They adapt their actions within pre-set autonomy levels to respond in real time to changing circumstances, without direct human intervention, to carry out missions. For example, a dozen Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) launched toward one target destination could quickly change their own target coordinates to send four of their 12 to the original location, four to a new location, and four to a third, newly-identified target, if the new intelligence indicates that such a strike would be more effective. In addition, a similar group of CSDBs could use its incredibly fast, interconnected data sharing and decision-making to “swarm” an opponent, overwhelming its human-speed decision-making ability to respond. That is why Collaborative Weapons are often called “swarming munitions,” although that’s only part of what the technology can do. In effect, Collaborative Weapons are “smarter” and respond faster due to technologies that are constantly learning, adapting, and self-governing.

What types of Collaborative Weapons are there?

Broadly, Collaborative Weapons consist of two types:

  1. Collection of different weapon types, such as various bombs, mines, missiles, and grenades operating together in coordination with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), decoys, and other platforms. These are known as heterogeneous CW systems.
  2. Collection of identical devices, munitions, and platforms, like that grouping of CSDBs mentioned above. These are known as homogeneous CW systems.

Whether the weapon sets are heterogeneous or homogeneous, once chosen to be part of a CW group, they are outfitted with onboard electronic hardware called “dynamic, reconfigurable system-on-a-chip (SoC) microprocessors.” This allows each device to be programmed in the field to carry out its own assigned tasks as part of an integrated, cooperative mission. Whether the weapons are inherently different or uniformly identical, the core defining requirement for Collaborative Weapons is that their advanced, networked communications and activated systems adapt to circumstances and work together collectively to execute missions.

Although all-new weapons and systems are already in development for the Collaborative Weapons category, current CWs are devised and built by adding advanced new navigation, sensing, guidance, communication, targeting, and prioritization technologies – including expanded on-board processing for enhanced autonomy – to a range of established strike weapon frameworks. Over time, design evolution will replace those frameworks, resulting in “completely new” weapons, but it is currently more productive to focus efforts and investment on redefining and expanding the capabilities of existing weapons through these recent control and communications tools.

Who uses Collaborative Weapons?

Collaborative Weapons are still in the research and development stage, and there is great interest in these by nations and defense agencies worldwide. Among those interested, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is the clear leader not only in efforts to make CW a combat-ready reality, but also in creating real world and digital environments that promote future development, especially to support innovation among smaller and new partners. Driven primarily by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and its defense community development partners, CW systems are expected to be implemented by most other DoD branches, once viable system designs become available. Initial research focused on proving the potential of highly-evolved Networked Collaborative and Autonomous (NCA) weapons to increase both battlespace lethality and mission survivability. Having proven that potential in the AFRL’s Golden Horde program, efforts now focus on three areas key to assuring adoption and growth of CW:

  1. Continue to improve communication, sensing, seeking, learning, and autonomy technology performance. This requires continued chip design development to maximize their interoperability, refining sub-systems using those chips to assure accurate and timely responsiveness, and elevating on-board processing to support increased autonomous behaviors.
  2. Implement higher autonomous behavior level needed for Collaborative Weapons to succeed.  This includes path planning, search region definition and partitioning, and target prioritization to weapon-to-target assignment, weapon reprioritization, and plan adherence. Faster and more powerful on-board processing capabilities, especially in smaller devices, is required for success.
  3. Increased electronic protection system effectiveness, which shield against GPS jamming and spoofing, as well as other signal attacks that could disrupt CW navigation, timing, and positioning capabilities.

Human-in-the-Loop Autonomy

Significant advances in AI, ML, sensor accuracy, and block-resistant radio and guidance systems resulted in rapidly improving autonomous capabilities, but autonomy in any weapons system has long been uncertain, more for its imagined abuse than for reality. Having “autonomous behaviors,” however, is not the same as being fully autonomous. In fact, these weapons systems are considered semi-autonomous by the DoD because their “decision-making” capabilities are limited to human-in-the-loop (HITL) rules pre-defined by real people, and their collaborative actions are limited to a dynamic “play calling” framework where each “play” is controlled by Rules of Engagement (RoE) set by command staff based on situational awareness of the battle environment. It is RoE which ensure that, despite being cutting-edge technologies, the CW systems can only carry out actions decided upon by human warfighters to support the mission.

In addition, while concerns about autonomies that drive human decision-making further out of “the loop” must be addressed, the DoD and AFRL also must consider the efforts of near-peer rivals to develop their own autonomous weapons programs that could become real-world threats, especially if Western allies fail to counter such potential threats.

What are Collaborative Weapons platforms?

During initial CW development capabilities exercises at the Air Force Test Center at Eglin Air Force Base, the Air Force dropped collaborative small diameter bombs from an F-16 Fighting Falcon. A key benefit of Collaborative Weapons, is that their networked communications, guidance, and targeting, and autonomous re-targeting can make them an overwhelming response not only to bombers, but to a wide range of manned and unmanned, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, as well as ground vehicles, ships, and any other platform necessary. Their capabilities are partially intended to overcome reliance on traditional platform expectations and limitations.

Related Topics to Explore

Artificial Intelligence (AI) • Autonomous Control and Decision Systems • Autonomous Weapons Systems • Controlled Reception Pattern Antennas • Cooperative Engagements • Dynamically-Reconfigurable Technologies • Electronic Protection Systems • Golden Horde Colosseum • Heterogeneous/Homogenous Swarms • Intelligent Weapons • Near-Peer Missile Pivot • Networked Collaborative and Autonomous (NCA) Weapons • Operation Protovision • Vanguard Program

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