Exercise Pitch Black


Byline: Gordon Arthur / Darwin

In August, suburban dwellers near Darwin International Airport heard, and felt, the thunderous roar of high-performance jet engines on innumerable occasions. And the reason for the ongoing disturbance? Australia’s large gathering of fast jets during Exercise Pitch Black, an event that takes place every two years, generally in the Northern Territory. The 2012 iteration of this major exercise occurred from 27 July to 17 August, and the hubs of activity were RAAF Bases Tindal and Darwin. Thanks to the presence of 94 aircraft and 2,200 personnel, these two bases were operating at almost full capacity.

As Australia’s largest and most complex air exercise for more than a decade, Pitch Black saw the involvement of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) and United States Marine Corps (USMC). This year, Asia Pacific Defence Reporter was in attendance at these war games that achieved a number of milestones in terms of platforms and the range of participating countries.

Australia – a triple treat
Specific Australian milestones revolved around the maiden Pitch Black appearance of three new-generation RAAF platforms: the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet, Boeing 737 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, and Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).

No. 1 Squadron, based at RAAF Base Amberley, is the first unit to operate the American-built Super Hornet, and Wing Commander Murray Jones said his squadron had effectively brought an entire flying complement of nine fighters to Darwin. The commander explained that approximately 30% of the squadron’s pilots were new to the unit, so the exercise provided valuable training opportunities. Meanwhile, members of No. 6 Squadron continue to undergo the conversion course. At the moment, F/A-18F aircraft cannot be distinguished by their tail flashes as they are all pooled until both squadrons become fully operational. The Super Hornet is proving a reliable aircraft, with the RAAF achieving an on schedule acquisition of a proven platform…unlike the Wedgetail, where Australia has had to endure the birth pangs associated with fielding a brand new and untested product.

Australia’s ‘Classic’ and Super Hornets were able to operate in mixed packages throughout the exercise. A significant advantage of the F/A-18F is its APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which provides far greater situational awareness than mechanically scanned systems. “It’s a significant difference,” WGCDR Jones concluded. For his part, Group Captain Mike Kitcher, Australia’s Chief of Staff of the Air Combat Group, stated that, “AESA allows you to do what you used to do much more easily. AESA does make a difference but we’re yet to find out if it’s a game changer.”

The F/A-18A Classic Hornet obviously comprises the bulk of the RAAF fighter fleet, and with the scheduled appearance of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) not set in concrete by any stretch of the imagination, this type will continue to play an important role for some time to come. After examining a Classic Hornet, one high-ranking Indonesian officer reportedly uttered the words, “Pretty impressive aircraft!” GPCAPT Kitcher asserted the Classic would remain a “decent bit of kit” in the forthcoming 2014 and 2016 Pitch Blacks, although it would definitely be long in the tooth by the time 2018 comes around. Other advantages of the new Super Hornet are more thrust and a greater fuel load that offers greater time on station. However, these benefits are blunted somewhat by the greater drag that the larger aircraft possesses.

The F/A-18Fs predominantly performed offensive counter air missions, using their organic sensor mix to enhance the capability of larger packets containing the Classics. “The side with better situational awareness will have a better outcome,” related WGCDR Jones. The Hornets and Super Hornets used their Link 16 data sharing capabilities within the unclassified-level confines of the exercise scenario. They operated together “fairly seamlessly and smoothly” according to one official. Super Hornets successfully dropped “a stack of munitions” on live-fire ranges during dynamic targeting missions directed by controllers on the ground.

Although the Wedgetail spent the initial part of the exercise on the tarmac because of an onboard equipment malfunction, it went on to provide “a pretty reasonable network”, said the exercise director. There were some gripes, but this was to be expected from a system that is still in its pre-initial operating capability (IOC) stage, said one spokesman. Operating from Tindal, it provided an overall battlespace picture for both Red and Blue Forces. Technicians set up the system to offer secure and independent networks for the opposing sides. WGCDR Jones was enthusiastic about the AEW&C platform and its ability to fill gaps in coverage: “It’s an extension of the Hornet – it extends situational awareness to a higher level.”

As previously mentioned, the third RAAF debutant in this year’s exercise was the KC-30A MRTT operated by No. 33 Squadron. Although the MRTT continues to undergo its operational test and evaluation, the type was forward based at Townsville to provide limited air-to-air refuelling for RAAF Hornets. This procedure only entailed hose-and-drogue delivery from wing-mounted pods, as a boom-refuelling capability still lies in the future. Although the KC-30A’s involvement may have been limited, it marked an important step on its pathway towards achieving IOC later this year for hose-and-drogue refuelling and strategic transport. While there were definitely issues with the Wedgetail and KC-30A, these are entirely in line with their early development and they are being worked through.

GPCAPT Kitcher pointed out that these three new platforms “presented us with options that weren’t available in previous exercises.” With Australia’s large land mass, which easily surpasses all of Western Europe combined, such aircraft will form a vital cornerstone in the overall effectiveness of the RAAF. The force-multiplying KC-30A provides the ability to fly 1,800km, remain on station for four hours and deliver 50 tonnes of fuel to thirsty aircraft. With this Pitch Black whetting its appetite, the MRTT will be ready to engage fully at the next drill in two years’ time by refuelling the Super Hornet, Wedgetail and aircraft of international allies.

While there was much excitement about these new aircraft, Pitch Black also bade farewell to one venerable workhorse that originally entered service in 1978. The Lockheed C-130H will be retired later in 2012, so this was the last Pitch Black for the trusty transport aircraft. In the meantime, the C-130H worked alongside the new C-130J-30 performing transport tasks plus inserting and extracting specialist personnel at Bradshaw. Meanwhile, stalwart King Air and AP-3C Orion platforms provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Singapore – a double debut
Exercise Pitch Black originally started between Singapore and Australia in 1984, so the island state has been a regular participant throughout the 22-year history of the war games. The RSAF contributed two new platforms to this year’s event, these being the Boeing F-15SG Eagle fighter and Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft. It must be noted that the F-15SG has flown in Australia before, but this was its first cameo in Pitch Black. Singapore despatched six F-15SGs from 149 Squadron. Similarly, the G550 CAEW aircraft was heavily utilised throughout the exercise in support of Blue Force.

In addition to this pair of debutants, Singapore also contributed eight Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 52 fighters plus a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, which was kept busy refuelling Blue Force aircraft. RSAF pilots enjoyed flying in tight formations (perhaps to impress international partners?), but as per usual, the Singaporean military hierarchy was extremely coy about speaking to the media or allowing photography of its equipment.

Indonesia – special star
Perhaps the most significant and well-publicised aspect of the 2012 exercise was the maiden attendance of the TNI-AU. Indonesia has certainly been invited to Pitch Black a number of times before, but this was the first time its air force accepted. It did so by sending a detachment of four fighters from its base at Hasanuddin International Airport in south Sulawesi, the first ever Down Under deployment of Sukhois. The four aircraft all belonged to Skadron Udara 11 (SkU.11), nicknamed “The Thunders”. It is assumed that they flew legs from Indonesia on internal fuel only. The quartet comprised a pair of single-seat Su-27SMK and a pair of twin-seat Su-30MK2 fighters. It should be noted that the RAAF already trains alongside the TNI-AU, so the platform is not totally unfamiliar to Australian pilots. Indeed, air combat training between the two countries occurs every two to three years, with drills taking place most recently in Bali last year.

Since this was Indonesia’s debut at Pitch Black, and because its personnel are not well versed in multilateral exercises, Australia adopted a “crawl-walk-run approach”. This saw the Flankers working closely with Classic Hornets in 1v1 or 2v2 missions throughout the fortnight that Indonesia spent in-country. The two sides practised these bilateral engagements as a separate cell that did not necessarily follow the overall scenario of the exercise. However, on 9 August, the Sukhois reached the pinnacle of their exercise participation when they escorted Hornets during a major mission. It is believed the Flankers utilised their radar systems during their small-scale engagements.

Perhaps the question uppermost on everyone’s minds was how the Flankers compared to equivalent Western aircraft. There is something of a fascination with the legendary status of this aerodynamic fighter, but one official stated categorically that none of the international partners felt outclassed by it. When pressed about the capabilities of the Flankers during an interview, one spokesman remained suitably vague: “The Hornets and Sukhois are having interesting fights with various outcomes. The Hornets have done fairly well, even during 1v1.” WGCDR Jones said Australian pilots were getting a “buzz out of working with a new platform,” but he too declined to offer an opinion on the capabilities of the Flankers. Instead he diplomatically said, “I remain very comfortable that we have the Super Hornet in RAAF service.” GPCAPT Kitcher assessed the Super Hornets as enjoying parity with the Flankers, but that “a pilot’s skill is the most important factor”.

Indonesia originally planned to attend just the Force Integration Training (FIT) week, but the TNI-AU extended its stay to encompass the public open day held in Darwin on 11 August. Relations between Australia and Indonesia are slowly recovering from tensions created over the issue of Timor Leste independence. Jakarta also expressed consternation over Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama’s announcement in late December 2011 that US Marines would be deploying on a rotational basis to Darwin. Indeed, Australia has worked hard at trying to allay Indonesian concern over Darwin’s eventual hosting of a complete Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) by 2017.

Thus, the TNI-AU’s participation in Pitch Black seems to signal continuing rapprochement between the two neighbours. GPCAPT Kitcher enthused, “I certainly hope Indonesia will continue to attend Pitch Black in the future,” and that the TNI-AU would be able to expand cooperation with other regional air forces. One RAAF officer said he believed the Indonesians “genuinely enjoyed the exercise and the interaction with the international partners.” However, an Indonesian pilot is sure to have had his wrist slapped for dumping fuel on final approach on one occasion just one minute before landing at Darwin!

Et al
Thailand has been a regular at Pitch Black for more than ten years, and this year the RTAF sent eight or so F-16A/B fighters from two separate squadrons. The USMC contributed F/A-18C Hornets from VMFA-232, which is currently deployed at Iwakuni in Japan as part of the Unit Deployment Program (UDP). Rumour has it that Marine airmen were not overly thrilled to be based at the isolated post of Tindal, 330km south of Darwin! Omega Air contributed a civilian Boeing 707 air-to-air tanker, which, as irony would have it, was an ex-RAAF platform!

While a number of countries in Asia are reticent, out of political expediency, to conduct war games directly with the USA, they are a lot more amenable to doing so in a third country like Australia. Under the banner of working with a regional neighbour, countries are more willing to contribute to security initiatives and work alongside the USA at the same time. In doing so, one of the main purposes of Pitch Black – fostering regional cooperation and trust – can be achieved. This is why the presence of the TNI-AU was such a significant highlight this year. GPCAPT Kitcher highlighted Malaysia as another country that the RAAF would like to see again at future Pitch Blacks. Mission and package commanders from various countries all took turns leading the formations and their operation was “pretty seamless”, according to one eyewitness.

Although its involvement was minimal, another nation that should be mentioned is New Zealand. In a large combat air exercise, the ‘fighter-less’ RNZAF obviously cannot contribute a lot except for some combat support personnel. New Zealand has been frozen out of multilateral exercises involving the USA since the ANZUS split of 1984 over Aotearoa’s stand against nuclear weapons. Therefore, the fact that it is being allowed back into the fold affirms continuing cooperation between New Zealand and the world’s superpower.

Exercise scenario
As Australia’s premier air combat exercise, the event unsurprisingly revolved around offensive counter air (OCA) operations for Blue Force and defensive counter air (DCA) for Red Force. The latter’s missions were fairly scripted, although some room was left for individual flair and it became more aggressive as the opposition’s confidence grew. Some of the larger engagements featured up to 50 aircraft in the air simultaneously. Red Force was based primarily at Tindal while its protagonist was located at Darwin, and participants utilised the vast Delamere Range Facility and Bradshaw Field Training Area to perform their missions, as well as the uncluttered airspace available over the Northern Territory.

The assembled Blue Force represented a robust coalition boasting 4- and 4.5-generation aircraft and tactics fighting against a “capable adversary”. The scenario was extended compared to previous years simply because of the plethora of new aircraft types being fielded this year. Roles such as sweep, screen, air-to-ground strike, airborne early warning, refuelling and tactical air transport were all drilled over the three-week duration of the field exercise. Typically, two waves of aircraft flew daily during the exercise proper from 6-16 August, one from 1130 to 1530 hours, and another in the evening from 1900-2300 hours. Despite this schedule drawing noise complaints from some Darwin residents, GPCAPT Kitcher described the ability to fly safely at night as “a critical requirement”. Perhaps the Australian Defence Force’s announcement that the exercise had injected an estimated $25 million dollars into the local economy may have assuaged some of this negative sentiment! Mission scenarios grew progressively complex and larger as the exercise progressed. “Every Pitch Black is important to Australia as we use it as a tool. It’s one of our higher-end training activities. It’s one of the only times we can generate the size of packages with the airspace we’ve got here,” said the exercise director.

Delamere witnessed the only real use of simulation, which encompassed ground-based air defence (GBAD). The emphasis was squarely on air combat operations, as it needs to be if the RAAF is to hone its primary air combat focus. The only joint warfare component occurred with some GBAD, joint battlefield airspace control, and joint terminal attack control (JTAC) operations. Indeed, a key objective of the exercise was for ground-based controllers to make use of the network provided by assets like Wedgetail. Basically, the full capability of No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team was inserted and extracted by C-130 Hercules at Delamare during the running of the exercise.

However, GPCAPT Kitcher highlighted electronic warfare and GBAD as two spheres that could be enhanced in future exercises. Nevertheless, integrating electronic attack into the mix is a challenge since countries are understandably not willing to reveal their full capabilities. The RAAF also used the exercise to help select pilots for the Fighter Combat Instructor (FCI) course, thus giving individuals an inducement to perform well.

The exercise director concluded that, “Overall, the exercise was very successful,” thanks to key achievements in integrating various new assets. Planning for the next event commences later this year.

The following aircraft participated in Exercise Pitch Black 2012:

Royal Australian Air Force
– F/A-18A Hornet
– F/A-18F Super Hornet
– C-130H and C-130J Hercules
– King Air 350
– Hawk 127
– Wedgetail AEW&C
– AP-3C Orion
– KC-30 MRTT
Indonesian Air Force
– Su-27SKM
– Su-30MK2
Republic of Singapore Air Force
– F-16C/D Block 52 Fighting Falcon
– F-15SG Eagle
– Gulfstream G550 CAEW
– KC-135R Stratotanker
Royal Thai Air Force
– F-16A/B Fighting Falcon
United States Marine Corps
– F/A-18C Hornet
– KC-130J Hercules
Omega Air
– Boeing 707 tanker



Indonesia deployed four fighters from Skadron Udara 11, a unit based at Hasanuddin International Airport in Sulawesi. This is a single-seat Su-27SKM fighter. (Gordon Arthur)

An F/A-18F Super Hornet of No. 1 Squadron takes off from RAAF Base Darwin. The squadron brought nine Super Hornets from RAAF Base Amberley. (Gordon Arthur)

An F/A-18F Super Hornet on final approach. The tail flashes on RAAF Super Hornets do not reflect any particular squadron as the aircraft are all pooled at present. (Gordon Arthur)

An F/A-18A Hornet of No. 3 Squadron takes off during Exercise Pitch Black 2012. The tail livery marks last year’s 95th anniversary of the squadron. (Gordon Arthur)

Singapore despatched a total of six F-15SG Eagles from 149 Squadron to the exercise, a quarter of its inventory. This was the type’s Pitch Black debut. (Gordon Arthur)

This was the first time Singapore sent its G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft from 111 Squadron to the Australian exercise. (Gordon Arthur)

A Royal Thai Ai Force F-16B of 102 Squadron “Star Fire” prepares to launch during FIT week familiarisation flights from RAAF Base Darwin. (Gordon Arthur)

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