Inside Task Force 99, the Air Force’s custom drone builders

Task Force 99, based in Qatar, builds and test custom and commercial drones in Middle East operations.
Patty Nieberg Avatar

A small team of Air Force drone builders working at a US airbase in Qatar are experimenting with autonomous systems in the region, as early leaders of the Pentagon shift to fielding weapons systems powered by artificial intelligence, the top Air Force official in the region said.

Known as Task Force 99, the team combines commercially available drones and their own fabricated uncrewed technologies in their own fabrication shops at Al Udeid air base and tests their creations throughout the CENTCOM theater.

According to Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, Commander of the Ninth Air Force and the chief of air operations for US Central Command, Task Force 99 has 98 different uncrewed aircraft systems, or UASs, either on order or at their disposal, with ranges between roughly 12.5 to 900 miles that can assist with operations ranging from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to potential attacks.

Grynkewich discussed Task Force 99 and the Pentagon’s shifting autonomous strategies with reporters Wednesday at a Defense Writers Group event in Washington D.C.

“This isn’t an innovation element in terms of just a hub for innovation or something like that,” he said. “This is an operational task force fueled by innovation.”

Grynweich said Task Force 99, with just around 15 troops, has “proven capable” for a mix of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in CENTCOM though he did not provide additional details on specific operations.

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As the task force is focused on innovative solutions, they have created their own new technologies like a 3D printed drone they’re calling “the kestrel” which can be produced at around $2,500 and has the potential to carry various payloads of up to three kilograms.

He has given Task Force 99 three main problems to look at: increasing air domain awareness, figuring out how to find hard targets, and imposing dilemmas on adversaries. 

Previously, Grynweich said the Air Force was using its operations in the Middle East to train artificial intelligence systems with the data it collected.

As the Department of Defense has shifted its military focus and dollars to the Asia Pacific region in an effort to counter China’s rising global and economic influence, Grynkewich said his job now includes balancing ongoing threats like ISIS resurgence and regional instability provoked by Iran with the broader strategic competition with China and Russia.

Task Force 99 operates alongside five other participating nations with full-time dedicated personnel and plans to bring several other countries on board in the coming months. The Navy and Army have similar experimental teams, dubbed Task Force 59 and 39.

As a small operation, Grynweich said the task force doesn’t have the ability to scale and operate thousands of autonomous systems. But Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks’ Replicator initiative aims to bring their technological proficiency to the rest of the DOD. 

The Replicator initiative, announced by Hicks in August, is a DoD-wide plan to field thousands of autonomous systems in the next two years. The initiative has been pitched as a counter to China’s advantage of numbers in people, ships, and missiles. Task Force 99, Grynkewich said, “nests very well” with the Pentagon’s relatively new autonomous and artificial intelligence technology push.

Replicator, Grynweich said, will add additional production capacity for autonomous systems and frame new training requirements for Airmen, he said.

In a December 2022 release, the Air Force said it was “actively recruiting” people for Task Force 99 from active duty, the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve.

The unit has one or two traditional Air Force operators — officers trained as pilots or navigators — but most of the troops who are flying Task Force 99 drones are young sergeants from career fields like communications, cyber operations, or engineering, he said.

“They just happen to be the right people with the right skills that we discovered knew how to code or knew how to 3D print or something,” Grynkewich said.

With the initiative, there’s room to create drone-specific units that can test new drones and add or subtract capabilities on commercial or military-built systems, he said.

“There’s going to be a whole different training regimen that comes with that once we start scaling through something like Replicator,” he said. “There’ll be new doctrine,” for how to build autonomous systems and weapons “into our DNA” and how it fits into the overall military’s organizational structure, he added.

Grynweich said that the CENTCOM theater is also helping shape the effort known as Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2, a Pentagon initiative that aims to connect all of the military’s data sensors, shooters, and related communications devices.

CENTCOM has also created a new base command center architecture to integrate command and control for different counter UAS systems.

“There’s been a ton of activity trying to build systems that shoot down smaller UAS. The problem is none of them talk to each other,” he said. 

They’ve also invested in crowdsource detection capability along with the MITRE Corporation to develop a phone app named “Carpe Drone,” or “seize the drone,” he said. 

task force 99 drone builder
An Air Force technician operates a 3D printer inside a Task Force 99 shop at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Screen capture from USAF video by Video by Staff Sgt. Jermaine Ayers.

With the app, someone could take a picture of a drone and an alert would go out to people in the area with its location. Artificial intelligence would then help identify the type of drone and build track files with enough pictures.

CENTCOM made initial investments in the app and the Army is now incorporating it into the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center, an innovation center run in conjunction with Saudi Arabia to test out new technologies. They’ve also tested it in South Carolina.

“We’re not at the point yet where we can scale that and share with the broad public, but we’re working on that,” he said. “I think that’ll be the next step.”

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