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The problem with powered armor is that it is often approached backwards when compared to real design principles. Instead of finding a problem that is best solved with powered armor, most approaches invent the armor first and then try to justify why it is useful.

Most of the time, the problem solved by powered armor is probably better solved by either vehicles or conventional infantry. The value of vehicles is obvious, that they can give mobility, armor, and firepower vastly greater than anything soldiers can carry directly. Infantry by contrast generally offer a degree of stealth and a low logistics cost. Powered armor seems to be in a neither fish nor fowl category, in which it has a similar logistics cost to vehicles but without the same mobility, firepower or survivability as regular vehicles. It also does very little to increase the effective range that a soldier can control.

Even in cases like fighting within a building, as long as soldiers aren't that worried about damaging the environment armored suits would not be that hard to destroy with modern and especially future weapons, and given the costs involved they would be hard to support logistically in the numbers required to be effective at clearing buildings in any major operation. What is also likely more effective than powered armor is the use of fairly cheap expendable drones rather than risking a person even if that person wears armor.

The only real obvious case that justifies the use of powered armor as opposed to something else is in a somewhat confined environment in which weapons and numbers are somewhat limited. One of the few situations that applies here is that of spacecraft, as weapons have to be somewhat limited to avoid breaching the hull of the spacecraft. This means that armor could easily be made in a small enough package to be resistant to most practical ground weapons that someone would be willing to use onboard a spacecraft or space station.

So basically Bobbie Draper in The Expanse is the only good justified use of powered armor given the situation. Another thing that helps in that setting is that they apparently don't trust automation all that much, as there is a similar lack of automation on spacecraft. We've never seen a ship fly without a pilot either, so it stands to reason that we don't see automated combat drones due to a similar lack of trust.

Are there any good earthbound scenarios that qualify as a problem that would be easier to solve with powered armor than the alternative? I'm assuming a tech base mostly similar to The Expanse.

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    $\begingroup$ What justifies need for power armor? The flaming incoming from misspelling the question title! (ducks for cover, apologizing all the way)) $\endgroup$ – PcMan Apr 9 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Thank goodness, I'm sure you didn't mean to add that extra t, but it really bothered me! The thing is, someone beat me to it..... $\endgroup$ – Alendyias Apr 9 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ The primary justification is usually the Rule Of Cool trope. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Apr 9 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ One justification is whatever Tony Stark was thinking in that Afghani cave. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear03020704 Apr 11 at 14:25

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Instead of replacing conventional infantry entirely, a perhaps more realistic role for powered armor would be to be sparsely mixed in among conventional infantry as an augmentation to their abilities, e.g.

  • to provide scouting with special sensors and augmented movement speed or endurance
  • to provide fire support by carrying specialized or heavy weapons
  • to act as integrated combat engineers. This emphasizes more the powered exoskeleton aspect rather than the armor aspect and uses its strength to help conventional troops to prepare combat positions rapidly, construction or removal of obstacles, and the other roles that ordinary combat engineers perform.
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    $\begingroup$ This. The whole idea sounds more of a specialized purpose that would complement typical roles rather than replace them. $\endgroup$ – spectras Apr 10 at 12:01
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Power armor can be the swiss army knife of military equipment. It can serve as a framework for attaching any number of add-on tools and weapons each of which would be too heavy to carry without the powered framework. It can serve as hazardous environment protection and (maybe only for short periods of time) as a space suit. The combat protective component of power armor can also be adjusted to match the weaponry of the enemy and its stealth components tuned to the particulars of the expected battlefield.

It is true that dedicated vehicles can outperform powered armor on a cost vs effectiveness basis, but when you also consider mass in your efficiency calculations, power armor's advantage becomes apparent. Fully loaded power armored warriors weigh about twice as much as an unarmored warrior. So if you need to lift that warrior and his equipment into orbit or beyond, the power armored warrior is a bargain compared to a vehicle and crew.

The final advantage of power armor which clinches its place in every professional military organization is the WWR feature. The wounded warrior recovery feature lets your troops know that they are more than just canon fodder. I've seen battle damaged power armor with three of its limbs torn off, dragging its unconscious warrior back to safety without any assistance or human operated guidance. The affect which such a feature has on troop morale is worth every penny that the power armor costs and more.

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    $\begingroup$ "I've seen battle damaged power armor with three of its limbs torn off, dragging its unconscious warrior back to safety without any assistance or human operated guidance." - which context is this? $\endgroup$ – eis Apr 10 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ @eis pretty sure it's a hypothetical situation with power armour. A soldier will feel more than just cannon fodder if powersuits seem to protect/care for their soldiers. This will raise morale. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Apr 10 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @eis Sounds like a situation inspired by The Forever War $\endgroup$ – McTroopers Apr 10 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @McTroopers I thiink FW handled survivability in suits nicely: they could pinch off mangled limbs at several spots (to be regrown later), inject you with drugs, signal you were down, and self-destruct if needed (OK, they didn't advertise that last thing to the troops). I didn't think they could walk -- if your side won they came and got you, if they lost, walking wouldn't help. $\endgroup$ – Owen Reynolds Apr 10 at 15:24
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It gives you firepower, armour and ammo in a low profile, as well as the ability to work/fight in hostile environment.

Its worth considering what your powered armour is, and how you want to use it.

Modern infantry sections tend to carry a variety of weapons. A load carrying suit that can keep up with infantry means that you have more heavy weapons on hand when you need it. You can also in theory replace your squad automatic weapon with a machine gun of higher caliber or even a mini gun, and carry extra ammunition for your other troops. It would be a significant force multiplier if folks weren't lugging around anti-tank weapons and other gear unless needed.

Your powered armour can also act as a sensor platform, act as a controller for a UAV and designate targets for fire. While I wouldn't put a commander as the sole armoured infantry in a section (too obvious a target), it would compliment traditional, more squishy infantry well.

As per the wikipedia link above

Infantry sections can consist of as few as eight Marines (heavy machinegun section) to as many as 32 in an 81-mm mortar section

You could probably load, deploy and possibly fire mortars with a 4 man fireteam, simply cause your load carrier can lug it, ready to deploy, instead of in man portable pieces. You have heavy machine guns that can move and fire on every battlesuit, instead of having different folks carry, load and manage a fixed MG position.

If you go bigger, and have armour and firepower as a consideration, you might also have infantry survivability and firepower improved.

With 'full' armoured infantry, you have troops with superior firepower, and armour. Even with contemporary weapons, having infantry that can rip off doors and fire multiple anti-tank rockets on the move would be useful.

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There are plenty of reasons to use them:

  • more armor protection and a larger logistical strain for your enemy.

Current caliber weapons are chosen because they are effective at killing or incapacitating infantry despite their armor. Bringing larger calibers isn't very efficient as it means more recoil, less bullets per magazine and less total ammunition carried. Powered armor would be able to carry more armor and necessitate your enemy bringing larger caliber weapons to deal with it.

Q: but wouldn't they just bring something like a .50 caliber weapon and shoot the larger target your power armor represents?

A: you might be larger, that doesn't mean you'll be hit easily. In modern wars we spend thousands of bullets per soldier incapacitated or killed because soldiers tend to not want to die. The .50 caliber weapon will have a slower rate of fire while having to deal with the increased threat of the power armor, assuming even that a single hit would be enough to incapacitate the power armor which might not be the case depending on where you hit. Also consider that there is no reason for the power armor to be alone, having regular troops or more power armor means an easier time supressing the enemy and making use of the advantages such an armor provides.

  • more carrying capacity.

Infantry is always somewhat limited by the amount of stuff they can carry. Mortar teams for example can ask members of their squad/platoon to each carry one or two mortars for them to give them the ammunition they need. The carrying capacity of power armor would greatly increase not just how many supplies and weaponry they can take but also the type they take with them.

  • specialised roles.

A heavy machine gun is a great asset for any squad to have with them. Unfortunately you need to be stationary to really deploy and use one, not to mention the limited ammo capacity unless you took a defensive position and were supplied in the meantime. Power armor would be able to carry a heavy machine gun into battle, allowing squads to finally use them offensively. Similarly power armor can carry many more specialized equipment such as large caliber mortars, grenade launchers, multiple weapon systems, superior detection and reconnaissance equipment, systems that help with fighting like weapon stabilization or helping aim the weapon on the spot you are looking at instead of trying to aim at etc.

  • alternative specializations.

You don't need to carry a specialized small shotgun to blast open locks if you've got a power armored guy with you. Such a power armor could also be perfect for digging trenches quickly and efficiently, breaking barricades, clearing mines designed for infantry, carrying friendlies, perform heavy maintenance tasks you would normally require machinery to perform etc.

As an example of what power armor could do, look into ground-based drones currently being designed as support units for infantry, these arw basically larger variants of what power armor could do for you: https://images.app.goo.gl/fGcxtSU97qWxbwn16

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  • $\begingroup$ "Powered armor would be able to carry more armor and necessitate your enemy bringing larger caliber weapons to deal with it." But such weapons are heavy, as is their ammunition. However will they carry all that? $\endgroup$ – Ray Apr 11 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Ray I'm not sure, maybe they could use some form of powered armor? $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 12 at 9:57
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Real life military justification is special ops teams.

They have to:

  1. Go on foot. A vehicle or helicopter can bring them only so far, and drone can not rescue a hostage, for example;
  2. Go stealthy, and stay stealthy. Drones have to stay at a considerable distance to avoid alerting the enemy;
  3. Need to carry a lot of gear. Today, this is a major limiting factor for special ops teams and infantry in general.
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Every situation where manpower is limited

The idea of fighting sending human waves against the enemy, while still considered, is already outdated in the modern theory of war.

In particular, when an army doesn't have a big amount of soldiers, either for social reasons (no draft, the need of high numbers of workers and farmers to sustain the army) or demographic reasons (small population), there is the need to make sure that every single soldier is the most effective possibile.

This is just the natural consequence of the idea that a small number of highly trained and equipped soldiers can win against a larger army: infantry units cannot be completely replaced by mechanized units (the human being is still the most versatile element).
As soon as the technology will make it feasible, I think that the infantry will be made in the greater part of soldiers fighting in exoskeleton.

Adding to this idea, an exoskeleton would be extremely effective to replace mechanized units in the situation of difficult terrain (city, mountain, jungle, frosted terrains), where wheeled vehicle wouldn't be able to operate, or even in some still-to-exploit scenarios, such as hypothetical undersea facilities.

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The Wikipedia page on powered exoskeletons notes the times exoskeletons have been prototyped before (not always powered), and by whom/for what purpose:

  • In 1890, as a mobility aid
  • In 1917, for strength augmentation
  • In the 1960's, by General Electric and the US Military
  • In the 1960's, as an aid in recovery from paralysis
  • In 1972, also as an aid in recovery from paralysis
  • In 1985, for military use
  • From 1986 to 2005, by an ex-paratrooper with a back injury

It looks like the most true-to-reality motivations for developing powered armor would be medicine, strength augmentation and, not surprisingly, military.

So it could easily be justifiable for the technology to exist prior to having a combat application--maybe it was developed by engineers working on heavy equipment or by physical therapists before any military organization began to take note.

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    $\begingroup$ With respect to industrial uses before military, insert obligatory reference to the power loader from Aliens here 😁. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Apr 9 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew Get away from that hackneyed reference, you b*tch! $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Apr 9 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ Forget industrial uses, someone is already developing this for the sports/entertainment industry. Mind you this is midway between power-armor and a mech, but it is still being developed with no industrial, medical or military affiliation. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Apr 9 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ For completeness, you may want to add real life usage in factory settings (not mentioned in Wikipedia, though): webeenow.com/… $\endgroup$ – Diego Sánchez Apr 10 at 9:32
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If you're fighting aliens the size of powered armour, you might want power armour because your vehicles aren't versatile enough but your infantry can't carry weaponry effective enough. Similarly, you might need power armour if your enemy chooses to uses power armour, whatever their reason are.

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Construction work

One reason why American soldiers are beloved throughout the Middle East is that they need to enter and search many, many buildings, and they believe in never using a door. While it is certainly practical to make new entryways with high explosive, a powerful portable jackhammer attachment might help to nudge consumer satisfaction up that last fraction of a percent by creating new openings with a little more finesse.

Climbing

If you can construct your own hand- and footholds in the wall on the way up as quickly as you can climb, it may be easier to find a suitable vantage point for rifle practice or a helicopter ride.

Falling

Occasionally a soldier might reach a high vantage point for rifle work, only to find that the locals are so excited to see him that one of them points an RPG launcher in his direction. It would be impolite to encourage local residents to waste valuable rocket-propelled grenades on pleasantries, so it would be nice to be able to simply jump off the surface, relying on the machine to deploy a small parachute or wingsuit feature to marginally slow a long descent, followed by the projection of long rods with built-in regenerative braking to slow that awkward last step to the ground.

Lifting

It can be embarrassing to have a wheel hung up in a fox hole while a large crowd of excited friendly locals is running up to greet you. Fortunately, a pneumatic jackhammer seems just as usable as a jack, and with a little clever design, might be rapidly put to use to clear such roadside inconveniences.

Equipment

Soldiers don't have much trouble carrying a small arm and flex cuffs. But carrying a 50-caliber weapon and a prisoner in those flex cuffs, at the same time, might be a little wearisome. As much as it undermines their aura of athletic prowess, sometimes they could use a little mechanical help getting around with all the things they've picked up on the road.

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To add to the great answers already here, I'd like to mention the scenario presented in Avatar (blue people, not benders).

The armor they had wasn't designed as an exoskeleton, but rather its purpose was to level the playing field between humans and the indigenous life of Pandora. Without the armor, humans were severely outmatched, even setting aside atmospheric differences.

Additionally, I think this presents a great example of what the asker is looking for: purpose-built armor.

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Bunkers that you want to take more-or-less intact. Powered armor is sealed rather well against the pressure wave of grenades and the defenders don't want to use light anti armor weaponry due to backblast. Makeshift barricades and reinforced doors that might take a demolition team to clear can be ripped apart by brute force.

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trench and tunnel warfare

Powered armor might be able to bring back trench warfare. Last time armor was used against trench warfare in 1991 by the USA the armor strategy was to pin down the soldiers while burying them alive. This might not work at all against powered armor.

  • Due to armor suppressing fire wouldn't be as suppressing. Likewise, any initial artillery barrage will be much less effective.
  • The powered armor could more effectively lift heavy weapons that can damage armored vehicles at a close range
  • It would be harder to bury a powered suit than just a person. The powered suit might have room for an emergency oxygen tank as well.

Although it gives more failure points, the ability to stand up and crouch down might give powered armor a key advantage when combined with trenches. They can hide and take cover while the vehicle cannot.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew yup, thanks for the edit. $\endgroup$ – philn Apr 11 at 18:47
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What justifies powered armour is the obvious extension of exactly the same considerations that justified any kind of armour in the first place.

It gives the wearer a huge advantage over anyone else.

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No-one is in the armor.

You want your enemies to think they are fighting humans. You want your allies to think your troops are flesh and blood like they are. The power armor is human shaped and human voices come out of it. The power armor soldiers do what humans do.

But there is no-one in there. They are drones, controlled remotely.

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THE POWER ARMOR IN FALLOUT 4

Seriously, all this talk about Power Armor and nobody even bothered to mentioned the Fallout series even a single damn time. A shame really, considering that series pretty much answered this question on its own. The reasoning behind the Power Armor in the series has also been discussed in depth by multiple sources, so there's plenty of material to work with.

Basically, the Power Armor turns the soldier into the modern equivalent of the Knight on steroids. He can run longer, hit harder, jump higher and endure a ludicrous amount of punishment. In the Fallout world, the Power Armor soldier is canonically given the same function of an assault tank and rightfully so, because they seem to share the same strengths and weaknesses.

If you want to experience how much of a gamechanger the Power Armor is, boot up Fallout4 on the Survival difficulty and have a run-through. Once you enter your second hour of playing you WONT BE EVER GETTING OUT of your Power Armor unless it's to drink or sleep, or to repair the damn thing. After a while it starts to grow on you, like a second skin you need to properly maintain if you want to survive. That's what Power Armor is about, extended warranty and better survival...

When the Brotherhood of Steel enters the game you pretty much get to see what kind of tactics are revolved around Power Armor. There's usually one or two soldiers in Power Armor attracting all of the attention on themselves, since they wield the heaviest weaponry and cause most of the havoc the enemy will naturally prioritize them over a handful of their allies taking potshots from the sidelines.

In combat, the soldier with the Power Armor is the tip of the spear, but he's not always the first one to go. The distinctive advantage Power Armor grants to its bearer rather than having him sit in a tank is the fact the soldier can actively keep up with the foot infantry in heavily obstructed areas, structures and otherwise impassible terrain for vehicles. The additional physical power he has at his disposal allows him to clear the path for others to follow, whether it's crashing and removing obstacles, breaching doors, breaking through walls and even breaking through the damn floors if necessary. Sadly, the Power Armor's main advantage is also its worst disadvantage if the enemy happens to have larger caliber or dedicated anti-tank weaponry. Once the soldier with the Power Armor is taken out, the effective strength of the formation he's part of is dramatically reduced.

In short, the soldier in the Power Armor should be considered as single-man assault-tank and should be treated as such when trying to come up with any form of tactics.

Out of combat, the Power Armor grants its bearer far more endurance and strength he could ever achieve on his own. This could be ideal for harsh working conditions, handling of heavy objects and working for long periods of time without experiencing fatigue. All that and also an additional layer of protection if bad comes to worse and accidents happen.

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