Air Force’s Mideast drone unit eyes a ‘stateside element’

Air Force’s Mideast drone unit eyes a ‘stateside element’

The Qatar-based U.S. Air Force task force that’s been experimenting with unmanned technologies—including AI-designed, 3D-printed drones—may add a component on U.S. soil.

The small group, based at Al Udeid Air Base, has a three-year “strategic workforce plan” that “envisions a stateside element that continues to develop and grow partnerships with the global innovation ecosystem,” said Col. Jeffrey Digsby, commander of Air Forces Central Command’s Task Force 99. 

Launched in October 2022 as an experimental unit, the task force has already used some of its new drones in Middle East operations, and is testing out new ways of quickly manufacturing cheap drones with artificial intelligence. 

“We absolutely started to move into operationalizing this task force and we’ve really been pushing the limits here lately with autonomous operations, and quite frankly, we’re on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence integration for small UAS [uncrewed aerial] platforms,” said Digsby, who took command of the task force just over a month ago. 

Earlier this year, the unit tried out prototype software that designs 3D-printed drones with artificial intelligence. The tool “drastically reduced” the time it takes for TF-99 to design and build a small UAS from weeks and months to “hours and days,” Digsby said. The unit worked with Blue Horizons, an Air Force chief of staff-chartered fellowship program, and hired Titan Dynamics, a California-based company. 

Digsby said the AI software is fed a set of requirements, like how far the drone needs to fly and how heavy a payload it needs to carry, and then 3D-printing machines build the drone within a day. 

The commander declined to say when the Air Force might operationalize this software due to “OPSEC reasons,” but emphasized the unit is focused on “conducting the validations and assessments using an operational environment that we have here at CENTCOM.”

Last fall, the former head of AFCENT said the group had almost 100 unmanned systems “either on order or on hand” across 13 types. When asked for an update on the task force’s inventory, AFCENT said 100 drones is still the publicly-releasable number, but noted this new 3D-printing platform as an addition to the command’s capabilities. 

New methods of developing drones en masse, such as 3D-printing, will be key to helping the Pentagon quickly build drones as it carries out its Replicator initiative. 

Since Task Force 99 is a small unit, it’s difficult to increase its operations, Digsby said. But the group is hoping the Replicator program might supply uncrewed aircraft that can help some TF-99 concepts take flight. As Replicator produces drones, AFCENT’s “real combat environment” with tough environmental conditions will provide a “perfect assessment setting,” he said. 

“When you look at the technology that delivers those attritable, autonomous, and persistent [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capabilities, it’s the real world of operations that we’re doing here and some of the experiments that we’re conducting and the assessments that are going to feed the Replicator program and the development,” Digsby said. 

Fielding reconnaissance drones is one of the task force’s main objectives, in addition to increasing air domain awareness and “imposing costs and creating dilemmas for our adversaries,” Digsby said. The latter, for example, could mean one-way attack drones. 

Demand for AFCENT’s ISR platforms in the region has likely increased since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war in October. The U.S. relies on reconnaissance drones and other systems to monitor military operations in the Middle East and collect targeting information. 

Digsby said he couldn’t discuss “specific operations but…we are definitely leaning into that air-domain-awareness piece. We’ve started to use commercial and government off-the-shelf technology.”

He said the group is focused on building technology that can deliver attritable ISR drones that can be produced in mass. Smaller drones can fly lower—providing an advantage over traditional ISR platforms that have been operating in the region for years, like the Air Force’s MQ-9 drone, which is expensive and vulnerable. 

“There are going to be times in which utilizing technology that is attritable or that is autonomous gives us increased agility and flexibility to operate in the AOR. Those are just some of the core technology or strategies if you will, that allow us to locate hard-to-detect, mobile targets, as an example,” he said. 

To build out the command’s ISR coverage, Digsby also said Task Force 99 is integrating beyond-line-of-sight and mesh network capabilities to build “persistent ISR coverage at the point of need” for the warfighter. 

Thus far, the team collaborated with 17 coalition partners, and a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force is fully embedded with the group, he said. 

Read the full article here