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Video Above: Air Force Scientist Details New, Cutting Edge Methods of Air Bomb Attack

By Kris Osborn, President,  Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) Should an enemy convoy, infantry formation or group of mechanized armored vehicles be quickly “moving to contact” on attack, the US Air Force would likely seek to attack and destroy the approaching force with long-range, precision guided bombs and air launched rockets and cruise missiles. However, in a modern and anticipated future warfare environment, an enemy force would likely be equipped with advanced, high-speed surveillance and data processing, enabling them to make adjustment to or avoid incoming air attacks.

Golden Horde

Now, the Air Force Research Laboratory is seeking to “counter” this “countermeasure” through a breakthrough “collaborative” weapons program called Golden Horde wherein weapons themselves autonomously share data between themselves in flight.

Air attacks in the future are expected to occur at exponentially faster speeds, from much greater distances and paradigm-changing precision and guidance technology. Emerging AI-enabled, information-driven modern concepts of war anticipate more dispersed, longer-range, multi-domain yet extremely precise methods of air attack. 

With this in mind, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Golden Horde program is designed to help pioneer new methods of air attack designed to adapt to current and future threat environments wherein large numbers of dispersed targets will operate at much greater speeds, have access to fast-arriving information and an ability to adjust to or “counter air attacks.” 

While weapons developers have had great breakthrough success engineering precision-guided air weapons able to reach longer distances, adjust to new information in flight, strike moving targets and introduce new dimensions of stand-off range and precision, future threats will require US military innovators to take a step further.

Golden Horde

Golden Horde

In an effort to take this next step, anticipate and stay in front of expected enemy threats, AFRL’s Golden Horde - focused scientists are engineering and testing weapon technology to demonstrate what a team of weapons can accomplish when they  can autonomously connect with and share information between “themselves” while in flight to a target.

“Being networked means you have radios that talk between weapons, something that's not really done today. They are collaborative and they can talk to each other, share information autonomously, meaning that they can actually make bounded decisions that adhere to the rules of engagement to increase survivability and effectiveness. It’s what we like to say ‘computing on the edge.’ You no longer have to be tied back to the base to make decisions, so it changes the whole paradigm as to how you conduct missions in the future,” Steven Stockbridge, Navigation and Data Links Team Lead Golden Horde Principal Investigator, Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior in an interview.

Groups of bombs, each built with advanced algorithms and AI-enabled data processing, to essentially “collaborate” with one another “in-flight.” This introduces a new sphere of tactical air approaches for attackers, as they can streamline air strikes capable of responding to or countering enemy movements and, defenses or “countermeasure” attempts to escape or avoid being hit. 

For instance, perhaps enemy armored vehicles quickly learn of incoming attacks and seek to obscure their position using terrain features, rapid movement or acoustic and thermal signature-reducing approaches to avoid detection. Much of this is a question of speed, if weapons are traveling longer-distances, there is of course additional opportunity for enemies, enabled by high-speed sensors, to adjust to or counter incoming weapons. This is where Golden Horde comes in, as inbound groups of weapons will operate with a paradigm-changing ability to react to attrition and in-flight target updates essentially “counter” an enemy “countermeasure” and instantly adapt to new variables, new sensor input, new target locations or new enemy movements … in flight…between themselves…autonomously.

Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Golden Horde

Senior Air Force Research Laboratory leaders, such as Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, AFRL commander, and the Director, Integrated Capabilities Directorate, Mr. Chris Ristich, are inspired by Golden Horde’s progress thus far. Ristich, for example, told Warrior that the initial test success of “collaborative” weapons using a Small Diameter Bomb is enabling led to AFRL scientists to engineer what he called the Colosseum - an adaptable, digital “ecosystem.” This effort involves the engineering of a technical infrastructure such that new interfaces collaborative algorithms,, sensors, and networking technologies and data processing systems can be added, integrated or introduced to Golden Horde as they emerge. This builds in developmental and operational flexibility.

“I think what's important about Golden Horde is that Golden Horde is developing a digital ecosystem that allows us to ask and answer those same questions. So, if depending on the weapon system I'm looking at, depending on the ranges, the launch platform and so forth, you could come up with a different answer. How do I communicate? How do I collaborate? What kind of radios do I need? What kind of waveforms do I need? So the Golden Horde, now after the initial demonstration of using the small Small diameter Diameter bombs Bomb-I, was highly successful. Right now we're opening that up to an ecosystem that allows us to further develop new systems and have all kinds of missions,” Ristich told Warrior in an interview.

Golden Horde

Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) are carried on the wing of an F-16 fighter from the Air Force Test Center’s 96th Test Wing at Eglin AFB Feb. 19, 2021 during the second flight test of collaborative weapon technologies. Six of the bombs were dropped from two 96TW aircraft during the third and final flight demonstration of the Air Force Golden Horde Vanguard May 25. (Courtesy photo)

Golden Horde is helping weapons developers and strategists to cultivate new, interesting concepts of operation Stockbridge referred to as Network Autonomous Collaborative weaponry. This refers to the tactical ability to quickly adapt to and incorporate new, time-critical target information by enabling AI-capable weapons themselves to gather, process and transmit critical data between themselves and launch platforms in flight. The Air Force Research Laboratory, which is refining the technology in partnership with the services’ acquisition community, has successfully demonstrated Golden Horde using an existing weapons and as an initial step to demonstrating collaborative weapon capabilities. maturing the weapon into more advanced applications.

“The original one that we dropped was a SDB-I (Small Diameter Bomb), one that we modified and that we put a seeker on so we actually had a seeker,, which was a seeker and a radio, and in the autonomy collaborative platform algorithms. So the effect of collaboration it really depends on your weapon, how you design it as to what sensors you would have on board.” So it's kind of configurable, if you think about it.” Stockbridge said.

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Having already demonstrated an ability for weapons such as a Small Diameter Bomb-I to autonomously adjust in flight, the is working on a “test-bed” called the Colosseum configuration to expedite continued maturation of Golden Horde such that it can be that is “configurable” as new algorithms, sensors and interfaces networking technologies emerge to expedite continued maturation in coming years. Through an ongoing test and evaluation process, weapons developers will continue to assess new weapons groupings and applications with a mind to accelerating the technology into the operational sphere within three to five years.

Golden Horde, Stockbridge explained, is sensor and “transport layer” agnostic, meaning it can operate with a wide sphere of different communications networks to include RF, wireless data or other kinds of datalinks, guidance technologies or sensors

“It doesn't matter what sensor you use. You can operate any secret you want to put on any information that determines how you process that information, and what your what your weapon does. So we're not dependent on a weapon type or a secret seeker type. Totally independent, what the networked and collaborative technology we're looking at can go across all the full spectrum of weapons and platforms, as long as there is a compatible datalink and collaborative software on board,” Stockbridge said.

Golden Horde appears to be paradigm changing, when viewed with the broader, multi-decade trajectory of precision-guided attack.

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Historically, precision-guided bombs such as the many kinds of Joint Direct Attack Munitions have been able to destroy “fixed” targets with unprecedented accuracy. These GPS-guided bombs emerged decades ago as weapons which could change air attack concepts of operation from “area” bombing to “precision-strikes” able to pinpoint small targets from great distances. Many first learned of these weapons during the Gulf War in the early 90s, and in more recent years, weapons developers have pioneered new generations of precision-targeting and weapons guidance technologies to include inertial measurement units, gyroscopes and laser-guidance systems.

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The advent of these technologies expanded the scope of air attack to enable strikes on “moving” targets in a way that had not been possible. Weapons such as as helicopter-fired, laser-guided Hydra 70 Advanced Precision Kill Weapons Systems, GBU-12 Paveway II, Maverick, Mk 84, Hellfire and many others use laser “spotting” or Semi-Active Laser (SAL) guidance technology to hit targets. The weapon follows or pinpoints a “spot” highlighted by a ground-or-air generated laser designator able in many cases to track moving targets. There is now a Navy-developed laser-guided Excalibur 155mm artillery shell designed to hit targets on the move. 

A former Army Chief Scientist once explained that laser designation works through an advanced algorithm to calculate distance, because the speed of light is a known “quantity” and the length of travel time for a weapon can be calculated, a circumstance which then enables algorithms to calculate the exact distance or location of a target. If the speed and time of travel are known, the distance and location can quickly be identified.

Of course precision weapons multiply options for commanders and enable precision in circumstances where GPS might be compromised, rendered ineffective or unable to hit moving targets. They introduce the prospect of destroying specific, small targets without having to cause the often referred to “collateral damage” wherein civilians or nearby infrastructure are damaged by air attacks.

In recent decades, precision-attack from the air has expanded to the use of precision-guided attack on land in the form of 155mm artillery and rocket guidance technology. The advent of ground-fired precision, first used in Iraq in 2007 with the GPS & IMU-guided Excalibur 155mm artillery round, introduced a new era of ground attack for commanders looking to track and destroy targets with unprecedented precision from great distances. This was of great tactical relevance in a counterinsurgency type of fight wherein enemies often deliberately blended into civilian populations. Initial precision-guided land weapons included Excalibur and a ground-fired precision land rocket called Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or GMLRS.

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More recently, emerging precision-guided weapons include the arrival of the Stormbreaker, previously called Small Diameter Bomb II. A follow on weapon to the original Small Diameter Bomb first used to demonstrate Golden Horde. Stormbreaker, or SBD II, uses what’s called a tri-mode seeker to enable precision attack against moving targets. The Stormbreaker is a multi-mode air-dropped weapon, designed to offer multiple guidance avenues of attack, introducing flexibility and the ability for a weapon to adjust course in flight through a two-way datalink. The weapon is engineered with a “tri-mode” seeker and is able to destroy targets with millimeter wave, infrared or semi-active laser technology. Millimeter wave can of course function in adverse weather where snow, fog or other obscurants might make laser targeting less possible.

The Stormbreaker was engineered with the strategic recognition that future targets in major war will be much more difficult to reach given enemy countermeasures, sensor detection ranges and an increase in stand-off weaponry. With this in mind, Air Force and Raytheon developers sought to engineer a multi-mode targeting link able to draw upon a two-way data link to track and destroy enemy targets from distances as far as forty miles. The advantages of laser and infrared-targeting for the Stormbreaker are explained in a June 2020 Congressional Research Service report called “Precision Guided Munitions.” “The added laser guidance enables the Stormbreaker to strike both fixed and moving targets. Stormbreaker uses Link 16 and ultra-high frequency datalinks, along with infrared guidance, to provide course corrections,” the CRS report states.

It is interesting to observe the progression or technological “trajectory” of emerging guidance systems, as Golden Horde now goes a massive step farther than the Stormbreaker, because weapons can gather, process and exchange time-critical targeting detail with “one-another” while “in-flight”...autonomously. There is not a need for a two-way data link with a host aircraft, or ground-based designator for targeting but rather the ability for weapons to autonomously adapt to changing targets themselves.

Video Above: Air Force Scientists Expand AI-Enabled Data Sharing Between Bombs "In Flight"

Air Force Research Laboratory Scientist Dr. Emily Doucette told Warrior this technology, which is expected to be operational in the next several years, will enable air attacks to achieve “effects” on targets through increased survivability and robustness to attrition, resulting in with fewer sorties and fewer numbers of aircraft, a survivability anda cost-reducing factor. Yet another tactical advance introduced by Golden Horde is that a ground-based Joint tactical Air Controller or ground-operated “laser designator” might not be needed to “paint” or specify changing targets during air attacks, as weapons themselves will operate with an autonomous ability to do that.

Interestingly, the advent of Golden Horde type technology was anticipated, foreshadowed or simply “hoped for” as a follow on to Stormbreaker in a 2019 essay called “Precision-Guided Munitions of the Future” by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-aligned think tank called the Joint Air Power Competence Centre.

The Stormbreaker’s two-way data link aligns with or sets the precedent for concepts expressed in the essay, because the essay anticipates that weapons “will be able to share data between themselves.” The essay describes this as the evolution of Network Enabled Warfare as a basis upon which to analyze the trajectory of precision weaponry development.

The discussion in the essay is centered upon the well-recognized understanding that as targeting networks become increasingly hardened and expanded, weapons will increasingly operate with new abilities to rapidly re-task as needed amid fast-changing war circumstances.

“Weapons will have the capability to exchange information between themselves and the nodes linked to the network. The result will be a weapon that collaboratively interfaces with the network, adjusts its trajectory in-flight to enhance accuracy, and provides real-time impact assessment,” the essay states.

The technology described in the essay is exactly what Stockbridge says Golden Horde is demonstrating thus far through its ongoing development, introducing the prospect of massive, coordinated or “networked” air attacks able to autonomously adjust as needed in flight.

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“After I launch, I can update the new target set, and let's say an operator launches a swarm of weapons, and they have a target set….and in flight, you the operator wants to update that target set, or you want to update the a target’s priority. Which targets should I hit first? You An operator could uplink a new target set or new priority set for to that swarm. Then the swarm is the next level of cooperation, collaboration, I should say. And there's a talk among ourselves-communication across the weapons to figure out who which weapon should go after which target,” Stockbridge explained.

Stockbridge detailed several critical evolving areas of great significance to Golden Horde such as an ability to increasingly integrate machine learning techniques, new algorithms and even more advanced applications of AI.

“We're looking at different ways of doing autonomy, right? So we look at machine learning, and AI. And then there's some classic ways that we've looked at as well. So really what we're trying to set up is a testbed where you can wring out all those different techniques. So you can pick and choose, which is the best one for you, your platform and your mission. Because not every mission is going to have the same requirements. What we're trying to do is, provide that testbed…..we like to call it a try before you buy. The whole idea is to drive down the cost, and also build long term upgrades into your weapons in the future for new capabilities,” Stockbridge explained.

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.