By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) The Navy Tomahawk cruise missile and Air Force Stormbreaker are weapons which can operate with a two-way data link connecting flight trajectory and guidance with human decision makers performing command and control, a technology which continues to introduce new tactical possibilities, improve lethality and streamline attack operations.
This technology continues to be refined and improved at a rapid pace, enabling weapons to alter course in-flight to destroy emerging or maneuvering targets. Now, the Air Force is breaking through to yet another level by achieving in flight weapons “collaboration” wherein bombs themselves exchange information in flight to track and hit new targets, adjust to enemy movements and vastly expand the operational scope of air attack.
Bomb "Collaboration" & Data Sharing
The Air Force Research Laboratory program, called Golden Horde, is moving beyond its successful demonstration of Small Diameter Bombs in flight and increasing the numbers and kinds of weapons “collaborating” in flight.
“We really wanted to broaden the approach to not just one specific weapon system. Let's open it up and see longer ranges and different scenarios. I think it's a total game changer to enable our weapons to be interconnected, be able to share information across the team, because we're so limited in terms of processing capability on board, that if they can leverage the strength of the swarm, imagine the wealth of information that the weapons can collect, as they ingress,” Emily Doucette, Aerospace Engineer, Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior in an interview at the 2022 Air Force Association Symposium.
The tactical implications associated with this kind of weapons ability cannot be underestimated, as Golden Horde not only enables greater precision, an ability to shift course in flight to hit targets on the move and weapon to weapon data sharing, but also greatly improves survivability by streamlining missions to reduce risk of exposure to enemy fire.
“You could potentially decrease the number of aircraft that are required or the number of weapons that are required to defeat the same target. That would really decrease the amount of time and potentially the amount of funding it would be required to defeat a target,” Doucette said.
Advanced sensors built into the weapons themselves can surveil the surrounding combat environment and, using artificial intelligence, bounce specific incoming data off of a vast database of known, cataloged information to make instant identifications, perform analyses and recommend optimal courses of action. For instance, perhaps one sensor built into one Small Diameter Bomb picks up the electronic signature of an enemy jammer and is then able to transmit organized and identified data to the other bomb in flight, thus enabling it to change course and or adjust its flight trajectory and targeting accordingly.
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As is often the case with highly challenged and technologically complex modern warfare, gathering massive amounts of information to share in real-time is of great value. The data needs to be organized, distilled, analyzed and properly transmitted in small, useful increments. This is part of the challenge, it appears when it comes to architecting sensor-enabled weapons to gather and share data en route to an attack target. After all, what may be of greatest significance is not simply that information can be shared, but rather what kind of information and its relative degree of pressing relevance.
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Doucette explained that Golden Horde’s autonomous weapons in-flight “collaboration” is brought to fruition through a complex combination of software programmable radio, datalinks, AI-enabled computer processing and carefully configured software and hardware combination. The weapons themselves are engineered with built-in computing and advanced algorithms to gather and analyze time-sensitive data at the point of collection.
“We've focused on utilizing specific weapon data links, just in previous experimentations….You can pull in information from all of those different sources that you've described, and then utilize your particular data link to share the most pertinent and important information at the time that the other teammates would need it, in part because you have that organization and that processing happening at the point of collection. There's the weapon itself that has built in algorithms such that it can receive information, organize it and share it,” Doucette said.
Technological progress with new software and hardware applications of importance to Golden Horde has been greatly enhanced by the increase through the use of computer simulation and modeling.
“Golden Horde is also building up the simulation architecture to get after bringing in these novel solutions. Over the past year after our demonstration on the small diameter bombs, we pivoted to building out a simulation architecture. We issued challenges to industry to get after a specific set of scenarios, and they were wildly successful. There's no limitation, or reason that that novel solution couldn't come from a basic researcher somewhere around the nation.. So by having that simulation architecture in place, and design, We can really bring to bear the crowdsourcing aspect to bring in these novel discoveries,” Doucette explained. “We are really focused on pivoting from live flight demonstrations to building up the simulation capability based on open architectures so that we can rapidly explore the space and identify targets.”
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.