Nigel Pittaway | Melbourne
Although held during the first three weeks of August and therefore predating the Australian government decision to deploy fighters, tankers and airborne early warning and control assets to the Middle East, Pitch Black provided a timely rehearsal for operations in Iraq.
One of the pitfalls of coalition operations however is that air forces rarely get to chose who their partners are in and, despite relatively common standards of training across many modern forces, effective communications can be a real problem.
Even two air forces who nominally share a common language can often misunderstand each other in the heat of an operational scenario and this is often exacerbated in a coalition by reliance on voice communications because the various elements have different data exchange protocols.
Tactical data links
As a close ally of the US, Australia has access to cutting edge technology when it comes to voice and data communications and, along with training very closely and often with US forces, interoperability between the two countries is relatively easily achieved.
The RAAF has standardised on the US Link 16 tactical data link, with Super Hornets delivered with the capability from the outset and the ‘Classic’ Hornets upgraded from Link 11 a few years ago under the aegis of the Hornet Upgrade (HUG) program.
As the centrepiece of RAAF air combat capability, the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft has a Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), which can use either Link 11 or Link 16 and convert one to the other.
By way of example, JTIDS can facilitate the radar picture from a Hornet or Super Hornet being fused with additional data such as that from the ESM system, and then sent a Navy warships via the Link 11 net.
There are still very few AEW&C platforms around the world that can actually do that, but the capability is only completely useful in a coalition situation where all the other players have Link 16.
There are some countries outside the ‘five eyes’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US) or NATO countries which cannot access US equipment due to ITAR restrictions.
Although there are alternatives, such as the Thales Link Y Mk.2 tactical datalink, which have almost the same characteristics, these do not have the sensitive cryptology required to be completely compatible.
Data sharing during Pitch Black
During Pitch Black 2014, more than 60 fighter aircraft of six different types and from five different countries participated in each mission.
Added to this were tankers from three different countries, two different AEW&C aircraft and even transport aircraft from two countries.
Although Link 16 was used by many players each wave included many aircraft which had to rely to a greater or lesser extent on voice communications.
For example, the United Arab Emirates Mirage 2000-9, Singapore’s F-16C/D Fighting Falcons and Royal Thai Air Force JAS-39C/D Gripens all operated alongside RAAF and USAF aircraft and all had a bespoke datalink system.
One of the challenges for the RAAF Wedgetail crews during Pitch Black therefore was the interaction between fighters sharing a common air picture and those which relied upon voice communications to enact complex and large scale mission scenarios.
Of course voice communications are still an important part of Command and Control (C²) operations and Wedgetail is able to communicate across the spectrum, in both secure and non-secure means using High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) as well as Satellite Communications (SATCOM) equipment.
Squadron Leader Tim Main of No.2 Squadron, the Wedgetail detachment commander at RAAF Tindal for Pitch Black explained the process of integrating disparate aircraft types, accents and communications capability to safely and effectively accomplish missions during the three-week exercise.
“The first week you just get used to the procedures, different airspace, working with different platforms and that sort of thing. In Week Two, typically the units start to gel and the third week is where it all starts coming together, with more complex scenarios in the packages and that sort of thing,” he explained.
“There are many different accents on the radios, so you need to listen hard. It’s definitely something for our new crew members to work on.”
Fighter pilot’s perspective
When Thailand bought the Gripen to replace its older fighters, it bought them from Sweden as part of a package which included two Saab 340s, equipped with the Erieye radar and a sovereign datalink system, known as Link T (Thailand).
Wing Commander Chareon Watanasrimongkol was the Commanding Officer of 701 Squadron, Royal Thai Air Force, which deployed six JAS-39C/D Gripens to Darwin and during the exercise explained what this meant for his pilots during the exercise.
“One of the main objectives is to give our younger guys a big learning experience from the exercise in terms of fighting Gripen with international forces in multi-link network scenarios.
"We don’t have Link 16 but we have to work with platforms which are equipped with it. We have friends from the UAE for example, who have another link; the Singapore F-16 has yet another link. So that was one big objective in terms of squadron perspective,” he said.
“We communicate with the other exercise participants by voice only at this stage. Our data link is our own national link (and) I don’t think it is possible to do inter-operative linking with each national link. So in that case we would have to go for Link 16 in order to be able to be included in the network if it became necessary.
“We communicate by voice with everyone, but with the Link 16-equipped guys, they will probably see us too on their picture, so it will be less voice for them asking for information from us. It’s more like we are asking them for information.
WGCDR Watanasrimongkol said the Thai Air Force had considered deploying the Saab 340AEW for Pitch Black, but its bespoke nature meant that little training value would result.
“We thought about bringing our Saab 340AEW, but Erieye is not AWACs yet.
"It is airborne early warning only and therefore it is actually just used as a sensor to monitor blind spots which cannot be seen from the ground sensor,” he explained.
“So we don’t have a C2 capability for now.
"Erieye cannot be linked to another sensor, so it would be a dedicated sensor just for Gripen and we think there just wouldn’t be any training value for them.”
Transport aircraft and communications
The fast jet world isn’t the only one which has to consider interoperability and communications in coalition operations.
During Pitch Black an RAAF C-130J Hercules operated with a French Air Force Airbus CN235 to insert Special Forces into the range area as well as representing high value assets, while being opposed by enemy fighters.
The RAAF C-130J fleet is currently being upgraded under Project Air Phase 4B.1 which adds a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) to the current EWSP system.
The aircraft at Pitch Black was testing this system under operational conditions as a building block to block on the road to the RWR project Final Operating Capability, scheduled for end of 2014.
The French CN235 however does not have a RWR or EWSP system, so its survival was dependent upon effective voice warnings, from the protecting AEW&C and friendly fighters and also from the companion Hercules.
Squadron Leader Rob Crawford, the 37 Squadron detachment commander at Tindal explained the importance of effective voice communication in the C-130J crew context.
“One of the key differences of the C130J from the legacy C-130H, is the two-pilot flight deck.
"Our minimum tactical crew is two pilots and two loadmasters and ordinarily the loadmasters run the cargo compartment and the pilots the front end. Part of the training at Pitch Black is to integrate the Loadmasters into the tactical picture,” he explained.
“We have them actively listening into complex C2 and require them to provide backup support when the mission gets busy.
"It’s not just about training pilots, but the entire crew.
"Increasing their ability to absorb a tactical picture, interpret new threats and make sound tactical decisions.”
From the French perspective Captain Thomas LeHuede, the detachment commander described a typical operation in a high-threat environment.
“We don’t have any ECM or self protection, that’s why we fly with the C-130, because they have RWR and they can tell us where the fighters are,” he said.
“When we are flying low, we count on the friendly fighters or a C² agency to tell us, they can give us some green sectors where we can avoid the threat.”
Pitch Black can be regarded as a reasonably accurate portrayal of operations between like-minded but disparate capabilities and the current RAAF Middle East deployment, as well as any future involvement in coalition operations, will benefit from the lessons learned.