A new unit tasked with field-testing aerial uncrewed systems and AI technologies has begun work in the middle east according to the head of US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Major General Alexus Grynkewich. “It’s a small group of super-empowered airmen that I’m going to provide resources to so they can rapidly innovate and experiment in our literal sandbox that we have in the Middle East” the General told the US Air, Space and Cyber conference in September. It is unclear how the description of the Middle East as “our literal sandbox” was received by allies attending the conference.
Some of Task Force 99’s work will be focused on countering the threat of small drones from state and non-state actors, but it will also ‘experiment with off-the-shelf technologies’ in the ‘hope of harnessing new technologies in innovative ways’ according to reports in defence press.
The new Air Force unit is similar to the US Navy’s Task Force 59, which is based in Bahrain and has been conducting experiments with maritime drones for the past 12 months, (although the US has been using maritime drones in the region for a good deal longer). Tension flared in September 2022 between the US and Iran when two of Task Force 59’s surface drones were seized by an Iranian ship in the Red Sea. After the US demanded that the drones be returned, the Iranian ship released them into the water the following morning.
The US Air Force’s Task Force 99 will mainly be based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar but will also have a small ‘satellite innovation cell’ at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, from where US and British Reaper drones operate. The Al Udeid unit will ‘experiment with variable payloads on small drones’ according to a report in ‘Air and Space Forces’ magazine.
Offence as defence against small drone attacks?
Media coverage of the new unit has so far focused on one of its reported tasks – countering small drone attacks. While the majority of work on countering small attacking drones – counter UAS (C-UAS) in military parlance – is focused on detection, it appears that this new unit is more focused on offence. Announcing the Task Force, Grynkewitch said:
“Rather than just asking for more and more and more radars or more and more and more AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System], we’re trying to come up with another angle we can take on that.”
Arguing that small drones can attack from any angle, Grynkewitch went on ““That’s the defensive problem we have. I’d love to cause that problem for others offensively.”
Grynkewitch has previously stated his clear desire to ‘neuter’ the threat of Iranian drones and it may be that part of the work of this new unit is investigating whether the US can undertake strikes on units or individuals developing the use of small drones to launch attacks. The US has a long history now of undertaking such targeted killings, not least the notorious January 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
While the exact remit and mission of Task Force 99 remains opaque, its clear that the work of this unit deserves further scrutiny.