WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has wrapped up the first phase of its Golden Horde demonstration effort, putting the service one step closer to developing swarming smart weapons that behave semi-autonomously and use algorithms to seek high-priority targets.
But the technology won’t immediately move into a program of record, said Gen. Arnold Bunch, who leads Air Force Materiel Command. Instead, the service intends to conduct virtual experiments with collaborative munitions as it decides what elements of Golden Horde to further develop.
“We can determine what the gain out of that system may be, and then we will look for future ways that we can morph that into a program of record at a later time,” he told reporters during a Defense Writers Group event on June 4. “Right now, it is not moving into a program of record.”
The final demonstration, held May 25 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, allowed the service to complete all three objectives associated with the Golden Horde program, the service said in a news release. Golden Horde is one of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s four major Vanguard efforts, which aim to drive transformational technologies using prototyping and experimentation.
During the event, two F-16 jets from the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, launched six Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs — modified versions of Boeing’s Small Diameter Bomb. The six CSDBs established a communications link with each other and a ground station. This accomplished the first objective: connecting six weapons using a the L3Harris Technologies-made Banshee 2 radio network, after previous tests with two and four weapons.
To complete the second objective, the Air Force sent an in-flight target update from the ground station to the swarm of CSDBs, directing the bombs to abandon their current trajectory and go after a new target.
For the last objective, two CSDBs conducted a synchronized time-on-target strike of a single mark, while two other collaborative bombs attacked two separate targets.
The demonstration showed the CSDBs could be connected into the Air Force’s broader command-and-control enterprise, and it validated Georgia Tech Research Institute’s algorithm for synchronized time-on-target attacks, AFRL said in a statement.
“These technologies are completely changing the way we think about weapon capabilities, much like the laser-guided bomb did several decades ago,” said AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle. “Golden Horde and technologies like this will enable the Department of the Air Force to overcome many of its current and future challenges, and we’re just beginning to unfold all the possibilities.”
But exactly what technologies will be enabled by the work pioneered in Golden Horde is still yet to be seen. The Air Force significantly narrowed the scope of the effort since it was first announced as a Vanguard program in 2019. Originally, the service had hoped to make a second collaborative weapon based on Raytheon Technologies’ Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, which would be flown alongside CSDBs in a complex scenario originally slated for 2022.
Ultimately, the Air Force scrapped those plans. Bunch declined to comment on whether the Air Force would pursue a collaborative version of the Raytheon decoy.
For the next phase of the effort, AFRL’s Munitions Directorate and the service’s program office for weapons plan to jointly build “The Colosseum,” which will use digital engineering and virtual modeling to develop and test future networked, collaborative and autonomous weapons.
Live testing “becomes costly, and it could become labor intensive,” Bunch said. “If I could create a virtual environment where I could try out new ideas and hone those, and then try to do the open air things, it makes it more efficient and more effective in the long term.”
Even though the collaborative bombs developed for Golden Horde won’t become operational weapons, Bunch maintains that the demonstration effort allowed the Air Force’s weapons program office and its research lab to collaborate on new technology — a practice that is unique to Vanguard programs.
“And there may be certain parts of what we found in Golden Horde that we can take out and put into another weapon or put in another system,” he added.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.