JUST IN: Task Force 99, Replicator Teaming Up on Drone Efforts

By Laura Heckmann

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Nearly a year into its establishment, Task Force 99 — an operational innovation task force of Air Forces Central Command — is looking to leverage the Defense Department’s recently-announced Replicator initiative to advance drone technology.

Task Force 99 is “the cornerstone of AFCENT’s approach to U.S. Central Command’s intent of building a culture of innovation,” according to an Air Force article. Comprising eight full time airmen, its mission is to leverage digital and unmanned technologies, “creating dilemmas for adversaries and new opportunities for collaboration with partners.”

One such partner is the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, announced in August by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks as an effort to build attritable autonomous systems at scale “of multiple thousands in multiple domains” within the next 18 to 24 months.

Speaking to reporters at a Defense Writers Group event Oct. 4, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of Air Forces Central Command, said Task Force 99 “nests very well with [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Hick’s Replicator effort.”

Task Force 99 takes digital and unmanned technologies “and is trying to apply them in an operational environment,” Grynkewich said. “We do quick assessments and use them in the field,” which aligns with Replicator’s goal of building autonomous systems.

He said AFCENT has, either on order or on hand, 98 different UAS across 13 types with ranges from 20 to more than 1,400 kilometers “that can do a variety of things,” from ISR to potential attack uses, he added.

“So, it's exciting to me to see the department focusing on this, and I think we've got a role to play in advancing that technology and kind of looking at the changes of warfare,” he said.

Grynkewich said he has assigned three main problems to the task force: increasing air domain awareness, figuring out how to find hard targets and imposing dilemmas on the adversary.

Using an MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle as an example, he said there are drones with “great capability” for ISR, but have limitations such as poor visibility in clouds that could be remedied using “smaller, more bespoke capabilities that fly lower, and under the weather.”

He said they’ve already been able to use high resolution cameras to gather information “that might be a threat to us. So that’s one use case that we’ve really started to flesh out and one that we are proposing … for this Replicator. ‘Hey, we've got this capability that we've used, we've proven it's got some utility. Let's now see, how does it scale?’”

One example of adaptability that “allows us to look at this” is a 3D printed drone called the Kestrel, he said. “We can make this thing for about $2,500 bucks, it can go roughly 100 kilometers, so not a huge range, but something that can be relevant on the battlefield.”

The drone can carry “about a 3 kilogram payload, plus or minus,” and that payload could be “any number of things,” giving optionality with platforms “to think about how me might use them,” he said.

One hindrance to Task Force 99’s innovation efforts has been scale, he said. Something he hopes Replicator can help with.

What Task Force 99 “does a really good job of” is “surveying the innovative space for technologies, bringing them into a realistic combat environment, austere environment, hot environment, a humid environment, and testing them,” he said. The task force comes up with concepts of operation, “but getting them from that next step where we need to scale is a little bit difficult.”

Task Force 99 is a small organization, he said — “15-ish people. It doesn’t have the ability right now to scale, to operate thousands of these capabilities. I think what Replicator will do is help us make that shift.”

Replicator can help Task Force 99 understand “a couple of different sides of this,” he said. “One is going to be the production side of it. Can … companies that are offering these off-the-shelf scale production to meet our requirements and what would that look like?”

Replicator will also help with training, he said. New systems bring questions of what kind of training is needed and what kind of airmen need to be operating the systems, he said.

“So there's gonna be a whole different training regimen that comes with that once we start scaling through something like Replicator. There'll be new doctrine,” he said.

“How do you make sure that you don't create a unit that operates … Kestrel? You don't want a unit that's a Kestrel unit, you want a unit that is a drone unit that Kestrel might work for a little bit, but then you dispose of it and come up with the next thing,” he continued.

Grynkewich said he expects building that mindset shift into the DNA of the overall organizational architecture is just one of “a lot of the things that we’ll learn as we go through with this.”


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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