No Plans to Add New Vanguards in Short Term, AFRL Commander Says

While the U.S. Air Force has a stable of four Vanguard programs to help speed the fielding of advanced technologies to front line forces, the service has no plans to add Vanguards in the short term, the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said on Sept. 21.

“As we have developed our transformational capabilities portfolio, it was important to build a steady stream of ideas –concepts that could develop into prototypes and demonstrations–so that we have a steady stream of potential seedlings and capabilities that we could consider for Vanguard purposes,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle said in response to a question at a press roundtable at the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber conference.

“We need to complete or transition or conclude our Vanguard programs,” she said. “At one point in time, we thought we can just keep adding Vanguards. We’re going to have to continuously look at which ones are continuing to progress and how we are delivering them, as we bring on new ones. The WARTECH process is helping us build that steady stream of capabilities so that we always have something at the ready to consider when the Air Force or the Space Force are ready to continue to act. And, if not, we’ll keep the engine humming.”

AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office, which Pringle said has reached Full Operational Capability, has introduced initiatives to shape the service’s Science & Technology (S&T) portfolio, including the selection of Vanguard programs and the introduction of the WARTECH process to provide collaboration among military operators and technologists.

Last year and early this year, the Air Force was considering the naming of new air and space Vanguards to follow the Skyborg low-cost attritable aircraft program; the Golden Horde collaborative, swarming munitions effort; and the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3) program for improved positioning, navigation and timing (Defense Daily, Feb. 5). In June, AFRL named a fourth Vanguard, Rocket Cargo, an S&T effort to explore the feasibility of delivering 100 tons of cargo anywhere on the globe within an hour.

While AFRL had said a stable of up to six Vanguards would be possible in the next few years, the four current Vanguards look to be a steady state in the near term.

On Golden Horde, AFRL said on Sept. 15 that a new Operation Protovision effort with the Defense Innovation Unit and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will feature six companies–so-called “Gladiators”–vying in a simulated Colosseum competitive phase. Those companies are Lockheed Martin [LMT], L3Harris Technologies [LHX], Autonodyne, EpiSci, Shield AI, and Systems & Technology Research.

AFRL said that Operation Protovision would follow the approach of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s AlphaDogFight trials to allow the lab and the Air Force Program Executive Officer for weapons and advanced technologies to develop networked, collaborative, and autonomous (NCA) weapons and aircraft.

Operation Protovision may feature additional competitors, quarterly simulation competitions and a live fly-off next year.

“We’re working toward a schedule,” Pringle said on Sept. 21. “What’s really important is that we learn from it and that we react to what we get out of it, and, as a result of that, we define the next one and what tempo and schedule makes sense. I would anticipate future ones, but we really need to collect the right data and respond and adapt in this first round.”

Under Golden Horde, AFRL plans had called for a collaboration this fall between the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB I) and the Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD) to defeat simulated targets, but AFRL decided not to pursue that demonstration and to shift toward the more generic, “Colosseum” approach. The latter does not feature specific weapons in keeping with congressional concern about Golden Horde being too mature a program to receive S&T funding (Defense Daily, Jan. 28).

The CSDBs used autonomous technology developed by AFRL and California-based Scientific Applications and Research Associates, Inc. (SARA), which received a $100 million contract for CSDB-I in 2019. As part of Golden Horde, Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp. (GTARC) also received an $85 million contract for CMALD in 2019.

CSDBs are 250-pound Boeing [BA] GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs modified with the collaborative autonomy payload to locate and prioritize targets.