The U.S. Air Force Golden Horde program test flew two Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) released from an F-16 on Dec. 15 in what the Air Force called the first-ever flight demonstration of collaborative weapons.

The CSDBs used technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and California-based Scientific Applications and Research Associates, Inc. (SARA), which received a $100 million contract for CSDB-I in 2019 (Defense Daily, July 7, 2020). In 2019, as part of Golden Horde, Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp. (GTARC) also received an $85 million contract for a Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD).

AFRL plans call for a collaboration this fall between CSDB-I and CMALD to defeat simulated targets.

CSDBs are 250-pound Boeing [BA] GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs modified with a collaborative autonomy payload to locate and prioritize targets. AFRL said that, during the Dec. 15 CSDB test flight, the two CSDBs “quickly established communication with each other and their seekers detected a GPS jammer.”

“During the mission, the weapons referred to pre-defined Rules of Engagement (RoEs), a set of constraints preloaded by a mission planner, and determined that the jammer was not the highest priority target,” AFRL said. “The weapons then collaborated to identify the two highest priority targets. However, 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.”

While the weapon software load failed, the flight demonstration of CSDB marks “an important step on the path to Networked Collaborative Weapon systems,” Chris Ristich, director of AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office (TCO), said in a statement.

Golden Horde is one of three Air Force science and technology (S&T) Vanguard programs–Skyborg, Golden Horde, and Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3). Skyborg is to integrate artificial intelligence into autonomous unmanned air vehicles to enable future manned-unmanned teaming, while NTS-3 is to explore new GPS receivers that incorporate multiple signals for military forces.

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.

“This initial demonstration represents a critical first step for the Golden Horde program, an initiative focused on advancing networked, collaborative and autonomous – or NCA – weapon capabilities through live and virtual testing,” AFRL said on Jan. 7. “These new technology areas provide the Air Force with a revolutionary way to engage adversary targets.”

Further CSDB flight tests are planned for early this year with up to four CSDBs flying simultaneously.

“NCA weapons observe and react to a dynamic battlespace in real time, thereby increasing mission effectiveness within the enemy’s decision loop,” AFRL said. “When deployed in mass, NCA weapons effectively share information and collaborate to overwhelm adversary defenses. 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 the Playbook and permit semi-autonomous weapons.

Air Force Col. Garry Haase, the director of the Air Force Munitions Directorate, said that the Dec. 15 flight demonstration gave the service insight into NCA weapons and “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,” yet he also said that NCA technologies will not transition to the CSDB.