AFRL’s New Goal: Make Munitions Plan Attacks

Aircraft armament systems specialists assigned to the 307th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unload an AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile from a Conventional Rotary Launcher at Barksdale AFB, La., on Feb. 9, 2019. Air Force photo by A1C Maxwell Daigle.

DAYTON, Ohio—The Air Force is abandoning its “Gray Wolf” swarming cruise missile development program to instead funnel funding toward “Golden Horde,” an effort to get existing munitions to cooperate in combat.

Brig. Gen. Anthony Genatempo, the service’s program executive officer for weapons, said in a June 20 interview at an Air Force Life Cycle Management Center conference here that warfighters aren’t pushing for the futuristic, multipurpose weapons that entered development about a year and a half ago. Rather than seek out another cruise missile, Golden Horde would enable assets like the Small Diameter Bombs I and II, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, and Miniature Air-Launched Decoy to plan their next steps together once fired.

“If we drop a number of the same genus, let’s say, so all SDBs being able to act together, … if we dropped one and one and one and one, can the four of them act collaboratively together on an engagement?” Genatempo said.

Technology that allows military systems to assess the best way forward without human input is a growing field of research as the Pentagon eyes future combat environments where human-machine communications might be spotty or severed.

Genatempo noted his ongoing discussions with the Navy about its “Motley Crew” program, which described in 2017 as “a group of unmanned aerial systems that can share information and then assign tasks and make strategic targeting decisions based on available intelligence.” That effort is progressing under a consortium of companies including Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin, plus military laboratory representatives.

In December 2017, the Air Force provided Lockheed and Northrop with $110 million Air Force Research Laboratory contracts to prototype and demonstrate low-cost, subsonic cruise missiles made to defeat enemy air defenses. Five other bidders competed. Prototyping would have explored how the “plug-and-play” weapons could carry kinetic warheads, electronic-attack payloads, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors, according to AFRL.

But Gray Wolf’s prospects of transitioning to an operational program dimmed. The Air Force will finish the first of the three-phase program in June or July and scrap the remaining two stages. In about a year, it will demonstrate Golden Horde for the first time.

In March, California-based Scientific Applications Research Associates netted $100 million to demonstrate Golden Horde’s “emerging munition technologies” after outbidding other companies, according to a Defense Department contract announcement.

“The effort is conceptualized as a fast-paced Air Force Research Laboratory-led demonstration project executed under the auspices of the Team Eglin Weapon Consortium,” DOD said. “Work will be performed in Cypress, California, and is expected to be complete by December 2021.”

The Air Force did not respond to questions about the program at the time.

“What our warfighter is really interested in is, if I have a very large weapons truck like an F-15 or like one of our bombers that can drop multiple of these munitions, is there a way to act in such a way to provide better effects on targets? Or better [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] back to a command-and-control node?” Genatempo said. “We are still unraveling the onion on what that may actually mean as far as operational capability goes.”

Think about last year’s US airstrikes on Syria, including the first combat use of Lockheed Martin’s JASSM, he said. That mission succeeded thanks to extensive planning: each Tomahawk and JASSM dropped at a specific time, followed a predetermined flight path, and struck a particular target.

But what if the weapons could think through those steps on their own and send feedback to other munitions and airmen

“The first two of us that got here four minutes earlier, we actually took out this target,” Genatempo said, describing how weapons could chart out attacks. “So the two of you that were coming in behind us just to make sure, you can go to Target B. Within that four-minute flight time, there would be time to adjust to go to Target B.”

AFRL, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and weapons manufacturers are collaborating to create such a network, but Genatempo said he hasn’t taken the step of offering a company a contract to install it.

“That’s to come,” he added.