For three weeks in August, the skies over Northern Australia – known here as the Top End – reverberated to the roar of military jet engines as the biennial Exercise Pitch Black was staged out of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Bases Darwin and Tindal; the two main military airports in Australia’s Northern Territory.
This year’s exercise, held between August 1 and 22, saw up to 110 aircraft and more than 2,300 personnel from seven countries taking part. Host Australia was joined by aircraft of Pitch Black regulars the United States, Singapore and Thailand, while the United Arab Emirates and French also sent flying contingents and New Zealand contributed ground support personnel.
Named after the moonless nights in the sparsely populated region, Exercise Pitch Black has grown from a small-scale air defense exercise between host Australia, the U.S. and Singapore when it began in the late 1980s into a complex, multinational wargame considered by the RAAF to be its premier air combat exercise. Encompassing a full spectrum of scenarios that make up modern air warfare, participating air forces use the opportunity to provide realistic, high-end air combat training for their air crew, while at the same time building and cementing professional and personal friendships among the participants.
The main draw of the Northern Territory for such an exercise is the vast expanses of airspace with few flying restrictions and the world-class facilities that make up the Delamere Air Weapons Range and Bradshaw Field Training Area. In the words of RAAF Group Captain Micka Gray, Exercise Director of Pitch Black 2014, “We have very few limitations to where we can fly in the Northern Territory.” Coupled with the excellent weather for flying during the Northern Territory’s dry season, the exercise makes for a very attractive proposition to international participants like Thailand and particularly land-scarce Singapore, both of which lack that kind of airspace or favorable weather at home.
Over the years the exercise has seen several new countries taking part, and Pitch Black 2014 was no different. The United Arab Emirates Air Force were the debutants this time round, with six Dassault Mirage 2000-9 multirole fighters making the long journey Down Under supported by an Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport for the duration of the exercise. This marks the first appearance by a Middle East air arm at “Pitch Black” and underlines the increasingly close defense ties between Australia and the United Arab Emirates, forged mainly as a result of Australian military deployments to the Middle East for the War on Terror.
There were also debuts by aircraft types, with the Swedish-built Saab Gripen multirole fighters of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) making their debut at an overseas exercise since deliveries of the type began in 2011. The Thais were effusive in their praise of the new aircraft, with Wing Commander Chareon Watanasrimongkol, commander of the RTAF’s Wing 701 and Chief Planner of the Thai contingent at PB14, describing the Gripen as being in a “different world” in terms of avionics compared to the older Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons that the Thais had operated at their previous times at Pitch Black.
This was the sixth consecutive time at Pitch Black for Thailand since its debut in 2004, although there were some doubts beforehand about Thai participation due to restrictions on interaction with the Thai military put in place by the Australian government due to the recent military coup. The addition of these aircraft types at Pitch Black 2014 was a boon to the exercise, giving participating pilots an opportunity to fly alongside new types of aircraft not often encountered at exercises in this part of the world.
Split into Blue Air (the Good Guys) primarily based in Darwin carrying out Offensive Counter Air (OCA) missions and Red Air acting as the “Bad Guys” in a Defensive Counter Air (DCA) role from Tindal, the exercise saw Blue Air utilizing Large Force Employment missions in strike packages attacking targets inside the exercise area while Red Force acted as a fictional enemy defending the targets. Led by Tindal-based Australian F/A-18 Hornets, Red Air’s numbers were regularly beefed up by F-16s from the United States and Singapore, or by Thai Gripens.
For the American F-16s flown by members of the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DC ANG), Australia is the last stop after a Theater Security Package deployment of 12 jets from the DC and New Jersey ANG to Kunsan, South Korea. While not mentioned specifically as such, the deployment may well be a demonstration of the “places not bases” concept espoused by the U.S. Air Force’s leadership with regards to America’s Pacific pivot. Designed to increase USAF interaction with regional partners and allies without significantly increasing the footprint permanently-based assets and personnel, the USAF is set to increase temporary deployments across the region in the years to come.
Flying into Australia non-stop from South Korea in late July, the American fighters played flew alternately as Blue and Red Air at Pitch Black, flying both air-to-air and air-to ground missions. After Pitch Black, the DC ANG will cap off this groundbreaking deployment with a three week exercise with the Australians and Singaporeans, whose F-15SG Eagles and F-16s will stay on in Australia for Exercise Tri-Sling, an offshoot of the Commando Sling series of Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) exercise between Singapore and the United States.
At its heart, Pitch Black is still very much focused on the OCA/DCA aspect of air combat. Participants carry out air-to-air combat training, practice attacking ground targets while evading and/or countering simulated ground-based air defense threats simulated by the USAF’s Joint Deployable Electronic Warfare Range (JDEWR). Overhead, Australian and Singaporean Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft provided command and control of the battlespace while air-to-air refueling tankers belonging to Australia, Singapore and the UAE practiced mid-air refueling with fighter aircraft from their respective countries.
That being said, Pitch Black has significantly evolved in complexity and scope over the past few exercises. More dimensions have now been added to the exercise, with air-land integration training seeing an increased focus. This includes the participation of Combat Controllers from the RAAF’s No. 4 Squadron, who specialize in coordinating air strikes in support of ground forces. This in turn meant that tactical transport aircraft in the form of a RAAF Lockheed-Martin C-130J Hercules were also heavily engaged in support of this aspect of the exercise.
In addition, the French Armed Forces of New Caledonia sent a CASA CN-235 transport normally based at Tontouta to RAAF Base Tindal for their first-ever exercise on Australian soil. Flying either alone or together the RAAF Hercules, the transport aircraft performed parachute drops, tactical (rough-field) landings, and simulated High Value Assets escorted by participating Blue Force fighters.
While the exercise’s missions and scenarios are still heavily scripted, the planners haven’t been above injecting a surprise or two for the participants to add realism. On at least one occasion, a Beechcraft 350 Super King Air of 38 Squadron RAAF took time off from providing passenger and light cargo transport between Darwin and Tindal to “stray into” exercise airspace. The purpose was to simulate an aircraft operated by a non-government organization ferrying humanitarian supplies in a bid to see if it would be misidentified as hostile and attacked by Blue Air in the heat of battle (it wasn’t).
Even as an increasing number of regional air forces show an interest in taking part, limitations on the number of aircraft and personnel that can be accommodated at the Northern Territory’s airbases at any one time, along with community concerns about the noise generated by the aircraft at the exercise, puts constraints on the extent to which future exercises can grow. The latter factor was mitigated by a comprehensive outreach effort by the RAAF’s Public Relations team, which published detailed schedules of aircraft movements on their website and on social media.
However, with a renewed focus on security cooperation among countries of the region and with the Northern Territory set to host an increased U.S Marine air component in the near future along with the attendant infrastructure improvement, Exercise Pitch Black will certainly be here to stay. And in all likelihood, grow. By bringing regional partners closer together, that can only be a good thing, from a security standpoint.
Mike Yeo is a freelance military/aviation journalist based in Melbourne Australia