High over the red dirt of the Top End they sortied, Australian classic and Super Hornets and Growlers, Singaporean F-15s and F-16s, Thai Gripens, Indian Sukhois, French Rafales and many more in a high-technology aerial ballet.
This was Pitch Black 2018, the biennial multinational air force training exercise hosted by the RAAF and attended by personnel of 16 nations, with nine countries flying more than 130 aircraft.
Pitch Black 2018 ran from late July to mid-August in the Top End dry season, flying mostly over the Northern Territory and taking advantage of the wide open spaces, fine weather and Australian Defence Force (ADF) training ranges such as the Delamere Air Weapons Range.
From a training exercise initially involving just RAAF aircraft, Pitch Black has progressively morphed into an international gathering with a growing number of international participants.
For Pitch Black 2018, aircraft operated from RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal. Contracted red force Learjets also flew from Kununurra in Western Australia and Alphajets from Tindal.
“Pitch Black remains our most important air combat exercise,” said Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Zed Roberton.
“The activities with other nations and the partnerships we make with other nations are fundamental to us being able to operate with regional partners around the globe.
“In 2014 it was only weeks after Pitch Black that some of the nations involved were in combat operations in the Middle East. That is so representative of the real world challenges we face in security. The partnerships and the relationships can’t be under-estimated.”
AVM Roberton said this was his 12th Pitch Black and certainly the most complex, featuring real-world type operations such as strike missions, support for ground forces, insertion of special forces and establishing an austere base.
“Working with many other nations brings a level of complexity and realism that we haven’t always been able to practice. It really is fundamental,” he said.
“I suspect Pitch Black will become more important not just for Australia but for many of our international partners as well.”
Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, commander of the RAAF’s Air Combat Group and the Officer Conducting Exercise Pitch Black, said week one comprised force integration training, with smaller, relatively simple missions designed to get the different forces used to operating with each other.
“Week two and three build gradually in a deliberate fashion to larger missions where we might have up to 100 aircraft involved in a particular mission,” he said.
“That mission might be, for example, escorting some aircraft around Delamere to strike at a target. That might be escorting a C-27 or a C-130 or a C-17 or another aircraft into Delamare to pick some people up from on the ground or to drop some people off.
“Whilst there is a focus of air combat on Pitch Black we involve multiple other aircraft deliberately. Certainly some of the most challenging missions we fly are getting a C-17 or a transport aircraft through the airspace into the target in the Delaware or Bradshaw region or wherever.”
The current Pitch Black series stems from an all-RAAF air defence exercise in 1981 involving Dassault Mirages defending RAAF Base Williamtown against attacking F-111s.
The first international participant was, unsurprisingly, the US in Pitch Black 1983. Singapore was the first regional participant in 1990.
For the participants, the attraction is working with international partners in a demanding series of scenarios.
But it’s also about flying in an enormous uncrowded exercise area, vastly bigger than what many have to train in back home. We may take that for granted but many participants have to be ever-conscious that they can’t fly too far or too fast before they’re in someone else’s airspace.
Delamere, with an area of 2,000 square kilometres, is actually a quarter of the size of the nearby Bradshaw Field Training Area. Delamere’s 60,000ft vertical airspace clearance allows near-unrestricted operations.
In defence exercises in the 1980s and 1990s, there usually had to be an enemy and that enemy was the mythical and belligerent nation of Kamaria, routinely threatening Australian trade routes and offshore resources and conducting low-level incursions onto Australian territory.
This may have seemed like a reasonable idea at the time but in a changing world, many of the scenarios exercised didn’t turn out to have that much relation to what the ADF would end up doing.
Kamaria is no more.
“We have outgrown Kamaria,” said Group Captain Rob Denney, commander of the RAAF’s 82 Wing and deputy commander of the exercise task unit headquarters.
“It is not like the old days where we had an over-arching narrative that drove the day-to-day exercise.
“It was more about – here is a mission for today. There isn’t a giant strategic context behind it. By doing that we find we can create better missions.
“You can plan and structure them ahead of time. They are not a function of what happened yesterday or last week. That way you can get better training results.”
Pitch Black 2018 featured a number of firsts.
It was the first time the Indian Air Force had participated, bringing out four Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters plus a C-130 for support personnel and equipment.
The Su-30MKI is a distinctly Indian variant of the Russian Su-30, manufactured under licence in India by Hindustan Aeronautics. More than 240 are in Indian service, forming the backbone of the Indian Air Force fighter fleet.
Unlike Russian-built aircraft, the Su-30MKI features Indian systems and French and Israeli sub-systems.
Indian Air Force Group Captain R S Sodhi, exercise coordinator for the Indian contingent attending Pitch Black, said the exercise provided great exposure for Indian aircrews.
“We get to participate and fly with various friendly air forces and also get an exposure of flying with various platforms which are not available in our part of the world,” he told reporters.
“Coming out here and getting a huge airspace with very minimal flying restriction is a very great experience for our aircrew. We have a lot of airspace available in India. However, as the population is high there are certain restriction in those airspaces.”
GPCAPT Sodhi said the Indian Flankers were primarily flying air-to-air missions and were also simulating air-to-ground attacks.
He said the IAF had also participated in the US Red Flag exercise series on two occasions.
“Both the exercises have got their own learning objectives. They are I will not say very similar but not very different as well,” he said.
GPCAPT Denney said integrating the very different Indian platform wasn’t as great an issue as you would initially expect.
“That is part of the objective of the exercise, being able to get all those international partners in our region and be able to integrate and interface them and be successful in operating together,” he said.
“We put a fair bit of effort into making sure we could work together.
“They were great to have along. It was their first experience of Pitch Black and they seemed very happy and hopefully they will come back again for the next one.”
This may have been a first for the Indian Air Force but not for Russian aircraft. In 2012, two Indonesian Su‑30s participated, along with a pair of Su-27s. This year Indonesia was back at Pitch Black with F-16Cs.
This was also the first Pitch Black for the RAAF’s EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft with three participating.
AVM Roberton said Growler was a fundamental change for Australia.
“It is more than just missiles and bombs, although it can do that. It is actually about having control over the electro-magnetic spectrum and being able to control emitters and communications and provide the windows for ourselves and our allies to be able to operate in,” he said.
“The modern battlespace is as much about cyber and the electro-magnetic spectrum as it is about what we have done for the last 100 years. It has become a key part of the way Australia operates.”
GPCAPT Denney, whose 82 Wing contains the Growler and Super Hornet squadrons, said they learned some things about operating Growler as they further developed the capability.
During the exercise the Growlers supported various missions in detecting and responding to ground threat simulators in the exercise areas. As part of the Growler project, emitter simulators have been installed at Delamere and elsewhere in the NT.
Those simulators, which imitate hostile radars, could be suppressed non-kinetically through electronic attack or kinetically through simulated launch of a HARM missile.
GPCAPT Denney said electronic attack using the aircraft’s ALQ-99 jamming pod was limited.
With an electronic attack capability comes great responsibility because of the potential to cause effects well beyond the exercise area.
That could potentially impact mobile phones or blank emergency services such as a helicopter landing system at a hospital.
“With lots of international partners there you have to make sure you coordinate all that really closely or you can end up causing more trouble,” he said.
“Just like a kinetic weapons system, with non-kinetic effects you can cause collateral damage. It is generally more complex than kinetic collateral damage estimation. With kinetics we have experience of that but with non-kinetics you have a greater range and a greater impact.”
GPCAPT Denney said this was the complexity of operating an electronic attack capability.
“If you do it wrong it’s not just in a little geographic area you can potentially impact,” he said.
“You can impact a wide geographic area. It is harder to constrain it and contain like you can with a kinetic effect.
“You want to be comfortable with progressing that at a sensible rate.”
Another Pitch Black 2018 debutante was the C-27J Spartan, the battlefield airlifter ordered in 2012 to replace the Vietnam-era Caribou.
The RAAF’s 10 Spartans are operated by 35 Squadron based at RAAF Richmond.
Spartan detachment commander Squadron Leader Mark Seery said their role for the first week was flight integration, getting into the airspace and learning how to operate in it.
Then they participated in the seizure of Batchelor airfield, a World War 2 strip south of Darwin now used mainly by local aero and gliding clubs.
For the Batchelor operation, the Spartans parachuted in members of 2nd Commando Regiment. That was followed by a C-130J from 37 Squadron with members of 4 Squadron, the RAAF’s specialist forward air control unit.
SQNLDR Seery said the Spartan capability was getting better and better as aircrew understanding of the aircraft and how best to use it matured, along with maintenance, support and logistics procedures.
“We have had a really good relationship with 2nd Commando from the start and they have been a huge value-add in getting our military free fall capability to where it is,” he said.
“On top of that we are working closely with them all the time on a number of other roles. They are really embracing the platform.
“We are learning how they operate, they are learning how we operate and we are working out how we can best integrate with each other to get the best out of everything.”
SQNLDR Seery said Spartan was perfect for operations such as at Batchelor.
“It is light, it’s agile, we have a very light footprint which is a huge benefit for places like this where we don’t want to destroy the strip. We want to be able to operate in and out of here,” he said.
“We are relearning a few of those lessons that have been lost over a bit of time about how we can operate in these environments and make sure we are considering the right things when we are in contested airfields, where there is a bit more risk.”
SQNLDR Seery said Spartan was not a Caribou nor a C-130.
“It is in between a Chinook and a C-130 in terms of how you want to operate this thing. The more we look at it, it sits definitely closer to the Chinook realm in terms of the types of places you are operating from and the kinds of loads,” he said.
“We are learning from just about every asset out there to try and get the strengths and weaknesses of the items that are going to help our platform.”
Bringing Spartan into service still presented some challenges.
One was a relatively immature training system.
“That took a lot of work from a lot of the various parties both inside the Air Force and contractors to mature that system to where it is now,” he said.
“We have now taken ownership of that training system. From a pilot, loadmaster and maintenance perspective we are conducting all of our own initial qualification training within the squadron.
“The squadron is pretty unique in that aspect.”
As well, maintainers have worked tirelessly to get procedures worked out.
“They are in the process of type certification for the aircraft. That is a huge job and our project office is working on that as well. That is a huge goal. It is a huge step towards final operating capability,” he said.
Speaking from RAAF Tindal during Pitch Black, 75 Squadron commanding officer Wing Commander Mick Grant said up to 86 jets were operating in the airspace at any one time.
“It is busy. The airspace is crowded but it is quite successful. The interoperability has been going well between all the nations involved,” he said.
“We have a couple of families of F-18s. The classics, the A-models, we are flying from Tindal and also Darwin are performing exceptionally well.
“Their avionics suites are probably the most advanced of the classic fleets in the world. Super Hornets and Growlers are operating out of Darwin and integrating beautifully.
“Interoperability is the key to success in all operations. We are seeing good outcomes and good results both in red and blue air activities.
“We are fortunate that a lot of the aircrew flying at the moment have great levels of experience. Our training in Australia is second to none.
“Whether we have been to operations or not is almost irrelevant. We set a high bar with our training standards. Everyone is meeting those expectations or exceeding them.”
The key aspect of Pitch Black is what’s termed large force employment (LFE).
“Just the sheer number of platforms in the airspace makes it complex,” he said.
“Air traffic is busy, all the aircrew are busy and then we go ahead and do it at night-time, which just adds another degree of complexity. It is an unclassified exercise. We work to that. What that does is allow 15 nations to be involved which is fantastic.”
WGCDR Grant said for some younger aircrew, it was a buzz to be operating with aircraft other than the Hornets they saw every day.
Other more senior pilots could end up leading a package of up to 60 aircraft.
Pitch Black is aptly named as much of the activity occurs after dark, though in the interests of Northern Territory residents, there was a 10pm cutoff for exercise flying activity.
WGCDR Grant said they did fly with night vision goggles which were fantastic but still did not turn night into day.
“It is still difficult to fly in formation,” he said.
“When you can’t see something you need absolute discipline, especially when you are manoeuvring aggressively at night.
“You can get disorientated. You need that absolute instrument flying discipline to make sure we are all missing each other while we are being tactically effective. That is a challenge for everyone.”
Much of the Pitch Black activity occurred in and out of Tindal, now in the process of being upgraded to receive the F-35.
Also speaking during the exercise, WGCDR Andrew Tatnell, senior Australian Defence Force officer at Tindal, said there were some 800 personnel operating from the base plus 34 aircraft.
“We are in week two and we have delivered about 4,500 meals to the air base and two and a half million litres of aviation fuel,” he said.
“It is running like clockwork.”
“We have US Marine Corps and Canadian forces flying. Supporting air base operations I have a small contingent of Kiwis, I have firefighters, some medics and some cooks.”
WGCDR Tatnell said the two main missions were defensive counter-air operations and offensive counter-air operations.
“We have an adversary simulated as red air and they will attempt to approach the air base by stealth and in response we have surveillance up in the air to try and detect their entry and launch aircraft to meet and defeat those aircraft,” he said.
Pitch Black 2020 will likely involve the RAAF’s F-35s for the first time, possibly only in a cameo role but indicative of what is to come.
AVM Roberton said the F-35 would bring a level of complexity and new generation technology that was hard to replicate around the world.
“We are yet to really explore and exploit the capabilities of the aircraft. That will take some years,” he said.
“The great advantage of the Australian Air Force and our Defence Force is that we have high-end technologies but we are a small and agile force. We can actually get very good at expanding the boundaries and getting the best out of these new capabilities.
“Pitch Black and the time here in the Northern Territory, with the airspace and the ranges, is one of
the few places in the world we can do that.”
AVM Roberton said the RAAF was set to become the world’s first true fifth-generation air force.
Delivering the fifth-generation will be the F-35s, as well as the RAAF’s Growlers, Wedgetails, Poseidons and Tritons.
“Unlike the US which will still maintain many of the older systems, we are small enough and agile enough that we will be operating at that top end of technology,” he said.
“That is so important for Australia, given our strategic interests, the size and scale of our nation and where we operate but also our ability to work seamlessly with all the other nations.
“It makes us a partner of choice for those other nations because they know not just the capability of our systems but just how capable the RAAF and ADF are at operating those systems.”
The Royal Australian Air Force and the Indian Air Force have flown fighter aircraft together over Australian soil for the first time on Exercise Pitch Black 18, as this video from the RAAF YouTube channel shows.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation.
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