-boosting drugs, or even exoskeletons reminiscent of those in Starship Troopers, the US Special Operations Command has a different view. They believe the battlegrounds of the future will be dominated by what they term the “hyper enabled operator,” leveraging relatively straightforward yet advanced concepts.

Smarter, Not Stronger

The concept of the hyper-enabled operator (HEO), a new initiative following the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program, was first unveiled in 2019 through an article by members of the Special Operations Command's (SOCOM) Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) in the Small Wars Journal. The HEO idea picks up where the TALOS program left off, which began in 2013 with the ambitious goal to provide US special forces with an advanced "Iron Man" suit. This effort was motivated by the tragic loss of a Navy SEAL in a 2012 hostage rescue mission in Afghanistan, aiming to enhance the survivability of soldiers in battle by equipping them with armor that could withstand bullets, as part of the Pentagon's long-standing mission to create a powered suit for ground forces. However, the TALOS project was discontinued in 2019 because of difficulties in merging its various technologies into a single, functional system. Despite this, the insights gained from TALOS have paved the way for the HEO, marking its evolution as the next phase in military capability enhancement.

The central aim of the HEO initiative is clear: to provide combatants with a significant mental edge on the battlefield, which translates to overpowering the enemy through quicker and better-informed decision-making, according to the statements from SOCOM representatives. The approach does not focus on enhancing the physical capabilities of US special operations troops with advanced armor or unique weapons. Instead, it emphasizes equipping them with technology that elevates their ability to understand their environment and make decisions that are far superior to those of their opponents. The concept of the “OODA loop” (observe, orient, decide, act), introduced by former fighter pilot and Air Force Colonel John Boyd, is identified as the fundamental decision-making process in military operations for this century. The HEO strategy aims to leverage technological advancements to significantly streamline this process, ensuring that soldiers can outthink and outmaneuver their adversaries.

According to SOCOM representatives in 2019, the objective of HEO is to ensure that accurate information reaches the appropriate individual precisely when it's needed.

The HEO strategy aims to replace the core powered armor of the TALOS project with state-of-the-art communication devices and a comprehensive sensor system that utilizes cutting-edge computing technology. This enables the user to collect important data and convert it into useful insights via an intuitive interface, such as a head-up display, especially in remote areas where conventional communication networks might be lacking. Whereas TALOS was likened to an “Iron Man” suit, as I have noted before, HEO can be thought of as akin to Jarvis, the AI assistant of Tony Stark that continuously supplies him with information via his helmet’s display.

James O. Gregory, a spokesperson for SOCOM, informed WIRED that the [JATF] initiative is focused on developing technologies aimed at providing special operations forces (SOF) personnel with a significant cognitive advantage when operating in challenging and competitive settings, often in collaboration with international allies and partners. This description, which is also outlined on the command's official website, highlights the goal of these technologies to enhance the capabilities of SOF tactical teams. By leveraging advanced sensors, networks, computing, and communication systems, these technologies are intended to facilitate an intuitive understanding and use of information, enabling rapid awareness of the situation at hand. Furthermore, they are designed to support the making of timely, informed decisions and executing actions more swiftly than the opposition can respond.

Venturing into the Ambiguous Battlefield

What is the current state of the Highly Effective Operator (HEO) initiative, a concept introduced to the US military's strategic vocabulary half a decade ago? The specifics are hard to come by due to the program's sensitive and somewhat theoretical nature, with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) personnel keeping details under wraps. However, SOCOM's Gregory reveals that the HEO's targeted scope and strategy have "transformed" beyond its initial description shared with the media at the program's launch. Instead of simply enhancing the capabilities of soldiers in war zones, the vision now leans towards an undercover agent gathering intelligence on a crowded city street through advanced technology reminiscent of Google Glass, focusing on assessing the situation rather than engaging in direct combat – a shift from a Tony Stark to a James Bond approach. Gregory explains, "The Joint Aerial Task Force's (JATF) primary battlefield is now in the competitive stages of warfare, operating either in friendly or moderately hostile areas." (The US Army defines a "friendly" area as one where local authorities support US forces, whereas a "moderately hostile" area is marked by uncertain local support and potential threats.) The HEO's role has expanded beyond mere physical combat to support special forces navigating the murky "gray zone" that lies between outright war and peace.

A broad call for research and development submissions from the defense sector was issued by SOCOM in 2020 and has been updated as late as November 2023, signaling the Joint Task Force's initiative for innovative technologies aimed at enhancing situational awareness. The technologies sought include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools that require minimal personnel or network support (referred to as "at the edge"); advanced sensors for identifying iris, face, body measurements, movements, walking patterns, heart rate, electromagnetic emissions, DNA, and microbiome profiles; discrete communication technologies; and "data visualizations" that enable users to effortlessly assimilate and comprehend information shared across communication, computing, and sensor networks, among other capabilities. Essentially, the High-Efficiency Operations (HEO) seek to develop systems that allow for the uninterrupted, immediate gathering and analysis of information into actionable intelligence, which could critically alter outcomes in volatile scenarios.

Edge Scenario

Gregory points out that while it's one thing to dream up a range of ambitious features, turning those dreams into reality is a completely different challenge. When it comes to creating new products, he highlights that for the past few years, the HEO initiative has concentrated on three key areas of pioneering technology: detection and computing at the edge, structural design and evaluation, and translating languages.

The term "sensing and edge computing" broadly encompasses the gathering and analysis of information from numerous sources. Additionally, it pertains to the specific computational capabilities required by operators not just to operate "on the edge" but also to execute the AI-driven software essential for the backbone of the HEO.

“New advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning demand specialized hardware beyond what's possible with conventional CPU-based systems,” Gregory states. “Our goal is to unveil a portable device equipped with a graphics processing unit, neural processing engine, and/or tensor processing unit features. This device will serve as the essential foundation for utilizing cutting-edge technologies such as language translation and various other applications in remote locations, without the need for cloud connectivity.”

The foundation of the "architecture and analysis" aspect is computing power, which is centered on the swift evaluation and dissemination of information to field operators. Gregory explained to WIRED that in order to back this component, the command has crafted "a versatile system framework that consolidates information from different origins and forms of media," making it simple for operators to interpret and respond to.

Regarding the subject of language translation, its importance is quite obvious. According to Gregory, SOCOM holds the view that "clear communication before any conflict arises can significantly improve the building of our enduring relationships." He adds, "Direct translation from one spoken language to another allows our operatives to interact more efficiently compared to depending on the limited number of interpreters available in operational areas. While numerous Special Operations Forces (SOF) members speak multiple languages, they often find themselves in areas where the languages or dialects are unfamiliar."

According to C4ISRNet, SOCOM has focused its efforts on advancing six key technological areas. These include a wearable equipment set featuring sensors and integrated computing capabilities; tools for creating applications; a versatile, mission-independent system framework; a digital interface projected directly to the user's vision; a solution termed "information realization" aimed at effectively displaying data; and communication systems that enable connection between troops and their leaders, even when satellites are not accessible.

Gregory has revealed that over the past few years, the command has introduced several new features as part of the HEO initiative. In 2021, SOCOM disclosed the development of two key technologies—a Beyond Line of Sight (BLoS) communication system and a not specifically detailed “integrated situational awareness tool”—which were being officially incorporated into their program records, as noted by Janes at that time. Speaking to WIRED, Gregory elaborated that the BLoS system incorporates “a directionally adjustable gimbal antenna system that boosts the performance” of the command’s Special Operations Forces deployable nodes, which are sophisticated satellite communications setups. Additionally, the spokesperson verified that the situational awareness application, named SEEKER, is designed to “facilitate advisers in generating comprehensive situational understanding, enabling them to make decisions based on an overall perspective rather than focusing solely on the problem at hand.” Whether this application is connected to the command’s 2020 initiative to create an autonomous AI assistant to “automate the analyst” function, providing support to operators, remains uncertain.

The "Visual Environment Translation" system, or VITA (Versatile Intelligent Translation Assistant), is designed to instantly translate foreign languages into understandable English. This system is part of a broader initiative led by the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JATF) and is highlighted by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the most advanced of the JATF's tech experiments. VITA functions as an offline, voice-to-voice translation tool that operates on devices equipped with GPUs, explained by Gregory. It is compact enough to be used in the field, connected to a smartphone or wearable device via a laptop, allowing for seamless conversations in scenarios where language barriers previously posed significant challenges. VITA has proven its efficacy by translating Russian, Chinese Mandarin, and Ukrainian during tests. Moreover, it has already been deployed in two undisclosed operational areas.

"Gregory explains that the visual translation feature boosts situational understanding by converting video imagery, including street signage, graffiti, and various written materials, into understandable content instantly. Users can employ their smartphone cameras to survey their environment and immediately comprehend texts in unfamiliar languages."

Gregory highlights that VITA offers US special operations forces an advanced translation solution that operates independently from cloud services or the need for physical interpreters. This innovation not only minimizes risk and logistical expenses but also enhances the operational capabilities and efficiency of USSOF and its allies. He adds, "The JATF is actively collaborating with industry stakeholders to make the device smaller and integrate it into a Special Operations Forces Program Executive Office for its eventual deployment." Furthermore, the future of this language translation technology might extend beyond mobile devices. According to the SOCOM fiscal year 2025 budget proposal released in March, the command is aggressively pursuing the development of head-mounted sensors and augmented-reality head-up displays (HUDs), aiming to directly project these functionalities to the operatives in the field.

Field Operations

For US military strategists, the High Efficiency Operator (HEO) initiative offers considerable potential. An Army analysis suggests that implementing this system could significantly enhance the survival rates of personnel, surpassing the protective benefits of the TALOS program's advanced armor. However, as with any groundbreaking technological project, there's a real risk that HEO might not live up to its lofty aspirations, buckling under the strain of its complex technical demands. Moreover, it's not a given that military personnel will immediately adopt this innovative technology: While the VITA system has demonstrated practical utility, it remains to be seen whether other HEO applications will be user-friendly enough to genuinely improve field operations instead of complicating them with an intricate, modern gadget. Echoing Robert Heinlein's sentiment in Starship Troopers, overly encumbering soldiers with technology might make them vulnerable to simpler, more traditional forms of attack. The vision of equipping soldiers with an AI companion akin to Tony Stark's Jarvis might be too high a reach for defense developers, mirroring the ambitious yet unrealized goals of TALOS. Nevertheless, even if the HEO initiative only succeeds in deploying the VITA language translator, it would still mark a significant advancement for US special forces deployed overseas. As dusk approaches, American special forces maintain their dominance after dark, and with the advancements from the HEO project, they are set to continue their superiority into future engagements.

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