Task Force 99: New US drone unit begins work in the Middle East

Task Force 99 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (Credit USAF)

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.    Read more