Are U.S. Air Force ‘Thinking’ Bomb Swarms Coming Soon?

Евгений Пурель via Wikimedia Commons

As China strives to gain military AI (Artificial Intelligence) supremacy, the U.S. is steadily developing its own AI-enhanced weapons. Moving from ‘smart bombs’ to new ‘thinking bombs,’ the U.S. Air Force is preparing to test its new Golden Horde swarming munitions concept this Fall.

Golden Horde bombs are unique in that they will be able to make their own decisions – within scripted parameters – or ‘playbooks’ – and work collaboratively, allowing them to coordinate among themselves to change attack plans in-flight. This will let the bombs direct themselves against ‘unserviced’ targets, lessening the need for pilots to make a dangerous second run to hit their targets.

As Popular Mechanics notes, current “smart weapons” use “onboard maps, lasers, or GPS data to find their targets.” Golden Horde, however, takes things a step further by actually making their own limited decisions.

While an impressive new potential warfighting capability, don’t expect these to be Terminator-type autonomous robotic weapons. As Col. Garry Hasse, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL’s) Munitions Directorate explained in Defense News,

With Golden Horde, the Air Force aims to find out whether munitions can be networked together and operate autonomously after launch according to a set of predetermined rules [‘playbooks’]…Hasse… emphasized that this capability is different than a weapon that can independently make decisions based on artificial intelligence.

Instead, as Popular Mechanics explains, Golden Horde will use “datalink radios and collaborative behaviors on existing weapons, starting with the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB-1) and Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD).” Nevertheless, Golden Horde weapons will be making limited decisions, and this is new to warfare.

But how will this weapons concept work in practice? Popular Mechanics describes the concept:

A pair of F-16 fighters might target a set of concrete aircraft shelters at an enemy air base. The first fighter targets four shelters with four CSDB-1s, destroying two. The second fighter, flying right behind the first, releases its CSDB-1s while the first jet’s weapons are already in the air. The second fighter’s bombs receive data that two of the shelters are destroyed. The second flight of bombs, consulting Golden Horde’s playbook, reassigns the bombs in flight to destroy the remaining shelters.

As exciting as Golden Horde is, it is only one of three bleeding edge technology concepts being pursued by the Air Force as a high priority, potentially groundbreaking “Vanguard program.” The other two Vanguards are the loyal wingman drone known as Skyborg and Navigation Technology Satellite-3, an experimental satellite that would augment GPS.

Together, these efforts could transform the future of air warfare. Let’s keep an eye on these Air Force Vanguard programs, and hope they all get off the ground soon.

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Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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