The Department of the Air Force’s top three research projects are advancing toward tests of their real-life abilities as the military debates which ideas it might fast-track next.
Air Force and Space Force officials presenting at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September shed new light on the Air Force Research Laboratory’s “vanguard” programs, high-profile ventures chosen for extra investment last year—and continued investment in 2021.
The department wants at least $157.6 million for vanguards in fiscal 2021, including:
- $72.1 million for the Golden Horde weapons swarm
- $40.9 million for the Skyborg wingman drone
- $24.6 million for Navigation Technology Satellite-3.
The programs promise not only unique and useful technologies, but also a model for accelerating development and fielding of new weapons in the future. One vanguard has already started flight-testing, while the others will begin real-world vetting within the next few years. In that time, the projects will prove whether they really are something special—or face the same struggles as any other research effort.
We’re looking at a whole variety of things, from small [UAVs] up to actual surrogates for the weapons themselves.Christopher Ristich, head of AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office
Air Force researchers in October will test whether a software simulation of its developmental weapons swarm can maneuver through a combat mission and reroute itself as conditions change.
The demonstration is part of the Golden Horde vanguard, which aims to create munition swarms that autonomously work together when fired and “think” on their own to attack targets that match specific criteria.
Golden Horde assets could be used for traditional airstrikes, or carry sensors and other payloads for missions from reconnaissance to electronic warfare to aerial refueling.
“We’re actually going to be demonstrating digital twin-enabled operations … where we’ll be using a software variant of a collaborative weapon flying out in a swarm mission, encountering some issues along the way that it did not expect, and collecting that data back over through an [Advanced Battle Management System] cyber-assured cloud, to then feed a digital twin model using some [artificial intelligence and machine learning] techniques to ascertain where we might put either some different playbooks or a software improvement into the weapon system,” Craig Ewing of AFRL said during a Sept. 21 presentation on digital systems engineering in the Air Force.
Digital twins are virtual models of hardware that can be used in simulations to refine engineering work and speed up development of new military systems—without relying on physical prototypes. They are core to the Department of the Air Force’s new push to leverage digital engineering more broadly across its inventory to accelerate weapons development.
Program officials will use technology developed for Gray Wolf, an earlier effort to develop a swarming cruise missile, as the model for the demonstration. The Air Force said last year it would abandon Gray Wolf in its early stages of development to focus on networking existing munitions through Golden Horde instead.
The data collected on Gray Wolf will help hone algorithms to simulate Golden Horde, a collection of Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDB-1). The effort was also using Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoys, but Air Force Weapons Program Executive Officer Brig. Gen. Heath A. Collins said the service is questioning whether CMALD will be part of Golden Horde in the long run. Scientific Applications and Research Associates and Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp. are connecting those weapons together for the Air Force.
“We’re looking at a whole variety of things, from small [unmanned aerial vehicle] systems to explore the behaviors of these collaborative weapons, up to actual surrogates for the weapons themselves,” he said.
While the AFRL website notes that demos will begin late this year and “ultimately lead to an integrated capstone test event with … weapons working together to prosecute simulated targets in the fall of 2021,” Ristich said officials are rethinking aspects of the program as well as the schedule.
Defense News reported earlier this year that F-16 fighter jets would flight-test the CSDB-1 in 2020. The service now appears to be ditching tests of the CMALD on the B-52 bomber that were planned for next summer.
“The first flight-test scenarios will be simple, helping the Air Force gauge whether the weapons are properly communicating across the network and acting in accordance with the mission playbook,” Defense News wrote. “For example, a team of CSDB-1s could come across a threat while en route to attack a target and would have to change trajectory to avoid it.”
The Air Force may vet the concept as an integrated swarm in 2022.
The Skyborg program has hit some snags in its quest to build an autonomous “wingman” drone that could scope out areas ahead of manned aircraft, add firepower to a strike mission, protect bases, and more.
Four companies are working on Skyborg platforms: Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos, and Northrop Grumman. They are competing for up to $400 million in future contracts as their designs mature and are gearing up for flight experiments next year.
USAF has said it wants a wingman drone to be ready for combat by the end of 2023.
The XQ-58A Valkyrie is the most public aircraft under consideration as part of the Skyborg initiative. A joint venture between AFRL and Kratos, which built the aircraft, Valkyrie suffered a fault with its rocket-assisted take-off system in July. Inside Defense reported that AFRL scrapped a July 29 flight-test, the second setback in less than a year.
“The incident occurred during morning pre-flight checks and resulted in the aircraft leaving its launcher and quickly coming to rest in front of the launch rails,” AFRL spokesman Bryan Ripple told the publication.
Christopher J. Ristich, head of AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office, said Sept. 16 that he believes the drone was not extensively damaged and should be operational again by the end of October. The problem likely interfered with the Air Force’s plan to use the XQ-58A in its second Advanced Battle Management System demonstration in early September. The service did not confirm by press time whether the Valkyrie participated.
Navigation Technology Satellite-3
Navigation Technology Satellite-3 is AFRL’s first space vanguard program, aiming to improve on the reliability and accuracy of location and timing data offered by the GPS enterprise. The first experimental satellite will launch on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket in late fiscal 2022 for a yearlong test on orbit and could expand to up to nine satellites.
L3Harris is now buying parts to begin building the spacecraft’s components this fall, and the satellite itself within the next year. Joe Rolli, head of PNT (positioning, navigation, and timing) business development at L3Harris, said the challenge lies in combining a traditional navigational system with the new technology of a steerable, phased-array antenna in the same satellite.
Airmen are getting involved early as well, to smooth the eventual transition from development to operations. Two experimental ground control stations will provide data to AFRL at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and to the Catalyst Campus software development hub that is close to major Space Force bases in Colorado Springs, Colo.
GPS operators at nearby Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., have already participated in test events and offered feedback about what they want to see from NTS-3, AFRL’s NTS-3 Program Manager Arlen Biersgreen told Air Force Magazine Sept. 16.
“They would have a lot more opportunity for varying characteristics of the signal that was being sent down, power levels, parameters,” he said. “All of that is really opening their eyes to the wide range of possibilities that a system like NTS-3 provides.”
While the AFRL experiment will last only a year, the satellite could live longer. That opens the door for the military to temporarily use it in daily operations and learn even more about the system.
The SDPE office plans to build out infrastructure for air-to-ground experiments with NTS-3 software to explore how the military could use those satellites alongside their ground stations and other systems, such as GPS, in the long run.
“That’s a practice that’s emerging in the vanguards, is bringing the operational experimentation into the vanguards to help develop [concepts of operations] in parallel to technology,” Ristich said.
Col. Eric Felt, who runs the Air Force Research Laboratory’s space vehicles directorate, said the Space Force is considering three different options for how it could proceed with NTS-3 production and will recommend a way forward to Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper in about a year.
“One of those options is to buy more NTS-3s, but there’s two other options in play, too,” Felt said. “There’s a cost, schedule, performance, and risk associated with each of those transition options that’s being evaluated.”
The level of military investment in NTS-3 is more significant than L3Harris usually sees for similar research programs, Rolli said. It’s one of the company’s first opportunities as the prime contractor on a leading space program rather than providing mission system software as a supplier.
The program is benefiting from being a higher priority from AFRL and working with more than the organizations at Kirtland, which hosts the Space Vehicles Directorate, Biersgreen said. For example, the team is collaborating with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center early on to get the program up and running faster, which wouldn’t be the case outside of a vanguard initiative.
Communicating with many different stakeholders across the Air Force and Space Force can be challenging, Biersgreen said, “but it also means there’s that much more visibility and that much more focus.”
“We have [SMC development experts] in meetings with us every single day, they participate in those major milestone reviews with L3Harris and the other contractors,” he said. “We also interact with the portfolio architects on the basis of the actual transition planning itself, and then we are interacting with the enterprise corps when it comes to launch and operations, and then the production corps … is what the [GPS system program office] itself has transitioned into.”
The biggest change from a typical research and development program is greater involvement with satellite operators.
“We’ve seen in the major programs that if those things aren’t well coordinated, you’re not able to deliver capabilities on a tight and predictable time frame to the warfighter,” Biersgreen said. “It’s absolutely been a value-added exercise via vanguard.”
Military researchers have not pointed to specific air warfare initiatives that could become vanguards, but are eyeing multiple such projects for the Space Force.
The “Precise” initiative and the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS), which were recently selected in an internal competition for more attention, are top candidates to be vanguards, according to Felt.
The Precise experiment will be the lab’s first foray into very low-Earth orbit, 200 to 300 kilometers above the planet, to study the ionosphere’s effects on satellites and other space assets. CHPS will evaluate how objects move in cislunar space and new ways to track them.
“Those are two examples of some good potential future space vanguards, but we’re not quite ready to nominate them yet,” Felt said Sept. 16. They still have some homework to do on those, but there’s lots of examples in every mission area.”
He’s found two concepts through AFRL’s Warfighter-Technologist Summit (WARTECH) that could become vanguards, but did not provide details.
The department will pick its next vanguards—or none at all—at a meeting of the Capability Development Council in January. The Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and undersecretary chair that panel. Once work is underway, a new Transformational Capabilities Office will decide whether vanguards are good enough to grow into a formal procurement program.
AFRL scopes out its most promising ideas in two ways, Ristich said. The first tries to address what the military knows it will need in the future, while the other mines academia and industry for their best prospects.
“There’s what we call the strategy-driven part. It’s really looking at the future force design that is evolving out of [the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability team], primarily, and also from the Space Force, and then distilling those into challenge problems that we introduce into this WARTECH process,” Ristich said. “We have operational challenges that we identify, we bring together operators and technologists to look at the solution space. What is the art of the possible? … Then we start to bring wargames.”
Through modeling and simulation, Airmen show whether the technology in question can make a difference for military strategy.
“How do you find the disruptive capabilities that could be out there that change the landscape?” Ristich said. “We’ve got some both internal and external activities that are looking at trying to harvest those ideas.”