Task Force 99, a small U.S. Air Force (USAF) unit based in Qatar, was established as an experimental group in October 2022. Operating under USAF Central (USAFCENT), the Air Force Service component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Task Force 99 plays a crucial role in the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa and Central Asia.

In March 2024, Task Force 99 conducted a flight assessment of a 3D-printed drone designed using software from Texas-based Titan Dynamics, a company specializing in aerospace battlefield simulation software and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. Remarkably, the drone prototype was developed just a month earlier in collaboration with Blue Horizons, an elite Air Force research organization.

Following the initial flight assessment, Task Force 99 swiftly tested another drone designed and printed in under two days. This second drone successfully carried a mock first-aid care package over 30 miles, demonstrating its battlefield potential.

Colonel Jeffrey Digsby, who now leads Task Force 99, recently shared with Defense One that the group has a three-year strategic workforce plan. This plan aims to integrate with other Department of Defense (DoD) groups working on similar initiatives within the U.S. Col. Digsby envisions Task Force 99 as a key player in the Air Force’s global innovation ecosystem:

“We absolutely started to move into operationalizing this task force and we’ve really been pushing the limits with autonomous operations,” Digsby said. “We’re on the cutting edge of [AI] integration for small UAS [uncrewed aerial] platforms. The technology that delivers those attritable, autonomous, and persistent [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capabilities is the real world of operations that we’re doing here. Some of the experiments we’re conducting are going to feed the Replicator program…”

The Air Force’s Replicator initiative, announced in August 2023, aims to deliver all-domain attritable autonomous (ADA2) systems by August 2025. Despite initial challenges reported at the end of last year, the DoD confirmed the first batch of deliveries related to the program in early May.

Task Force 99’s innovative approach can potentially reduce the cost of small attritable drone production by up to 95% compared to existing methods. This is particularly significant given the geopolitical tensions in the region. Since last fall, Houthis have reportedly shot down six Reaper drones, each costing around $30 million. The U.S. is prioritizing the development of smaller, cheaper hardware that can deliver similar performance.

Col. Digsby’s vision includes integrating Task Force 99’s work with the broader USAF global innovation ecosystem, leveraging distributed 3D printing technology. This represents an opportunity to address supply chain disruptions and enhance operational efficiency, as discussed in a recent analysis of Red Sea supply chain issues.

Task Force 99’s advancements in 3D-printed drones and AI integration signify a major leap forward in renewable energy storage and autonomous technology. By driving down costs and improving operational capabilities, this experimental unit is set to play a pivotal role in the future of military and potentially civilian drone applications.

By Impact Lab