Small Bombs, Jet-Powered Decoys To Demo Semi-Autonomy

SDB
Credit: Saab AB

ORLANDO, Florida—Small Diameter Bombs and Miniature Air-Launched Decoys (SDBs and MALDs) will demonstrate a new semi-autonomous weapon technology later this year, an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) official says. 

A new technology named Golden Horde, selected as one of five “Vanguard” priorities by AFRL in 2019, seeks to change how the U.S. Air Force employs long-range weapons, said John James, an AFRL spokesman. 

James spoke at the Air Warfare Symposium here.

For the demonstration, AFRL will replace the laser seeker in the SDB with an autonomy package, which includes a radio frequency data link and a processor. The processor includes “play calling” software. A set of “plays,” or employment options, are loaded into the processor. 

As the munitions are en route to the target, they collaborate with each other. If conditions change—for example, if a glide bomb or cruise missile is shot down by an air defense system—the munitions collaborate by data link, consult a list of preloaded “plays,” and reconfigure target assignments for each weapon, James said. 

Alternatively, multiple munitions can be assigned to strike the same target to provide redundancy, but if the first weapon successfully destroys the target, it or the follow-on munition can send a message to other weapons to attack alternates.

AFRL describes the technology as “semi-autonomous,” not fully autonomous, because the munitions cannot deviate from the preprogrammed list of plays. But it offers more flexibility than the current targeting process that limit munitions only to a single, preprogrammed target. 

Golden Horde is derived from another AFRL program called Gray Wolf, which developed a new, Lockheed-designed cruise missile with a low-cost jet engine and an autonomy package. The latter technology was transferred to Golden Horde, but the Gray Wolf missile demonstration continues, James said. A flight demonstration is scheduled in April for Gray Wolf. 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.