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

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

What if two or more precision-guided air-launched weapons such as bombs or missiles were able to share information in flight to adjust to changing targets, re-direct as needed or thwart enemy attempts to “jam” the electronic guidance systems of the weapons?

Such a concept is no longer a future question regarding an undetermined time in future warfare … it is here. Last year, two Air Force F-16s fired Small Diameter Bombs which shared threat data with one another while in flight to a target using an emerging kind of collaborative weapons coordination, enabling the bombs to adjust trajectory and change course in response to identifying enemy guidance jamming signals.

Golden Horde

Rapid progress with this emerging program, called Golden Horde, is coming to fruition in part due to innovation, research and experimentation going on within the Air Force Research Lab. In an interview with Warrior, Air Force Research Lab Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle explained some of the technological progress which is driving this program. Certainly an ability to gather, analyze and share target specifics “in flight” in a collaborative way introduces new, paradigm-changing tactics into the realm of Air War.

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

“I've been really proud of the Golden Horde team and how they have really had a sense of urgency to deliver technologies and to look at networked, collaborative, autonomous architectures,” Pringle told Warrior.

Golden Horde technology draws upon an ability to use software-defined radio signals to exchange data in-flight using computer processors preloaded with advanced algorithms. Following last years’ test, Pringle both praised technical progress and also emphasized that much work still needs to be done to advance the capability.

There are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered about networking. For example, what types of radio technologies are going to work best, depending on the distance of flight? Also, there are still questions about how to best build the algorithms to work together, Pringle said.

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In her discussion with Warrior, Pringle explained that ongoing hardware and software experimentation continues to prove vital when it comes to advancing the technology.

“We have been building this environment and vetting different approaches to software, then we take the best of the best in the software, and we place it into hardware or surrogate hardware. Then we start to fly it in the real world and then get real test data to validate the models. It's just this very rich symbiotic relationship between the software development and the hardware development,” Pringle said in the interview.

The tactical implications presented by this program are extremely significant, as air-launched weapons are quite likely to encounter weather obscurants, moving targets and various enemy “jamming” attempts. Perhaps a target is on the move and able to reposition while a weapon is in flight? With Golden Horde, weapons themselves will be able to detect the movement, process the new information and share updated targeting specifics with another weapon also in flight. This of course greatly maximizes the lethality of air-attack weapons and multiple weapons could be redirected with precision to a single target.

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.

In the past, the Air Force looked at playbooks in an effort to get to more advanced iterations of artificial intelligence and autonomy so that they’re able to make decisions on the fly. What type of information is being shared? Is it being shared? What’s the minimum amount?

Pringle said that she was curious about the maximum outcome and all those iterations in between. At the same time, the collaborative weapons experiment is showing great promise, perhaps in large measure because artificial-intelligence-capable algorithms can be integrated into small form factors such as the Small Diameter Bombs that were used.

An artist's rendering of networked, collaborative and autonomous weapons, with each communicating with the others. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Chris Quinlan)

An artist's rendering of networked, collaborative and autonomous weapons, with each communicating with the others. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Chris Quinlan)

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.

This is the kind of advanced networking technology Pringle was likely referring to when she referenced ongoing testing related to Golden Horde networking and its employment of artificial intelligence, autonomy and various networking technologies.

“I think it’s good to have a digital ecosystem where we have the best of breed in terms of networked collaborative autonomous technologies, whether they’re algorithms or radios, Pringle said. The idea is that different technologies can have an environment where they can, you know, kind of have a competition and look at which networking technologies will fare better under various circumstances, Pringle explained as far back as last year following the tests. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization