Science fiction that portrayed people running around in regular clothing while firing away with beams that vaporized the opponent has always bothered me. Star Trek always had away teams disintegrating and being disintegrated while wearing their cloth uniforms. No mention was made of a personal force field, which, based on the technology portrayed, should have been a simple device. The only armor or protection I ever remember seeing on Star Trek were some leather looking helmets and vests that appear to be just as susceptible to a disintegrator as a body and clothing. In Star Wars the Storm Troopers wore body armor that seemed worse than useless. I never saw one stop a blaster bolt, and they seemed to slow the troopers down as well, robbing them of the advantage that someone without armor possessed. Now man has been known throughout history to strap on every protective device he could. Leather, chain mail, plate, anything to stop a sword or arrow. Even if not one hundred percent effective, at least if it gave a better chance for survival it was strapped on. Firearms kind of made the concept of armor obsolete, even though it could still stop bullets in certain circumstances. Not enough to justify the expense. Now body armor is making a comeback, as it has been made lighter and more effective, making it again worthwhile. Not against everything. It’s not going to stop a fifty caliber or larger weapon. In fact in most cases it’s only effective against pistols, though some ballistic plates can stop rifle fire. The point is that people want to be protected as much as possible against harm in a combat situation. That’s why they wore helmets in both world wars. They stopped most of the shrapnel that was causing head wounds. Another factor in rearmoring the troops is the expense of good soldiers. They cost a lot to feed and maintain, and it doesn’t make sense to not give them the best protection around, especially in the high tech countries where they are highly trained technicians. In the future this will be even more of a necessity. Sending almost naked troops out into a nuclear environment where lethal weapons are attacking at all hours and every angle means watching masses of expensive soldiers melt away like ice thrown on a hot griddle.
I remember the concept of powered armor from Starship Troopers, the book by Robert Heinlein that was recently made into such a bad series of movies. In the book the armor made the soldiers that wore it superior to any number of unarmored foes. They had greater than human strength, the ability to cover long distances quickly using the leaping ability of the suits, even limited power of flight. Better senses, protection from nuclear, chemical and biological threats, even protection from low level beam or projectile weapons. A lot of the weaponry was built into the suit, and included tactical nuclear rocket launchers and grenade projectors that flung two at a time at the selected target, or just at random. A trooper from Heinlein’s book could take on a hundred bug warriors and render them to paste. The troopers could still be killed, but it took some effort to do so. In John Ringo’s work powered armor is visited again, coupled with magrail rifles that can fire tens of thousands of rounds a minute. Again not invulnerable, but good protection for valuable troops, while multiplying their effectiveness on the battlefield.
Another problem area in my opinion in science fiction is the lack of protective clothing worn by the crews of warships during battle. In most portrayals they wear regular clothing, and if the hull is breached they go uselessly to their deaths. I guess in a lot of science fiction if the hull is breached through all kinds of force fields and such the ship is pretty much gone. But this may not be the case, and the crew is still gasping out its breath while floating in space. Now in some science fiction, such as Honor Harrington, the crew wears not only space suits into battle, which is great unless shrapnel is bouncing around, but space armor that protects them from said shrapnel. There is still vulnerability, but not from a single piece of bouncing metal that can be turned by even low grade armor.
In my opinion powered armor is the answer to all of the above problems, both infantry and naval. Maybe not a supersuit like Iron Man wears, or a gorilla suit like in Starship Troopers, though that would be excellent for heavy infantry, but at least armor with some bells and whistles on it. For infantry this would include greater strength to go along with the protection, which gives the ability to move objects that get in the way and carry more stuff into combat. Greater mobility including at least the power to leap and possibly the ability to fly. Sensors, heads up displays, medical facilities in the suit. Anything and everything to keep the highly trained soldier alive and well, or at least alive and ready for medical pickup. Built in weapons, though heavy weapons could also be carried, and tools that might be needed on the battlefield. Now in my opinion powered armor is needed as much or more shipboard. Not only for protection against hazardous environments, like vacuum or radiation, but for the utility it gives the spaceman. What could be more useful than greater strength, the ability to lift debris out of the way or move in a heavy gravity field. HUD of course and full com systems. Built in computer system to give the spaceman the information he needs if the main computer goes down. Built in tools for every possible need, including laser torches and welders. Motive power to get across large gaps, or back to the ship if blown out into space. Again I think this would be as important for the smooth functioning of a ship, even if damaged, in a combat environment, as any built in system. And the suits could be made to be easy don, with halves that come together and meld through nanotech. I got that idea from the Iron Man movies, but the donning does not have to involve a system quite as complicated. Just something that gets the crewman into the suit in less than a minute, then out again. Heinlein had the right idea. Now writers need to take it to the logical conclusion. I plan to use powered armor extensively in my upcoming Exodus series, and not just because it’s cool (though it is ultimate cool). But mostly because it make sense.