Air Force SSgt. Nathan Coorough, left, assigned to the 3rd Munitions Squadron, detaches a rack of inert small diameter bombs from a fork-lift during readiness training at JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Air Force photo by Alejandro Peña.

A USAF fighter pilot closes in on an enemy coastline, on the deck, trying to avoid detection and enemy ground-to-air missiles.

Bingo! The target is in range … lock on … fire … four GPS-guided bombs are headed in harm’s way.

As the weapons swarm toward their destination, they share information about their surroundings. One of the munitions sights a higher-priority target nearby.

Instantly, the game plan changes — the bombs’ programming now directs two of the weapons toward the high-priority target, while the rest carry out the original strike.

All on their own, without any human interaction — literally, weapons that can think for themselves.

That scenario is similar to one the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) plans to test this year using a Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb, one of the two munitions the Air Force is developing in the Golden Horde program, Valerie Insinna of Defense News reported.

Atlanta-based Georgia Tech Applied Research Corp. on Dec. 19 received an US$85 million contract for the Golden Horde project that aims to show weapons can work together in self-directed swarms, according to a set of predetermined rules.

Col. Garry Hasse, director of AFRL’s Munitions Directorate, emphasized that this capability is different than a weapon that can independently make decisions based on artificial intelligence, Defense News reported.

“We get that question a lot,” he told Defense News in an interview. “With all the talk about artificial intelligence and other things in ‘Terminator’ movies … [there’s] certainly some trepidation of what independent capability a weapon may have.”

Golden Horde is one of the three technology development efforts chosen by the Air Force in 2019 as a “Vanguard program” — a high-priority prototyping and experimentation initiative that the service earmarked as potentially groundbreaking.

Along with its fellow Vanguards — the loyal wingman drone known as Skyborg and Navigation Technology Satellite-3, an experimental satellite that would augment GPS — the Air Force hopes to speed Golden Horde toward either fielding or failure, Defense News reported.

AFRL is working on two networked munitions for Golden Horde: the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB-1) and the Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD), Defense News reported.

Both involve taking munitions currently in production — the laser-guided version of Boeing’s Small Diameter Bomb I and Raytheon’s Miniature Air-Launched Decoy — and then outfitting them with new radios that allow the weapons to exchange information, and equipping them with new processors for additional computing power, said Norma Taylor, program manager for Golden Horde.

That in turn enables a massive software upgrade known as the “autonomy module,” a playbook of algorithms that tell the weapon how to respond to specific changes on the battlefield, whether that means the sighting of a new threat or the destruction of some of the collaborative weapons, Defense News reported.

According to Popular Mechanics, the result is a more efficient use of munitions, allowing bombs to direct themselves against unserviced targets.

This makes it less likely that human pilots would have to make a second run on their targets, which is particularly important in defended airspace, where air defenses that might have been caught by surprise by the first attack could be on full alert for a successive attack.

Instead of bracing themselves to make multiple passes against an increasingly alert adversary, pilots can release their weapons and then concentrate on flying their jet home, Popular Mechanics reported.

Is Golden Horde a danger to civilians? Not more than any other weapon system. A target attacked by Golden Horde faces just as much destruction as one attacked by a human pilot.

The larger issue is the target vetting process and ensuring targets that needlessly risk civilian lives don’t pass the approval process, Popular Mechanics reported.

The Air Force emphasizes that Golden Horde “only selects from set plays and cannot violate defined Rules of Engagement.”

AFRL is on track to begin F-16 fighter jet flight tests with the CSDB-1 this fall and winter, with similar tests of the B-52 bomber carrying the CMALD planned for summer 2021.