Air Force Research Lab’s Golden Horde Swarming Weapons

By Theresa Hitchens

WASHINGTON: The Air Force Research Laboratory’s prototype ‘swarming’ munitions failed to hit their targets in their first flight demo, but experts see the potential for networked, autonomous munitions to eventually equip America’s entire fighter fleet.

The new munitions being designed under AFRL’s Golden Horde project use data links to communicate, chose targets (based on pre-programmed algorithms) and then coordinate strikes against an array of targets, independently from the human pilot.

“Salvos of collaborative weapons that can share target information and autonomously coordinate their strikes after launch could help maximize target damage and compensate for weapons lost in flight due to enemy defenses or other factors,” explains Mark Gunzinger, director of future programs at the Mitchell Institute. “This would enable the U.S. military to use smaller salvos of weapons to achieve desired effects in the battlespace compared to larger salvos of non-collaborative weapons that must be independently targeted/retargeted by human operators.”

The first Golden Horde flight demo was held Dec. 15 but announced yesterday. The project is designed to build data links that enable semi-autonomous weapons to ‘swarm’ a target. The effort involves two different weapon systems — the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB-I) and the Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD) — with a “capstone” test expected this fall.

The demo involved the release of two CSDBs from an F-16, the AFRL release said. CSDBs, lab explained, are “Small Diameter Bombs that have been modified with a collaborative autonomy payload” developed by AFRL and Scientific Applications & Research Associates (SARA).

“I’m very pleased with results of this first test,” Steven Stockbridge, the Golden Horde principal investigator, said in the AFRL release. “The team saw good performance from the networked collaborative sub-systems and understand the root cause of the weapons not impacting the desired targets. We anticipate readiness for the next flight test.” Two more CSDB flight tests are planned for early 2021, increasing the number of collaborative weapons in each demonstration to four, the release added.

Vulnerability to missile threat has led the U.S. Air Force to reassess defensive options for a full-spectrum defense network across its bases in Europe and Africa.

AFRL explained that during the demo the “CSDBs quickly established communication with each other and their seekers detected a GPS jammer” and using pre-defined rules of engagement pre-loaded into the system, “determined that the jammer was not the highest priority target. The weapons then collaborated to identify the two highest priority targets. However, due to an improper weapon software load, the collaboration guidance commands were not sent to the weapon navigation system. Without the updated target locations, the weapons impacted a fail-safe target location.”

Boeing builds the venerable GBU-39B Small Diameter Bomb, which entered service in 2005 and now equips the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-22 Raptor and the AC-130W. In September 2020, the company won a $2.2 billion Lot 15 production contract comprising some 7,800 bombs for the Air Force and foreign customers. A Boeing spokesperson confirmed that the company is a subcontractor on Golden Horde — which is one of AFRL’s high-priority, rapid-prototype Vanguard programs — but referred all questions to AFRL.

The CSDB modifications to the GBU-39B include “a home-on-GPS-jam seeker that gathers information about the battlespace, a software-defined radio for communication between weapons and a processor preloaded with collaborative algorithms,” according to the AFRL release.

“The collaborative algorithms use a dynamic approach called play calling, similar to a quarterback calling a play in football,” the release elaborates. “A ‘play’ is an established behavior that groups of collaborative weapons, or swarms, can enable (or disable) when they meet certain predefined conditions. Weapons that use this technology are semi-autonomous since they abide by pre-defined Rules of Engagement and only execute based on an approved list of plays.”

“The Golden Horde demonstration with the Small Diameter Bomb flights is an important step on the path to Networked Collaborative Weapon systems. Completion of this first mission sets the stage for further development and transition to the warfighter,” Chris Ristich, director of AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office, said.

While the test used an F-16, there is obvious potential for CSBDs to be carried by a wide array of other fighters.

Col. Garry Haase, director of the AFRL Munitions Directorate explained in the release: “This successful Golden Horde demonstration builds the foundation for integrating this technology into a variety of other weapon systems, which will help the U.S. maintain a technological advantage over our adversaries.” For the moment, however, Haase said there aren’t any plans to transition the autonomy package onto the current arsenal of SDBs.

Gunzinger said he hopes that the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be given “priority” for future mating with the CSDB, when and if its development is successful.

“Short-range standoff weapons like the SDB I and SDB II allow aircraft to strike targets without overflying defenses that may be concentrated around target areas. This improves the survivability of all aircraft that employ them, including 5th generation stealth aircraft,” he said. (SDB II, the GBU-53 StormBreaker, is built by Raytheon.)

“The Air Force has been quite open about the need to develop a new generation of weapons that are smaller and better suited for stealth aircraft operations (need 5th gen weapons for 5th gen aircraft),” he added.

Published by Breaking Defense on January 8. 2021.