High-tech body armor, special ops display offer peek at military’s future

High-tech body armor, special ops display offer peek at military’s future

TAMPA, Florida — Much of the convention floor came to a standstill when Jason Falla started beating a colleague over the head as hard as he could with a baton.

But the Australian Defense Force veteran did no damage to his would-be victim. Instead, the violent exercise was designed to showcase the effectiveness of a groundbreaking new body armor system from Chiron Global Tech, an Australian technology firm. It was just one of the hundreds of contractors displaying their cutting-edge weapons, vehicles, equipment and other eye-popping gadgets at a major U.S. Special Operations conference running this week here.

“We need realistic training” said Mr. Falla, the director of training at Redback One, a leading combat training systems company. “We need a suit just like this hard suit that we can use full-force strikes on … and we can train for reality and build those neural pathways so that we can enhance our own lethality and survivability the correct way.”

The demonstration of Chiron technology was just one example of what officials say is a key component of military special operations in the 21st century: the close collaboration between allies, such as the U.S. and Australia. Military leaders focused heavily on the concepts of partnership and cooperation during Wednesday’s events, which included a host of other stunning displays.

Among the most notable: a special operations mock mission that saw troops rappel from helicopters onto a yacht in the waters outside the convention center as thousands of onlookers braved the scorching, 90-degree Florida heat to get a glimpse of the world’s most elite military units in action.

Back inside, military officials stressed the fundamental value of the Pentagon and its private-sector partners working closely with allied nations and their respective defense industries. They said that Russia’s nearly three-month war in Ukraine has highlighted just how valuable such cooperation can be, pointing to the stunning success of U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank weapons in destroying Russian tanks and helping Ukrainian forces fend off invading troops.

“Please take note: Our stuff works,” said Heidi Shyu, the Defense Department’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “And other nations can’t get enough of our weapons.”

Ms. Shyu, a key member of the Pentagon team tasked with developing the tools for tomorrow’s wars, stressed that it’s more important than ever to invest in new capabilities.

“Despite the world’s attention on the horrors of Ukraine and Russia, peace is not breaking out in other parts of the world,” she said. “North Korea continues to develop and launch missiles. Iran has launched ballistic missiles into Iraq and they’re continuing to build up their nuclear capabilities. China is stationing weapons in the South China Sea. … Our strategic competitors have been investing heavily in developing capabilities in many technology areas, including hypersonics, space, nuclear, cyber and beyond.”

Parity with the enemy, she added, was not an option.

“We cannot afford a leveling of technology,” she said.

Sharing technology with allies and partners — and taking advantage of those countries’ own innovations — are key for both sides of the equation, officials said. The war in Ukraine has cast a fresh spotlight on how access to the most effective weapons, such as Javelins, can level the playing field and enable a much smaller Ukrainian force to more than hold its own against a Russian army previously billed as one of the world’s most lethal.

But Javelins are just one example. The Pentagon also is working to expedite shipments to Ukraine of the Switchblade 300, commonly known as a “suicide” drone with a loitering missile system that can decimate enemy targets.

Switchblade’s manufacturer, U.S.-based AeroVironment, touts the system as both highly effective yet remarkably easy to use. Its relative simplicity will allow Ukrainian operators to learn how to use it quickly, meaning Switchblades could soon become another key weapon in the battle against Moscow.

“Having something like Switchblade 300 that’s man-portable, it seems that when … one begins getting shot at from another, people go to defilade and they hide. And so then you can have a person in cover and actually get a Switchblade employed out to go after someone,” Tracy Stapleton, AeroVironment’s business development director, told The Washington Times this week at his company’s booth on the Tampa convention center floor.

“And I think it’s ease in training,” he said. “That tablet-based interface … it’s fairly intuitive, much like operating an iPhone or Android.”

Working together

Providing futuristic technology to allies and working with them to produce new deadly weapons is only one part of the equation. There’s also an increased focus on special units from partner countries working together in the field. Such cooperation has been on display over the past two decades in Iraq, Afghanistan and across Africa. It would be equally vital if NATO finds itself in a shooting war with Russia in Europe.

For convention attendees, Wednesday brought a firsthand look at such multinational missions.

In the sweltering Tampa sun, thousands gathered to watch a special operations squad composed of U.S. troops and forces from 10 other nations conduct a lifelike rescue mission. Snipers slid down ropes and positioned themselves on the roof of the convention center, raining “gunfire” down on enemy positions.

On the water, special forces rappelled from helicopters onto the deck of a large yacht to conduct a mock rescue mission and eliminate enemy targets. At the same time, teams approached from the water and climbed up the sides of the vessel, showcasing a two-pronged surprise assault meant to overwhelm a foe’s defenses.

Separate teams then raced to shore aboard small armed boats, quickly making their way past the large crowd and into a small building where “hostages” were being held.

The 30-minute mission, complete with the near-constant sound of gunfire and several loud bangs meant to simulate the deafening sounds of battlefield explosions, was carried out with seamless efficiency and deadly accuracy.

Officials said it was yet another example of the effectiveness of U.S. special operations forces.

“You’re looking at the best and brightest,” John Bennett, the City of Tampa’s chief of staff, told the crowd just before the mission began. “These folks, many of them, could be professional athletes or something else. But they take a modest salary to keep our country safe and free.”