Chinese border guard troops use exoskeleton suits to haul heavy lands in the Himalayas. Photo via CCTV video screengrab.
China’s no-holds-barred military modernization program has included some attention-grabbing new technologies seemingly drawn from the recesses of science fiction. In addition to the development of artificial intelligence technology, experiments in weather control, and the development of microwave “heat ray” weapons, Beijing has also reportedly pursued programs to genetically engineer super soldiers.
And if a recent Chinese news report is to be taken at face value, the Chinese military has already deployed troops equipped with strength-enhancing exoskeleton suits to the disputed Sino-Indian Himalayan border.
According to a report by the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, a detachment of Chinese border guard troops wearing the exoskeleton suits hauled a supply delivery to a mountaintop outpost in China’s southwestern Ngari prefecture — a Himalayan territory within the Tibetan Autonomous Region that includes portions of China’s contested border with India. In a video news report posted online, Chinese soldiers don devices that attach to their legs and waists, providing extra propulsion and support as they shouldered loads (containing food parcels to celebrate the Lunar New Year) up a rugged mountain trail at a reported altitude of roughly 16,700 feet.
Chinese forces first advertised their use of the exoskeletons in the Himalayan region in February, according to Chinese news reports, which touted the technology as a way to increase an individual soldier’s load-carrying capacity — especially at high altitude. An October CCTV video showed Chinese soldiers lifting heavy crates with the assistance of another, more substantial exoskeleton suit variant with a brace that extends the length of the wearer’s spine.
While eye-catching, the varied Chinese exoskeleton suits are more or less analogous to the designs currently being tested by the US military. Last year, the US Army began a four-year, $6.9 million research program to evaluate exoskeleton suits for military use. The suits under review are designed to artificially enhance the physical performance limits of a soldier — allowing him or her to run faster, jump higher, and carry heavier loads.
“As we explore the more mature exoskeleton options available to us and engage users, the more we learn about where the possible value of these systems is to army operations,” David Audet, a division chief in the Soldier Effectiveness Directorate at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, told Army-technology.com.
The US Army is currently evaluating multiple exoskeleton variants, including designs by American defense firms such as Lockheed Martin and Dephy.
Lockheed Martin’s Onyx suit includes leg attachments that resemble therapeutic leg braces connecting to a waist belt. The Onyx uses electromechanical knee actuators, multiple sensors, and an artificial intelligence computer to boost human strength and endurance, according to Army-technology.com.
“Before the army can consider investing in any development above what industry has done on their own, we need to make sure that users are on board with human augmentation concepts and that the systems are worth investing in,” Audet said.
US Special Operations Command (SOCCOM) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have also built exoskeleton suits of their own. Comprising a roughly 700-pound suit replete with anti-ballistic, full-body armor and an array of sophisticated sensors, the SOCCOM design was deemed unwieldy and unworkable and was ultimately canceled, according to industry reports.
The DARPA exoskeleton is a so-called soft suit that facilitates easier freedom of movement while providing extra power to a soldier’s waist, hips, thighs, and calves.
China and India share a 2,000-mile-long border in the Himalayas, which includes some of the harshest terrain and environmental conditions on earth. It is an ideal testing ground for China’s burgeoning exoskeleton technology.
Much of the region is above 14,000 feet in altitude. It is arid and cold, with severe exposure in places. The unfiltered sunlight at high altitude can cause blindness if not wearing the right sunglasses. And the lack of oxygen can cause lethal afflictions like pulmonary and cerebral edemas to strike without warning.
Deployed troops have to spend weeks acclimating to the reduced oxygen levels at such heights before they’re able to perform their duties. For the Indian army, this takes place at an outpost on the Chang La pass — which, at 17,586 feet in altitude, is roughly the same height as Mount Everest base camp.
Tensions between China and India inflamed in May after reports of fistfights between Chinese and Indian border patrols at two different sites along the so-called Line of Actual Control, or LAC, which denotes the two countries’ Himalayan frontier in a remote Indian region called Ladakh.
Chinese units have also claimed territory near Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake that marks part of the Himalayan frontier between the two countries. The two sides have overlapping claims on the lake. A hand-to-hand brawl in June left 20 Indian soldiers dead; Chinese troops have also used microwave weapons to harass Indian troops, according to news reports.
Both Indian and Chinese forces are in the midst of a phased withdrawal from the contested Himalayan border region, Indian news outlets report. The bilateral moves are intended to restore the border area to its status prior to last summer’s escalated tensions.
“Both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner,” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said Feb. 11.