The U.S. Air Force is considering a new round of Vanguard programs that will likely feature both the air and space domains. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Air Force major commands, and Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC)–the future capabilities center for air and space–collaborate with forces in the field to propose such new cutting edge capability programs.

Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Stephen Wilson and U.S. Space Force Vice Chief Gen. David Thompson scrutinize the ideas for inclusion as Vanguards in the Department of the Air Force research and development budget proposal.

“We work on an annual basis continuously feeding the cycle from proposals to concepts to demos for the two vices to consider,” AFRL Commander Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle told reporters on Feb. 4.

“Next week, we at a lower level are meeting with MAJCOMs and Air Force Futures leadership just to discuss what the next round of ideas will be, while the previous round continues to make its way,” she said. “In terms of what are the major areas we’re looking at, this is co-defined with our partners at Air Force Futures, the Space Force, and the warfighters. Some of the areas that they’ve been looking at [are] projecting power, logistics under attack, all domain command and control–some of those traditional areas that Air Force Futures has been highlighting as necessary to get after.”

The three current, “game changer” Vanguard programs are the Skyborg attritable drones, Golden Horde swarming munitions, and Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3) under development by AFRL and L3Harris Technologies [LHX].

AFRL is to hold multiple Skyborg prototype tests this year following a demonstration on Dec. 9 in which a Skyborg XQ-58A Valkyrie attritable by Kratos [KTOS] flew in formation over U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., with a Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 and an F-35 fighter and served as a gatewayONE communications translator between the two fighters (Defense Daily, Feb. 4).

The Air Force has said that it expects to receive the first prototypes by May for initial flight tests and to begin experimentation in July.

In December, the Air Force awarded more than $76 million to Kratos, Boeing [BA], and General Atomics to build Skyborg prototypes and fly them in teaming with manned aircraft (Defense Daily, Dec. 7).

Skyborg is to develop a family of attritable aircraft systems with a common artificial intelligence (AI) backbone that can train alongside manned aircraft and eventually help complete tasks, fly ahead of Air Force pilots in non-permissive environments, and frustrate adversaries.

Because of congressional concern about the technical maturation of Golden Horde, the program no longer plans to test a Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb (CSDB) with a Collaborative Miniature Air Launched Decoy (CMALD) this fall, but rather to test munitions that are not adaptations of those already in the Air Force inventory.

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

In 2019, as part of Golden Horde, Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp. (GTARC) received an $85 million contract for CMALD.

Raytheon [RTX] builds MALD, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Northrop Grumman [NOC].

Golden Horde is to integrate datalink radios and demonstrate the ability of a “swarm” of networked weapons systems to collaborate to decrease target error and defeat targets while adapting to changes in the field. The program is to mark a change from the typical pre-designated missions of weapon systems to missions using a Playbook of set plays under defined Rules of Engagement.