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AFCENT’s innovation Task Force 99 establishes ops, HQ

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kayshel Trudell
  • Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central)

Less than two months following the establishment of Task Force 99, Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) commander, visited the team at their new location for a peek behind the curtain of the command’s innovation powerhouse, Dec 1, 2022.

The new unit is the cornerstone of AFCENT’s approach to U.S. Central Command’s intent of building a Culture of Innovation. Comprised of eight full time multi-capable Airmen, its mission is to leverage digital and unmanned technologies, creating dilemmas for adversaries and new opportunities for collaboration with partners.

“[Task Force 99] a small group of super-empowered Airmen who I’m going to provide resources to so they can rapidly innovate and experiment in our area of responsibility we have in the Middle East,” said Grynkewich at the September 2022 U.S. Air, Space and Cyber conference.

The “Desert Catalysts” became an official Air Force organization Oct 13, 2022 when Lt. Col. Erin Brilla took command. Agility and speed underwrite TF 99’s innovation core tenets, and the unit wasted no time setting up shop.

“Our humble beginnings started in a borrowed work space graciously loaned to us by 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Desert Spark Innovation Lab. Within one month of being established, we were able to acquire this new work space,” said Brilla. “Thanks to our incredible Qatari partners, a new hangar constructed specifically for Task Force 99 may also be in the works.”

In keeping with the command’s Partner for Strength priority, TF 99 will seek input and support from regional partners.

“[Task Force 99] will receive resources to rapidly innovate and experiment in austere and sometimes dangerous environments,” Grynkewich said. It will also expand the collaborative space with our partners in the region and tie AFCENT into the innovation ecosystem.”

To date, 17 coalition partners have been invited to join TF 99’s efforts, encouraging all to bring their own hard problems and technologies for collaboration and regional synergy.

“None of us have enough time or money to do this on our own,” said Brilla. “We need an expansive network that shares ideas so we all can work together to solve complex problems from the lowest possible echelon.”

TF 99's hard charging Airmen were hand-picked from a wide variety of specialties, ranging from cyber operators to civil engineers and intelligence analysts to metal technicians. 

“These Airmen are the very embodiment of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Accelerate, Change, or Lose mantra,” said Brilla. “Every member of our small, highly skilled, agile team is a subject matter expert in their field. We’ve empowered and encouraged them to experiment, tinker, and wonder ‘what if?’ given a few resources and high risk tolerance, there’s no limit to what they can deliver."

The team is empowered to accelerate change by getting after all four of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s action orders Airmen, Bureaucracy, Competition and Design.

The task force is also focused on flattening communication across the various innovation labs, and spark cells that exist at AEWs across the CENTCOM area of responsibility to encourage crosstalk and collaboration.

In addition to collaborating with the innovation arms of the U.S. Navy Central Command, TF 59, and the U.S. Army Central Command, TF 39, this air domain innovation task force (TF 99) also leverages relationships with partners across other arenas.

“We are interoperable by nature,” said Brilla. “To be successful, we want to unlock, embrace, and then uplift innovative solutions that can be implemented across organizations.”

Over the next two weeks, the task force will travel to the United States to connect with various vendors, leaders within academia and several government agencies. TF 99 is also sponsoring technology development through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to power innovative solutions rapidly.

The task force is also leveraging relationships with the U.S. Air Force Academy by sharing real world, operational problem sets with cadets, giving them an opportunity to create innovative solutions as part of their curriculum.

TF 99 is actively recruiting the next generation of Desert Catalysts, seeking hard-charging innovators from active duty, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves who might be interested in joining this elite team on future deployment rotations.

“Innovation allows us to better posture our forces, to better sense the environment, to more effectively deter and defeat threat actors,” said U.S. Army Gen. Erik Kurilla, CENTCOM commander. “Together through innovation, we can all do much more to advance the stability of the region.”