Would the advent of powered armor change hand to hand techniques that soldiers are trained to use? If it’s armor, then there’s still a human being inside, but that human being has a lot more strength, speed, and durability on hand… so would that change the way they fight, or just up the ante on what they already do?
It depends on the armor. However, based on the real world research, it’s going to require a slightly different approach.
Current powered exoskeletal research programs have been mostly focused on industrial applications. The priorities have been granting the user increased strength, and allowing them to carry items that would be far too heavy for a normal human to move.
I did say, “mostly focused;” there are some real combat applications. Sticking soldiers in exoskeletons does have a lot of advantages. Melee is not among them.
The two major problems with powered armor are speed and agility.
Current powered exoskeletal research is based around a motorized frame. Without significant advancements in that technology, this will always be significantly slower than an unarmored combatant. When it comes to unarmed combat, speed is far more important for generating force than raw strength. So, while your powered armor soldier could try to punch someone, they’d be doing less damage on impact than an unarmored fighter. (With a caveat: If they’re slamming their victim into something immobile, like concrete, that’s going to get messy.)
One of the major advantages of powered armor is the ability to load up the fighter with additional weapons. There is some potential overlap, by mounting wrist blades, a flamethrower, or some kind of tazer rig. Barring that, most powered armor would be somewhat less useful in melee.
The other side is, of course, that if you’re wrapped in half of a ’57 Chevy, you’re going to be pretty much immune to someone punching you.
When I’m talking about agility, in this case, I really just mean the ability to connect with what you’re swinging at. This is an extension of the speed issue, because you’re not going to be able to connect a punch as easily in powered armor.
Now, all of this was based around the idea that your armor is using the industrial powered frames that are currently being researched. Something that’s come from prosthetic research is synthetic muscles. These are electroreactive polymer strands that behave, mostly, like human muscles. When exposed to controlled electrical signals they contract or expand (like muscle tissue.) The big difference being that synthetic muscles are significantly stronger than human ones. This opens the door to a semi-organic (Note: “organic” not “biological,”) variety of power armor, where the underlay is made from a synthetic musculature, that mimics, and enhances the wearer’s anatomy. This could address both the agility and speed issues, though, what hand-to-hand combat would look like is still a bit open ended.
Research in prosthetics has also lead to non-intrusive neural interfaces. This stuff is still pretty primitive, but the basic idea is you slap electrodes on and control the synthetic muscles with nerve impulses. The end goal is to give someone full control over their prosthetic, though the current tech falls a little short of that. We can’t feed sensory data back into the nervous system, and the user control is limited. It’s not that much of a stretch to see a future where you control organic components of a power armor rig with a direct neural interface, while receiving sensory data directly from the armor itself.
Regardless how your power armor works, your characters would need specialized training to use it. I’m not talking about hand-to-hand fighting, I just mean, “use the armor without harming themselves.” As anyone familiar with “worker’s comp” can attest, people are entirely capable of overstressing their bodies without the assistance of an external rig performing unlicensed chiropractic atrocities.
There’s a lot of variations in powered armor, from crude mobility assistance rigs, to bio-armor, to full on mechs. So, there isn’t, really, one answer to this. It would change how melee combat works, but I can’t say exactly how, with any certainty.
Depending on the variation, I usually think of heavy powered armor rigs as vehicles, rather than, “armor.” At that point, it stops being, “how would I punch them?” and becomes, “how can I turn them into red paste?”