U.S. Air Force F-16 Released Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs During First-Ever Collaborative Weapons Demo

Four Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) hang from the wing of an F-16 fighter from the Air Force Test Center’s 96th Test Wing at Eglin AFB. Two of the bombs were dropped during the first flight demonstration of the Air Force Golden Horde Vanguard. (Courtesy photo)

The F-16 released two Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) for the first time ever during a demo last month. However, due to a software glitch, the weapons impacted a fail-safe target location.

Last month, a team from the Air Force Test Center carried out the first-ever Air Force flight demonstration of collaborative weapons, using an F-16 carrying Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs). The CSDBs are Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) that have been modified with a collaborative autonomy payload.

According to an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) release, two CSDBs released by the F-16 quickly established communication with each other and their seekers detected a GPS jammer. However, the jammer was not the highest priority target of the weapons, based on the pre-defined ROEs (Rules of Engagement) preloaded by a mission planner, so the two CSDBs collaborated to identify two highest priority targets. But something went wrong: “due to an improper weapon software load, the collaboration guidance commands were not sent to the weapon navigation system. Without the updated target locations, the weapons impacted a fail-safe target location,” the AFRL release says.

Still, the demo represented a first step for the Air Force Golden Horde Vanguard program, an initiative focused on advancing networked, collaborative and autonomous – or NCA – weapon capabilities through live and virtual testing.

The final goal of the program is to develop Networked Collaborative Weapon systems, that is to say weapons that are able to share data, interact, develop and execute coordinated actions or behaviors. The key feature of these weapons is the ability to shared data to improve information across an entire group of weapons (a “swarm”) thereby improving the effectiveness of the entire swarm. In other words, NCA weapons can “observe” a dynamic battlespace and react in real time so that they can properly attack their targets. More or less a scenario similar to the one of the “drone swarms” we have discussed in detail in the near past.

When each NCA weapon shares measurements of a target’s location, combining this information reduces errors since it creates a more accurate “picture” for all to reference. Current weapons usually follow a pre-designed profile (for instance, Joint Direct Attack Munitions – JDAMs – fly towards the target GPS position). If the enemy does something unexpected, preprogrammed weapons are ineffective, and additional weapons (either preprogrammed with the new GPS position or Laser Guided) may be required to complete the mission. NCA weapons are advantageous since they observe and react to the enemy in real time, helping weapons overcome adversary defenses before the enemy can respond with effective countermeasures.

“The technologies enabling this new capability include a home-on-GPS-jam seeker that gathers information about the battlespace, a software defined radio for communication between weapons and a processor preloaded with collaborative algorithms. The collaborative algorithms use a dynamic approach called play calling, similar to a quarterback calling a play in football. A “play” is an established behavior that groups of collaborative weapons, or swarms, can enable (or disable) when they meet certain predefined conditions. Weapons that use this technology are semi-autonomous since they abide by pre-defined Rules of Engagement and only execute based on an approved list of plays.”

NCA weapons do not use artificial intelligence or machine learning to make determinations independently regarding which targets to strike. The system only selects from set plays and cannot violate defined RoE.

Still, much testing still has to be done before this technology lands on frontline weapons.

“This successful Golden Horde demonstration builds the foundation for integrating this technology into a variety of other weapon systems, which will help the U.S. maintain a technological advantage over our adversaries,” Col. Garry Haase, Director of the AFRL Munitions Directorate explained.

“I’m very pleased with results of this first test,” stated Steven Stockbridge, the Golden Horde Principal Investigator. “The team saw good performance from the networked collaborative sub-systems and understand the root cause of the weapons not impacting the desired targets. We anticipate readiness for the next flight test.”

Two more CSDB flight tests are planned for early 2021, increasing the number of collaborative weapons in each demonstration to four.

Interestingly, collaborative testing should also involve MALDs (Miniature Air-Launched Decoys). MALD is an expendable air-launched flight vehicle that looks like a U.S. or allied aircraft to enemy integrated air defense systems (IADS). Its goal is to deceive enemy radars: launched by a host platform, a swarm of these lightweight decoys (300 pounds) with a range of 500 NM (Nautical Miles) would appear as formations of conventional aircraft to the enemy IADS and radar sites. The MALD-J (Jammer) variant of the decoy is a “stand-in” jammer that can operate much closer than conventional EW to the target radar, operating in pairs and working with “traditional” EW platforms.

Ultimately, the testing should also include collaboration between CSDB and CMALD in a scenario where collaborative decoys are released in swarm to deceive/jam enemy radars while CDSBs are used to attack them in accordance with the pre-defined RoE.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.