A small Air Force team at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is working on solutions to mitigate one of U.S. Central Command’s primary issues: doing more with less.
As part of a broader push in CENTCOM towards what leaders call “a culture of innovation,” Task Force 99 at Air Forces Central is working to help alleviate some of the pressure on the current force, as the U.S. military’s resources shift from the region but American forces continue to battle the remnants of ISIS and confront Iranian-backed attacks.
Their innovation: Use what already exists in different ways.
“It’s fostering an environment where we come up with new processes, new ways of thinking about how we employ our assets,” Task Force 99 commander Lt. Col. Erin Brilla told Air & Space Forces Magazine.
Brilla leads the small team of eight Airmen, though the exact numbers fluctuate based on deployment cycles. The unit was originally unveiled by Air Force Central (AFCENT) commander Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich at AFA’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference in September. But at the time, there were no members, including Brilla; she read about the new unit in a news article.
With a background in acquisition and intelligence, Brilla moved from another role inside CENTCOM to lead the new unit.
“Next thing I know, I found myself here,” Brilla said by phone from Qatar. “The acquisition skill set is not one that you would normally find in operational command in theater.”
The unit originally had no headquarters. Its members worked out of repurposed dorm rooms at the base. Even its name wasn’t settled at first—when Grynkewich announced the unit’s formation to reporters, it was called Detachment 99. In October, though, it formally stood up as Task Force 99—and it got a nickname, the “Desert Catalysts.”
Brilla says the team is currently working with commercial technology and seeing how they can apply that to military uses. CENTCOM has pitched itself as a prime experimentation hub for the U.S. military as a “literal sandbox,” in the words of multiple CENTCOM officials.
CENTCOM officials envision a new regional counter-drone exercise. The Navy’s Task Force 59 begin the innovation effort in 2021 by fielding a small fleet of maritime drones that will grow into a coalition network of around 100 vessels that will monitor the region’s waters, according to CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla.
Task Force 99 took many of the lessons learned by Task Force 59 and applied them from the start, Brilla said. The Air Force team is also being assisted by the Defense Innovation Unit.
Currently, the Airmen are experimenting with drones that cost around five to six figures, with payloads as low as $40, typically some form of sensing device or camera. Grynkewich has said he wants to field systems that cost under $1 million. Kurilla said Task Force 99 will follow a similar model to Task Force 59. CENTCOM will also stand up a land-based Task Force 39 for the Army.
“Task Force 99 will replicate Task Force 59’s maritime efforts with aerial drones complete with tailored payloads and other capabilities operating together to observe, detect, and gather data that feeds into an operations center,” Kurilla told reporters Dec. 22. “Task Force 99’s fleet of unmanned aircraft will impose dilemmas on our adversaries and detect and defeat threats to our systems and to our partners.”
Task Force 99 is using what the Department of Defense classifies as Group 1 to Group 3 unmanned aerial systems, with grouping based on size, speed, and altitude. Group 1 drones are small systems that weigh under 20 pounds, fly at less than 100 knots, and do not exceed 1,200 feet of altitude. Group 3 drones can weigh over 1,000 pounds with an operating altitude of up to 18,000 feet.
Group 1 systems in military use include drones such hand-launched Puma system, which was used by the British Army at the American-hosted Project Convergence exercise in the fall. Group 3 drones may have launch and recovery systems. But Task Force 99’s efforts are a far cry from the more expensive drones such as the RQ-9 Reaper that AFCENT supports from airfields in the region.
“It’s a wide variety of what we’re looking at,” Brilla said. “But it’s all: what we can do with things that are all readily available that we can potentially combine in a new way or use in a new way.”
The Task Force 99 team is looking at using drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and possibly electronic warfare. Brilla declined to specify exactly which systems the team was using, citing a desire not to endorse specific commercial products that the U.S. military was still testing out.
“Anything we can potentially use to impose a cost, for a low cost from our own perspective,” Brilla said of what types of drones Task Force 99 will use. “We want to be able to ensure financial prudence and make sure that we are using our resources in the best manner possible. So there are places where you can put an unmanned or a digital technology in place where there might have been a time-intensive human process in order to free up that human manpower for something that’s a higher priority or more critical. Those are our goals.”
CENTCOM sees each service’s task force as part of a holistic effort, eventually combining in a network to identify threats. Those real threats—from ISIS fighters to Iranian-backed drone and missile attacks—are something CENTCOM says is useful to experiment with new technology. However, Brilla concedes Task Force 99 has to rely on things it expects to work, and cannot replace current manned assets with unmanned ones if that hampers U.S. military efforts in the region or poses risks to U.S. troops and allies.
“In many cases, it’s already been proven out—maybe not in government or military channels, maybe it’s been out in the commercial or the industrial sector,” Brilla said. “Even though we’re using the word experiment here, it is not a new technology. We’re very careful about choosing something that is mature, unclassified, and low-cost. If it fails, it is a much lower risk. If it does fail, that might be an acceptable answer. But it is a question of risk that we’re willing to accept because we would not be losing life, limb, eyesight, or millions and millions of dollars.”
In the near term, Task Force 99 hopes to double its team up to around 20 Airmen. Because members cycle through deployments, the team needs to continuously replace expertise, though Brilla believes it will benefit from new approaches brought by different Airmen. The unit is also exploring how it might incorporate Guard or Reserve members that have relevant civilian expertise, and Air Forces Central has invited 17 allies to assist Task Force 99 efforts.
“Innovation will extend the value of our partnerships, fill some of the gaps in resources,” Kurilla said. “The American commitment to the region used to be measured by boots on the ground. That is the old way of thinking.”