U.S. Air Forces Central, or AFCENT, has established a small but highly agile unit focused on rapidly innovating new capabilities that the service badly needs to confront emerging tactical problems in a very tough neighborhood. Forward stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, they too live and operate in that neighborhood. To learn more about this unique outfit and its mission, officially named Task Force 99, The War Zone spoke with its commander.
Nicknamed the 'Desert Catalysts,' Task Force 99 was officially established in October of last year. In the three months since, it has grown to a team of roughly eight airmen with backgrounds ranging from civil engineering to intelligence analysis led by commander Lt. Col. Erin Brilla, who has a past in acquisition herself. The group will leverage its vocational experience to foster a "culture of innovation," as Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Michael Kurilla has described it.
After weeks working solely out of dorm rooms, Task Force 99 also just recently established their own dedicated headquarters. The workspace was first loaned to the team by the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Desert Spark Innovation Lab, but it has since been acquired by Task Force 99. According to Brilla, a new hangar constructed specifically for the task force by Qatari partners may also be in the works. In fact, collaboration with regional allies is a big part of what Task Force 99 hopes to continue to do.
The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) last month revealed its comprehensive plan to ramp up technological innovation in its area of responsibility (AOR), especially in regard to unmanned, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled, unmanned, and and counter-drone capabilities. The need to do so comes as the U.S. military pivots its focus and resources from the CENTCOM AOR — which broadly encompasses the Middle East, Southwest Asia, parts of South Asia, and North Africa — more towards the Pacific, as well as Europe, as tensions with Russia and China increase.
You can read about the plan in detail in this past War Zone feature.
During a December press briefing, CENTOM’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer Schuyler Moore emphasized how important it is to experiment with new technologies at the command level, citing how CENTCOM is an especially unique region to do so. The hot, sandy, and salty climate can test capabilities in ways that traditional lab or test environments may not, and putting the solution in the hands of those closest to the problem is another benefit of this philosophy that both Moore and Brilla have lauded.
The ultimate goal is a defense technology development ecosystem that circumvents the sometimes arduous and inefficient acquisition process. This would ensure that whichever capability is being fielded has been experimented with in the AOR. Military exercises will be a key factor in facilitating this more hands-on, rapid development approach, as well.
Helping to realize this ambition are three task forces, one each for the Air Force, Navy, and Army. The Army’s Task Force 39 will focus on land-based innovation by testing concepts like a fleet of unmanned ground vehicles that can be teamed up with those that are manned. The Navy’s Task Force 59, which has been around for about a year longer than its counterparts, set the stage for Task Force 39 and 99 by exploring ways to improve situational awareness in the AOR through using unmanned and autonomous systems namely to keep tabs on adversarial activities.
However, Task Force 99 is all about achieving the same objective but for CENTCOM’s skies instead, and small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are currently one of its main focuses.
Below are Lt. Col. Brilla's responses to our questions about her team's trailblazing efforts:
TWZ: What is Task Force 99?
BRILLA: We are AFCENT’s operational innovation unit. We were announced first at the end of September and stood up in October of 2022 and have really been sprinting towards delivering capability according to our mission as well as making sure that we're standing up an organization as we go. We began working out of two dorm rooms in October with a very small team, and we now have our own facility and have had a steady stream of visitors as well as media interest, so it's been a really exciting ride.
There's a little more out there about Task Force 59, as they’re a year older than we are. They have done an amazing job paving the way for us. But both us and Task Force 39 have been started in the last two or three months.
We are actually working together as best we can in learning how to collaborate together across Army Central, Navy Central, and Air Forces Central, and how to share ideas back and forth. And CENTCOM’s Chief Technology Officer Schuyler Moore has been absolutely instrumental in that as she's taken charge in her new role. It's been really exciting.
TWZ: Tell me more about the history of Task Force 99.
BRILLA: To the best of my knowledge, it was created when AFCENT commander Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich announced at the Air Force Association symposium at the end of September  that he was going to create Task Force 99 and essentially replicate what Task Force 59 had been doing but for the air domain. He wanted us to create our own super-empowered elite task force that gets after very specific problems in a very expeditious manner a little bit outside of traditional channels where we're not waiting for long development timelines, but we are expediting things that are directly mature.
As far as our stand up, everyone that we currently have on the team was already here in theater, and we borrowed them from other units. We found, as best we could, some amazingly brilliant, multi-capable airmen that have these amazing resumes and skill sets. Everyone on our very small team is deep in their own field of expertise.
They are very highly empowered. We have Lt. Gen. Grynkewich’s full empowerment. Everything that's under his authority he has given to us, and I simultaneously give it to my team. If my youngest airman, who is our one and only programmer, says something is good to deliver, then that's our answer. There's no one looking over their shoulder, and there is no one double-checking their work. There's no one else to do it. If they don't tackle it, it doesn't get done.
It means that at the lowest levels from the grassroots up we have airmen who are able to take their ideas and directly put them into the field and into operations in a very quick manner. It's been really exciting to see. I just kind of sit back and marvel at their brilliance on a day-to-day basis.
Detachment 99 was our initial reporting name because that's how we organize ourselves. That was what we were called. Then Gen. Kurilla was the one who picked the new name and what he wanted to call all of us.
TWZ: Can you expand on Task Force 99’s relationship with the Navy’s Task Force 59?
BRILLA: It's absolutely a growing partnership. Commodore Michael Brasseur, who is their commander, has been phenomenal. He paved the way by inviting us to participate and share his lessons learned. Whether it's from a manpower standpoint, or from an operational standpoint, he's been very gracious.
I got to go out and join them at their Digital Horizons event that they had in December, which was a three-week operation where they brought in a multitude of vendors with the Defense Innovation Unit, and they basically took and stressed all of the systems in the maritime environment to the extent of, in some cases, what the technology is made for, but that's why we do operational evaluations.
They invited me to come along, and now we are looking into 2023. We have a couple of different events already on the calendar where we're going to partner with them to do proofs of concepts together. We can actually evaluate and assess some of these capabilities in the same way in which we intend to employ them, which is jointly so they have the maritime layer, and then we're adding the air domain layer on top of it.
TWZ: How would innovation progress in CENTCOM without these task forces?
BRILLA: I think the task force, at least for AFCENT, what it brings for us is the ability to take things directly into the field. Oftentimes — and I come from the R&D side of the house, I'm an acquisitions officer by trade — the timelines are a lot longer and a lot more methodical, and don't always meet the needs, particularly when it's an emerging requirement.
So, the ability to form the task force here in theater allows us to expedite, particularly in the areas of digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and machine learning things that are evolving so quickly. If you were to wait for developmental timelines, we would often be playing catch up, where if we are partnering with industry, that's already at the cutting edge of what's possible in other sectors, and leveraging and just pulling it straight across into the theater, that is where we find great financial advantages because a lot of the investment has already been done, and it's already developed.
We now have a more mature technology that we're bringing out and we're able to test something in the dirt, in the sand, in the mud, in the water, and in the salt that may have been demonstrated in a lab or on a very controlled test range, and we're able to actually put it into a more operational environment.
In some cases, the beautiful part about CENTCOM is that we are actually operating and we can often test things out and experiment with them in a very quick iterative manner to evaluate them for how they might be used in other AORs. It allows our innovation movement to benefit everybody.
TWZ: What would you say is the biggest threat facing CENTCOM that Task Force 99 can help confront?
BRILLA: Right now, our primary focus is to impose dilemmas on our adversary. Counter-UAS is a very big threat to our command within the AFCENT air domain, and though we're not focused on counter-UAS, we're looking at flipping that script around.
It is critical for us to have vigilant awareness of the potential threats our forces may face within the CENTCOM area of responsibility. Our focus is looking at ways to resource and employ digital technologies intelligently and widely across the air domain to impose dilemmas on our adversaries.
TWZ: What have been Task Force 99’s biggest achievements since being activated?
BRILLA: I will say that we are right now, within that imposing dilemma ideology, looking at a variety of small UASs and a variety of payloads to find a way where we can mix and match within the field. We were actually able to, again, [thanks] to my brilliant young airmen, cobble together purely from off-the-shelf parts, a payload for about $40 that they can then use when we have a smaller UAS that we can top it onto.
But they developed it, or I should say they cobbled it together. We aren't developing here, but we're assembling pieces. And they did it in about two weeks for about $40 and think that it could be ready for the field today.
TWZ: Any other specific aerial drone innovations or capabilities that you're working on?
BRILLA: We have a couple. As we are getting our feet under us, we do have a couple of small UASs already in-theater. We now have six trained operators on, and so we are working on training with those, the initial operational assessments, and then we will work to hand those off to an operational unit to employ them.
TWZ: Can you speak to what kind of systems they are?
BRILLA: The particular one that we have is an off-the-shelf unclassified system. That's the beautiful part about it. It is an unclassified system that we bought directly from a vendor, it produces unclassified technology. It's a mapping drone, so everything that it will produce, we will be able to share with our partners. Information sharing here is extremely important with our coalition partners, as you might imagine.
TWZ: Where does the information sharing and the networking architecture come in among all of this?
BRILLA: We're focused on unmanned and digital technologies, and what I really appreciate about Schuyler Moore at the CTO level of CENTCOM is that she's focused very much on creating the data infrastructure and the cloud environment that we can all plug into.
It all speaks a common language, and we all have something that we can collectively share. Not just across the task forces, but across all the services in the whole AOR. As we work together, each of the task forces in conjunction with each other, to build out its mesh networks and opportunities and spaces for that data to live where anybody can get into it, it just helps all of us that much more with our domain awareness and our ability to secure a stable environment across the AOR.
TWZ: What will AI’s role be?
BRILLA: I think anything that we can do to reduce the need for a human in the loop — not to completely get rid of it because obviously there are things that only a human can do — but as far as reducing the workload so we can ensure that similar to getting your resources applied in the right areas, that AI-enabled technology can ensure that I'm allowing my human in the loop to focus on the pieces that need ethical judgment or sound decisions, rather than just sifting through data or transposing numbers and things.
We’re doing anything that we can do to take the workload off the human, particularly at the edge, where you don't have to build as big of a data pipe that goes back for analysis and processing if you're actually processing it on the edge and only sending back what's important.
TWZ: How has the war in Ukraine and especially the use of Iranian drones impacted Task Force 99’s thinking of their own mission? What about when it comes to defending against long-range kamikaze drones from Iran and its proxy forces?
BRILLA: We've definitely been able to take a lot of notes from watching Ukraine over the past 11 months now, and so it has definitely informed both capabilities and threats, both what we want to actually chase after as well as what we want to defend against.
While we're not actively working on counter-UAS, we do have a different team at AFCENT that’s doing that. Ukraine is still a very useful data point to know what we could potentially do from an offensive standpoint, as we're simultaneously defending against it.
Ukraine has also let us know what's possible simply off the shelf. Things don’t have to be exquisite. You can have some tremendous effects with some very inexpensive technologies. That is part of what kind of opens up the creativity and imagination here is watching what off-the-shelf technology could be capable of if used in a new way.
TWZ: There is a lot of talk of an integrated air defense system across the Middle East that spans borders, at least in terms of providing real-time situational awareness and early warning. How is Task Force 99 involved in accomplishing such an ambitious goal, or how could they be involved in the future?
BRILLA: Air domain awareness is a critical part of regional stability and for all of our coalition partners and all of our joint partners all working together to maintain a solid picture of what is in not just our airspace, but in our seas and on our land so we have an idea of what is around us.
We are definitely looking at off-the-shelf technologies that can help us with that overall awareness and eyes on things that are perhaps lower cost than what we might have traditionally employed. Things that are unmanned so they can stay up for a lot longer than unmanned systems might be able to. And there's a variety of different systems that we're looking at that we are considering for bringing out for operational experiments to see how they actually do in the elements.
TWZ: Can you speak to any specifics in terms of the types of air domain awareness capabilities you’re looking at?
BRILLA: We’re looking at the need for long-endurance aircraft. Something that could potentially fly for days, that is unmanned, that just helps with eyes on or building that mesh network that we talked about. You’d have connectivity across the entire region that aids everybody's awareness.
TWZ: Do you think some of the innovations occurring in CENTCOM out of necessity will also migrate to the Pacific?
BRILLA: I absolutely think that anything that we test out here has applicability in both the Pacific and the European AORs. I think everything here that is tested is a capability in an operational environment that then you can take those data points and move them out.
TWZ: Last but not least, what does Task Force 99 have in store for 2023?
BRILLA: We are working very hard to greatly increase the variety of things that we are tackling and bringing into the theater. We're working with universities, particularly the U.S. Air Force Academy, to help get some of our students and some of our cadets focused on how we hand them the operational problem for their spring semester, and then it pops out on the other side as something that is actually useful.
Plus, even better, once they graduate and become commissioned officers, then they get the opportunity to potentially even follow their senior project into theater to actually see it employed. Opportunities like that are where we can grow with our coalition partners.
We have invited 17 of our coalition partners here who were represented at the Combined Air Operations Center to join us, and we've already had a few accept, so I'm very excited to see, as our coalition partners continue to come on board, what we can do together as they bring their hard problems to the table. We bring our hard problems, they bring their technologies, and we do the same and we talk to them all on the table together and say ‘Okay, what can we do here?’ And what can we do together, which is the most important part of that.
We’re working closely with our industry, where we're hopefully no longer playing catch up, but we're actually partnering with them as they are working on that cutting-edge technology, particularly those fascinating, fast-moving areas like AI and machine learning.
We’re making sure that we are continually building that relationship so we have a steady supply of operational assessments with things that are developed in a lab that then we can make sure actually meets our operational needs.
Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com