BAE Systems' Real-Life Iron Man

Published in Company Comment on 13 January 2011

BAE is developing a suit of body armour.

In 2008 Marvel Entertainment released the film Iron Man, the story of how billionaire playboy engineer Tony Stark builds a suit of powered armour to fight the bad guys. The film marked Robert Downey Jr.'s return to the A-list and Marvel shareholders were rewarded with a nice jump in the share price.

Although I no longer own Marvel shares, I still have a soft spot for Iron Man. So when I came across an announcement from the Anglo-American defence contractor BAE Systems (LSE: BA) that it had developed a suit of body armour which it said was "… part of a program leading to our own Iron Man", I thought I'd better have a closer look.

Less weight, more speed

Soldiers on the modern battlefield need to carry lots of electrical equipment; a US Army squad leader wearing standard-issue gear can be weighed down with up to 16 pounds of batteries. That's a lot of juice!

BAE has developed a suit of body armour which contains a power supply that allows soldiers to operate without the need for battery packs. The armour also contains sensors and wireless communications devices for the battlefield internet.

Whilst BAE's armour isn't a full body suit with hydraulics that let you lift cars, they're working on that too! You may have seen videos like these of exoskeletons, similar to the cargo loaders in the film Aliens, which greatly magnify the wearers' strength. Combine these with body armour and you're halfway there to a real-life Iron Man.

The need to innovate

Every business needs to innovate. Whilst failing to keep up with the competition can damage a company, in military matters it is often fatal. But sometimes people just won't take the hint. The French were slaughtered at the Battle of Agincourt because they hadn't bothered to develop a counter-measure to the Welsh longbow, even though it had been used on them for the best part of seventy years!

In the last few decades almost everyone who has taken on a western-style military force in a set-piece battle has been comprehensively defeated. So tactics have changed and the west is increasingly being targeted by non-state groups, organised crime cartels and state-sponsored terrorist organisations which use what military strategists call Fourth Generation Warfare.

This result is that there is should be less demand for conventional cold-war era equipment, such as 60-ton main battle tanks and jet fighters, and more demand for anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency kit such as pilotless drones, sensors and protection for our troops (who will want Iron Man-style armour).

Whilst I'm not a shareholder in BAE, I have been in the past and expect that I will be in the future, if I was I'd be reassured that the company is continuing to innovate like this. BAE seems to be out in front with its very own Iron Man.

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NEILLCAU01 15 Jan 2011 , 6:02pm

Fascinating stuff. I believe these military devices are actually controlled by thought: e.g.the Iron Man suit is operated via the mind!And we thought the body armour used by the military in the film "Avatar" was the stuff of science fiction!
I believe BAE systems have also come up with a helmet, also operated by the mind, which allows pilots to bring down enemy planes merely by focussing on them! No wonder I have employed so many exclamation marks in this post (here's another one)!

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