As daylight fades into night, the American special forces soldiers become uneasy. Their current mission takes them to a densely populated urban area in a politically unstable region, and the local activity has escalated in recent days, with the streets and markets busier than usual. Intel indicates a high level of threat in the city, but details are scarce, so the team must keep a low profile to avoid attracting hostile elements. To assess potential risks, the Americans opt for a cautious approach. Instead of wearing conspicuous tactical gear, they blend in with the crowds, with one soldier stepping onto the main street to observe.

With a simple press of a button, the soldier gains access to a wealth of information. Advanced sensors on his heads-up display start collecting data from his surroundings – body language, heart rates, facial expressions, and even snippets of local conversations in various dialects are quickly gathered and processed by his backpack supercomputers with the help of an onboard artificial intelligence system. The data is promptly analyzed, refined, and presented back on the heads-up display. The tactical AI companion confirms that the majority of people are excited about upcoming events in town and pose minimal threat to the team. Crisis averted, at least for now.

This scenario is one of many that Defense Department officials have consistently highlighted in recent years when discussing the future of US special operations forces, the elite troops responsible for confronting the most complex threats worldwide as the vanguard of the US military. While both defense officials and science fiction writers have imagined warfare potentially involving brain implants, performance-enhancing drugs, or powered armor similar to that seen in Starship Troopers, US Special Operations Command envisions the next era of warfare being shaped by a relatively straightforward concept: the “hyper enabled operator.”

Enhanced Intelligence, Reduced Physicality

Introduced to the public in 2019 in an article by officials from SOCOM’s Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) for Small Wars Journal, the hyper-enabled operator (HEO) concept succeeds the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) initiative that aimed to equip US special operations forces with an “Iron Man” suit. Inspired by the tragic death of a Navy SEAL during a rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2012, TALOS aimed to enhance operators’ survivability in combat by providing them with advanced armor to withstand small-arms fire, representing the latest chapter in the Pentagon’s prolonged effort to create powered exoskeletons for infantry. Although the TALOS program was abandoned in 2019 due to challenges in integrating its various systems, it paved the way for the HEO program to take its place.

The primary objective of the HEO concept is simple: to provide soldiers with superior cognitive abilities on the battlefield, enabling them to make quick, informed decisions to outsmart the enemy. Instead of relying solely on enhanced physical attributes through cutting-edge body armor and advanced weapons, the future operator will leverage technologies that elevate their awareness and decision-making skills to outmatch their adversaries. Former fighter pilot and Air Force colonel John Boyd famously proposed the concept of “hyperaggressiveness,” an approach foreshadowing the emergence.OODA loop” (observe, orient, decide, act) stands out as the fundamental military decision-making model of the 21st century. The HEO concept aims to enhance this loop using technology to accelerate operators’ decision-making process, surpassing that of the adversary.

In 2019, SOCOM officials described the objective of HEO as delivering the correct information to the appropriate individual at the precise moment, seeking to achieve this goal through the utilization of advanced communication tools and a comprehensive sensor suite integrated with cutting-edge computing structure. This setup enables operators to gather relevant data swiftly and transform it into actionable insights using a straightforward interface such as a head-up display. Moreover, this process takes place “at the edge,” in locations where traditional communication infrastructure may not be accessible. If the TALOS project was likened to an “Iron Man” suit, as previously noted, then HEO is akin to Jarvis, Tony Stark’s integrated AI assistant that consistently provides him with information via his helmet’s head-up display.