Air Force names three technologies for its futuristic vanguard program

After seven months, the Air Force is finally divulging three cutting-edge technologies it will heavily invest in to quickly become an operational part of the service.

Networking missiles, artificially intelligent drones and advanced positioning systems are all getting priority in research funding from the Air Force as part of its vanguard program, according to Air Force Materiel Command leader Gen. Arnold Bunch.

“Vanguard programs are ones we believe are going to be game changers,” Bunch told reporters Thursday during a Defense Writers Group event in Washington. “We believe they can change the way that we fight and the way we employ air power.”

The three programs are Golden Horde, Navigation Technology Satellite-3 and Skyborg, Bunch said.

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“Each program is evaluated on its merits individually,” he said. “We are not looking for just an incremental increase. The way we see these is if we get these to work and function the way we expect then it will be a leap ahead.”

Golden Horde gives missiles a swarming capability and allows them to work together and figure out the best way to attack a target even after they have been deployed. The Air Force would install software into existing missiles to produce the effect.

The Air Force Research Laboratory already contracted with Scientific Applications Research Associates for a potential $100 million contract on research, development, testing and demonstration support of the program.

“Navigation Technology Satellite-3 will be in geosynchronous orbit and it will be working on position, navigation and timing (PNT) changes and doing it in a different way,” Bunch said.

A fact sheet from the Air Force Research Laboratory explains the possible new concepts and technologies that might come from the satellite.

“Experimental antennas, flexible and secure signals, increased automation, and use of commercial assets. Technologies matured and knowledge gained from NTS-3 are expected to transition to future generations of GPS and potential augmentations to national PNT capabilities,” the fact sheet states.

Skyborg is a set of AI-driven drones that fly with fighter jets.

“The drones will enhance the pilots’ awareness at a low cost,” Bunch said.

Given the military’s push toward new technologies, it might be surprising that priorities like hypersonics are not part of the vanguard program.

However, Bunch said hypersonics and other much talked about weapons are already far enough along that they don’t need to be part of the vanguard program.

“We already have the hypersonics efforts going on,” Bunch said. “We already have two programs going on. We’ve already got the work that we’re doing with the Defense Advances Research Projects Agency. We’re already doing that research. To me we are already there. We believe we will have an early operational capability in 2022 for hypersonics.”

The Air Force announced its vanguard program as part of its science and technology plan for 2030.

“Vanguard programs will be limited in time and scope to achieve focus and urgency. While emphasizing advanced technology, they can synergize applied research, selected basic research, and experimentation and prototyping to drive forward innovative capabilities,” the strategy states.

Those technologies are not clearly defined, however. Instead they are concepts the Air Force wants to get its arms around. They include global persistent awareness; continuous and timely knowledge of adversaries; complexity, unpredictability and mass; overwhelming adversaries through a collaborative and autonomous network of systems; and the ability to rapidly disrupt and neutralize dynamic and mobile targets using new methods to attack with speed and global reach.

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