U.S. Air Forces Central’s (AFCENT) Task Force 99 (TF 99) unit at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar began short-range drone intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flight tests this month, and Air Force Col. Robert Smoker, the unit’s new commander, said on Feb. 23 that a commercial off-the-shelf, 3D mapping unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has collected data and given AFCENT “really good imagery.”

“We were able to get better imagery than you get from Google Earth from this off-the-shelf capability,” he said in a phone interview.

Smoker, formerly the commander of the 193rd Air Intellligence Squadron under the 193rd Air Operations Group/193rd Special Operations Wing at State College Air National Guard Station, Pa., assumed the reins of TF 99 from Air Force Lt. Col. Erin Brilla in a ceremony at Shaw AFB, S.C., on Feb. 23. Smoker has also been an engineer with General Dynamics‘ [GD] mission systems division.

TF 99 is the aerial innovation arm of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) experiments, while TF 59 is the U.S. Navy’s contribution and TF 39 is the Army’s innovation wing for CENTCOM. Brilla had headed the unit since its establishment on Oct. 13 last year.

“We have seven different, small UASes,” Brilla said of TF 99 on Feb. 23 in the phone interview with Col. Smoker. “All are smaller companies, and, while not unknown, they [UASes] have not really been used in military use cases so far, and we’re very excited to see what we can do to leverage them in our operations.”

AFCENT has three areas of innovation emphasis: counter UAS; integrated air and missile defene/air domain awareness; and the integration of automated information processing to speed the flow of information to military forces without relying on time-intensive human effort.

While the TF 99 flight tests this month have involved mostly shorter range, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) drones, larger unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with ranges of 300 miles have a role to play in TF-99 experiments and future AFCENT missions, Air Force Lt. Gen. Alexus “Grynch” Grynkewich, the commander of AFCENT, said (Defense Daily, Feb. 13).

Brilla said on Feb. 23 that “there is definitely still a role for larger, long endurance aircraft, but we are also looking at Group 1 through Group 3 [UAS] to provide a greater portfolio option.” Group 1 through Group 3 drones have a takeoff weight of less than 1,320 pounds. Military drones in these groups include AeroVironment, Inc.‘s RQ-11 Raven, Boeing [BA] Insitu‘s ScanEagle and RQ-21 Blackjack, and AAI Corp.‘s RQ-7B Shadow.

Smoker said that TF 99 has received its drones from academia and companies outside of the defense realm and that the drone builders have included the University of Missouri and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Last year, Grykewich said that he foresaw the new task force–then called Detachment 99–as a way to spur innovation in the detection and countering of small drones, like those of Iran (Defense Daily, Sept. 27, 2022).

“If I only have one or two of an exclusive platform in the AOR [area of responsibility] like an RC-135 or even an MQ-9, whose numbers are decreasing, if I need to find some particular part of the enemy’s order of battle, if I can build a small platform and it doesn’t need to go very far because we know that piece of the order battle is close, then a small, shorter-range unmanned ISR platform that I can send out to go 20, 30, 100 miles and come back is really useful,” Grynkewich said last year.

Brilla said that the important part of TF 99 is giving commanders options to match a given problem with the best solution.

“You don’t need necessarily something that can fly 500 miles, if the thing you need to look at is only 50 miles away,” she said.

TF 99 is to conduct its next operational evaluation, in conjunction with the Navy’s TF 59, of a long endurance drone.

“Because we are looking at mature technologies that are already available and essentially proven out in either commercial or industrial sectors, the fielding timeline gets shortened dramatically,” Brilla said of TF 99’s efforts. “We’re not talking two to five years. We’re talking hopefully six to 12 months. Our hope is that we are testing things out that could be ready today, and once we’ve demonstrated them against a specific use case, there’s something that we then have on the back end, how we would either go get more or what we would then choose to do with that specific solution as far as handing it off to an operational unit. Our goal is definitely less than 24 months and, honestly, as close to six to 12 [months] as we can.”