The Air Force Research Laboratory is experimenting with both hardware and software configurations and technologies to rapidly advance its Golden Horde program, an immense technical effort to enable air-fired and air-dropped weapons to adjust course and autonomously share information in flight.
In May 2021, the U.S. Air Force succeeded in autonomously sharing data between two Small Diameter Bombs launched by F-16 Fighting Falcons, an Air Force Report said.
“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,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commanding general of the Air Force Research Lab, said in the interview.
With modern warfare becoming highly technologically complex, the U.S. military has placed significant value on gathering, processing, and sharing massive amounts of information in real time. The data needs to be organized, distilled, analyzed, and properly transmitted in small, useful increments. This is a particular challenge when it involves weapons that are tasked with gathering and sharing data while en route to a 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 has endeavored to advance its artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous systems so that they’re able to make decisions on the fly. Advanced sensors built into the weapons themselves can surveil the surrounding combat environment and, using artificial intelligence, synthesize specific incoming data with 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 another 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’s networking and its ability to utilize artificial intelligence, autonomous, and various other 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 last year after a series of tests.
Kris Osborn is 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.