Exercise Pitch Black 2018, the largest air combat exercise in the southern hemisphere, was held in the Top End between July 27 and August 17.
The exercise this year was the largest in the biennial Pitch Black series, which first began back in 1981, with around 4,000 people from 16 different countries and more than 130 aircraft from nine nations taking part.
During the Large Force Employment (LFE) stage of the exercise, up to 80 aircraft could be involved in air combat missions within the vast airspace above the Northern Territory. According to Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, Officer Commanding Exercise, one of the major drawcards of Pitch Black is the amount of airspace available, together with the Delamere and Bradshaw ranges within it.
“One of the things that makes Pitch Black for us is the airspace we have available here in the Top End, which extends from just south of Batchelor, to down past Daly River, and from the Stuart Highway out over the ocean,” he told ADM.
“That chunk of airspace is pretty much unparalleled anywhere in the world, especially when you consider you have two excellent air weapons ranges in the middle of it. The airspace goes from zero to 50,000 feet and there are very few restrictions within it so, given the number of aircraft we have participating in this Pitch Black, that huge chunk of airspace is vital to the conduct of realistic coalition air operations.”
Scenario and goals
The scenario set for Pitch Black 2018 largely followed those of previous years and was divided into a Red Air/Blue Air construct whereby the Blue Force, largely based in Darwin, flew Offensive Counter Air (OCA) missions against the Red Air forces from Tindal, who were operating in the Defensive Counter Air (DCA) role.
Besides Darwin and Tindal, participating aircraft were also based at Batchelor and Kununurra for the exercise and the RAAF’s KC-30A tanker operated from and to its home base at Amberley to support air to air refuelling operations.
Because it is the attacking Blue Air which derives the most training value from the missions, most of the forces switched roles from one day to the next, to make sure that everyone benefitted from the experience to the maximum extent possible.
“Pitch Black is a 16-nation coalition and we conduct the exercise at the unclassified level, but the training that we get is second to none and there are very few places in the world with the wide-open spaces we have here in the Top End, where you can put 80 fast jets together,” AIRCDRE Kitcher explained.
“And flying 80 fast jets brings a mass and complexity all of its own, so while all participants may have to in some way limit what they do (to keep the exercise at the unclassified level), we still get excellent training out of it and the mass on mass is part of that excellent training.”
The exercise began on July 27, with a week of Force Integration Training (FIT) activities, which saw force elements from different nations flying relatively uncomplicated missions, to familiarise themselves with the airspace and procedures and get used to working in multi-national packages.
The second and third weeks were given over to the LFE missions which were flown both by day and night.
“This week we’ve had a day crew and a night crew, because of the length of the missions, and next week they will swap over,” AIRCDRE Kitcher told ADM during week two of the exercise. “Day and night bring their own complexity to the missions but, flying by night over the Territory when you take your night vision goggles off, it is actually pitch black – hence the name of the exercise – and that brings a further complexity.
“Whilst we will be conducting similar missions, which will include strikes on the ranges at Bradshaw and Delamere and escorting aircraft such as the C-17 and C-27 to and from the target area, the complexity of those missions and the number of aircraft might increase just a little bit,” AIRCDRE Kitcher added. “Also, the ‘wily-ness’ of Red Air might be allowed to increase just a little bit as well, which is sure to challenge all the crews.”
Nine nations deployed aircraft to the Top End for the exercise this year, including Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the US. In addition, participating with aircraft for the very first time was the Indian Air Force, which deployed four Sukhoi Su-30MKI3 fighters and a single C-130J-30 Hercules to Darwin.
The Indian Air Force was present during Pitch Black 2016 as an observer, but this year deployed with both aircraft and ground forces. For Pitch Black 2018 the spearhead of the IAF contingent were four Sukhoi Su-30MKI3 fighters from 102 Squadron ‘Trisonics’, based at Chabua Air Force Station in Assam, however crews came from several Sukhoi units to maximise the training value. The Sukhois were largely dedicated to Blue Air and predominantly flew air to air missions, but also flew air to ground missions using simulated weapons.
“Exercise Pitch Black is a great exposure for our aircrew, wherein we get to participate and fly with the various friendly air forces and also get an exposure to flying with various platforms which are not available in our part of the world,” explained Group Captain R.S. Sodhi, IAF Exercise Co-ordinator, during week two of the exercise.
“So, coming here to a huge and beautiful airspace where you can fly with very minimal flying restrictions is a very great exposure for our crews. We are using the full air to air capability of the Su-30’s radar, everything is being used (and) primarily we would like to get to fly with all these platforms which are available here – and they are in plenty – from various countries which we do not get to fly with in our area of responsibility.
“Other than that, the huge airspace and the night conditions that you get out here, the name of the exercise sums it all up, it’s pitch black here (and) these conditions are what we would like to train in.”
The single C-130J Hercules from 87 Sqn at Panagarh in West Bengal provided special operations support to a unit of the IAF’s Garud Commando Force, who performed military free-fall jumps into the training area and other missions.
“We are performing special operations support for the Garuds as well as all the team members allocated to us during the exercise, so we are the tactical airlift for the LFE,” explained C-130J pilot, Wing Commander Ravi Nanda. “It may include troops as well as insertions of support, in terms of vehicles or something like that, from all the nations that are assigned to us as part of the Blue Force.”
Several aircraft were making their debut at a Pitch Black Exercise this year, including Dassault Rafale fighters from the French Air Force and the Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey from the US Marine Corps’ Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D), the latter also marking the first time the MRF-D deployment has been integrated into a Pitch Black exercise.
From a local perspective, the RAAF’s EA-18G Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft and C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifter were also debutantes. The RAAF is still working up the Growler capability, but Officer Commanding 82 Wing, Group Captain Rob Denney told ADM that Pitch Black was an important step in the journey towards Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
“By bringing the aircraft on Pitch Black, we have a really good opportunity to exercise our deployed operations. It allows us to integrate with a large force and assist them by denying or degrading parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, so they achieve their tactical objectives,” he explained. “It also allows us to integrate with a lot of international partners, which is something we can’t do in a normal exercise environment, and work with them to achieve their goals.”
Continuing a theme from previous Pitch Black exercises, the Air-Land integration dimension was a major facet of Pitch Black 2018. This year it included not only the debut of the Spartan in the intra-theatre airlift role, but the establishment of an austere air base at Batchelor. The latter provided a major test of the C-27J’s ability to deploy to remote locations and sustain operations for an extended period and also offered the opportunity for 35 Sqn to conduct a number of training events for its crews.
After the airfield at Batchelor was seized from an ‘enemy’ force and secured, an expeditionary air base, which included operations and refuelling facilities and the deployment of a Role 2 Field Hospital, was established. Once established, two Spartans were based there for the remainder of the exercise.
“Sometimes the exercise directors will build our daily training requirements into the exercise scenario,” 35 Sqn Pitch Black Detachment Commander, Squadron Leader Mark Seery, told ADM. “Our primary roles during the exercise are air-land or air-drop in a threat environment. If there’s a scenario that requires a resupply and air-drop, then we will include that in the scenario as well.
“The major training benefit for us is the experience of deconflicting or integrating with other air assets – whether it is fighters, other airlift assets such as a C-130, or Osprey or (the French Air Force) CN235 – working out a plan where we all need to effect something and how we will do that in a deconflicted manner and integrating that whole piece into the air environment. There are a lot of moving parts.”
This article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of ADM.