USAF Wants To Network Its Precision Munitions Together Into A 'Golden Horde' Swarm

The goal is for missiles and bombs to be able to work together on their own in flight in order to maximize the impact on their targets.

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The U.S. Air Force has launched a new effort, nicknamed Golden Horde, to network together various precision-guided munitions, including the GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb and the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, as well as the ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, so that they can operate as autonomous swarms after launch. This could help them penetrate past or otherwise overwhelm enemy air defenses, as well as maximize the effects on particular targets or engage completely new ones that may suddenly appear over the course their flight.

U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Anthony Genatempo, the service’s Program Executive Officer for Weapons, offered the first details about Golden Horde at a media roundtable on the sidelines of the Life Cycle Industry Days at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio on June 20, 2019. The officer also announced that Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which is leading this new swarming munition effort, had canceled an earlier program known as Gray Wolf. This project, which The War Zone previously explored in detail, had sought to develop an entirely new family of low-cost swarming cruise missiles. 

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman had been working on experimental Gray Wolf prototypes since December 2017, but the Air Force appears to have determined that the program is unlikely to produce practical results in the near term. The first phase of Gray Wolf program will end either this month or next month, after which the Air Force will not proceed with two previously planned phases, according to Air Force Magazine

The service had originally planned to continue the swarming cruise missile effort through at least 2024. A Lockheed Martin press release announcing the Air Force's initial contract award in December 2017 had also said that there would be four developmental phases, indicating that the Air Force had already scaled back the project before canceling it outright.

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A briefing slide describing the now-canceled Gray Wolf program.

We don't know the exact reasons why the Air Force canceled Gray Wolf, but Golden Horde's plans to focus on ways to network together existing munitions seems like a lower risk proposition than developing an entirely new weapon system. It seems likely that Golden Horde would leverage at least some of the work done on Gray Wolf, too. Brigadier General Genatempo said that lessons learned from the U.S.-led cruise missile strikes on chemical weapons sites in Syria in April 2018 and other feedback from operational units also played a role in the decision.

"The success of that mission [in Syria] was from a huge amount of mission planning, because each of those weapons was dropped at a certain time and had a preplanned flight," Genatempo explained. "There was no thinking or talking amongst themselves as to, 'You know what? The first two of us that got here 4 minutes earlier, we actually took out this target, so the two of you that were coming in behind us just to make sure, you can go to Target B.' And within that 4-minute flight time, there would be time to adjust to go target B."

Weapons such as the AGM-158 and the forthcoming GBU-53/B StormBreaker, previously known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, featuring multi-mode targeting systems that include imaging infrared seekers. These already helps increase precision and enable greater autonomy since the weapons can identify and home in on their targets independently after reaching the designated area by using their own internal imagery database.

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AGM-158 JASSM missiles loaded on a B-1 Bone bomber ahead of the strikes in Syria in April 2018.

With increased networking capability, these weapons could send back images of the target right before impact that show the extent of the damage. This data, in turn, could feed into a computer algorithm that would automatically shift other weapons still in flight to new targets after a certain amount of destruction. A manned operator could also make the final decision after the system alerted them to the developing situation.

With such a system in place, a launch platform might not even have to designate targets before releasing a swarm of weapons, with those bombs and missiles using a pre-programmed hierarchy of priority to focus and refocus on targets as they appear and get destroyed. This would also enable the swarm to quickly turn its attention to pop-up threats, such as point air defense systems, and engage them first, to reduce the threat to the rest of the swarm. All of this would also reduce the risk to the aircraft employing the weapons, as they would have more flexibility in planning routes and avoid enemy defenses before and after launch.

“What our warfighter is really interested in is, if I have a very large weapons truck like an F-15[E Strike Eagle] or like one of our bombers that can drop multiple of these munitions, is there a way to act in such a way to provide better effects on targets?" Genatempo added. "Or better ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] back to a command-and-control node?"

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An F-15E Strike Eagle carrying a load of 20 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs.

Gray Wolf had envisioned subsequent development of versions of the swarming cruise missile with expanded sensor packages and electronic warfare suites to help spot targets and clear the way for the actual munitions. Depending on the exact capabilities of the weapons that Golden Horde brings together, it is possible that the swarms will have elements able to perform these sorts of roles, as well as kinetic strikes. 

The desire to add the ADM-160, which is actually a family of decoys that The War Zone has looked at in detail in the past, to the mix already points to this kind of potential capability. The latest MALD-X variant, which is still in development, is specifically intended to be a networked system that can rapidly adapt to changing situations. 

This could involve rapidly switching between emitting different signatures to mimic those of different aircraft or munitions or fine-tuning electronic warfare jammers on the fly to respond to various threats. In addition, the U.S. military as a whole is becoming increasingly interested in the idea of so-called "cognitive electronic attack," which refers to the idea that an electronic warfare system would be able to detect and categorize threats and then begin targeting those waveforms, even if they were previously unknown, right in the middle of a mission. 

The MALD-X's data links could allow it to receive that new information from off-board sources, including other decoys flying the area, as well. As with munitions in the swarm, autonomous data sharing and prioritizing would help any combination of MALD variants to focus their efforts of maximum effect, too. The data each node collects could even be used for real-time autonomous route planning, shifting the course of munitions based on the status of enemy air defenses and the electronic warfare tactics being employed against them.

If Golden Horde results in something of a "modular" networking capability that the Air Force can readily integrate into various types of weapons, it may be relatively easy to add this functionality to other systems down the line, including both new munitions and unmanned air combat vehicles. The service is separately working on a multi-purpose AI computer brain called Skyborg that could potentially turn various aircraft into autonomous unmanned platforms.

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The Air Force's new experimental XQ-58A Valkyrie is one potential host for the Skyborg AI.

In addition, the Syria example points to the decided possibility of including other services and their respective munitions and launch platforms, including ship-launched missiles, in networked operations down the road. The ability for various ships and aircraft to fire weapons from multiple vectors that would then act as one or more swarms would offer an impressive capability. One of the key benefits of a swarm by itself is its ability to overwhelm enemy defenders who have to try and prioritize how to respond while the networked munitions continue to adapt and change their own plans.

"We are still unraveling the onion on what that may actually mean as far as operational capability goes," said of early work on Golden Horde and its possible concepts of operation. The service is pushing to begin exploring those possibilities soon and hopes to conduct its first flight experiment within the next 12 months, according to Aviation Week.

With that aggressive schedule in place, we may begin to hear more about the progress of the Golden Horde in the coming months.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com