Story and all photos by David Campion, first published in Photorecon.net
August 2022 saw the return of Exercise Pitch Black to the skies of the Northern Territory, Australia, after a four-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
The biannual exercise involved seventeen nations with 2500 military personnel; most foreign participants were based at RAAF Darwin.
Flying nations included three debutants: The German Airforce (The Luftwaffe), Japanese Air Self Defence Force (Koku-Jieitai) (JASDF) and the Republic of Korea Airforce (ROKAF). Returning nations included the Indian Air Force (IAF), French Air Force and Space Force (Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace), Royal Air Force (RAF), Republic of Singapore Airforce (RSAF), Indonesian Airforce (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara) (TNI-AU), United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Marine Corps (USMC).
I was fortunate to be involved in the RAAF Media program on behalf of Photorecon.net. The program involved a two-day visit to RAAF Darwin and one day visit to RAAF Tindal. The visit to RAAF Darwin included runway photography of day and night operations and photography from the new control tower. Flight line photography and interviews with the French, German, Indian, Indonesian, American, Japanese, and Australian forces. The visit to RAAF Tindal involved interviews and photography of the USMC MAG 12 detachment, concluding with a refueling sortie onboard a RAAF KC-30A, refueling Red Air French Rafales and RAF Typhoons.
Although this article was focused on non-Australian participants, above are some of the RAAF participating aircraft… Editor
Foreign nations identified several drawcards to Exercise Pitch Black:
- Interoperability and co-operation
- Dissimilar Aircraft Training (DACT)
- Operational Airspace
- Exercise complexity
- Electronic Warfare
The three-week exercise facilitates learning from each nation’s tactics and best practices. The primary goal of Pitch Black is to form a combat-effective multinational strike package. Participating countries deployed a skill mix of pilots to be involved in the exercise. Experienced pilots are responsible for leading and planning missions. Junior pilots gain valuable experience learning how to fly in a large force employment scenario. On return home, experienced pilots will disseminate the lessons learned to their home squadrons.
For NATO member countries, Pitch Black allows them to work with nations in the Indo-Pacific and vice versa, allowing nations to strengthen their military ties, develop mutual understanding, build trust and create lasting friendships. This iteration of Pitch Black marks the first time all Quadrilateral Security Dialogue nations (QSD) have flown together in an air-to-air exercise.
Participants flew Blue and Red Air, allowing aircrew to gain a unique perspective for mission planning and execution; multirole fighters conducted air and ground missions. The only dedicated air-to-air squadron was the USAF 67th Fighter Squadron.
The inaugural presence of the F-35 allowed nations to integrate with, operate with and oppose the aircraft in a large force setting, aiding in developing “best practice” between 4th and 5th generation aircraft; pilots highlighted the importance of the Growler when opposing the aircraft. The complex exercise provided a real-world demonstration of the airframe’s capabilities for purchasing nations.
Solidifying the theme of interoperability is the presence of several A330 MRRTs operated by different nations, refueling multiple aircraft types. Tanker aircraft operated from RAAF Darwin, Tindal and Amberley.
DACT is an invaluable experience for air forces with similar fast jet inventories. Pitch Black allowed pilots to fly against a vast array of airframes, honing an individual pilot’s skill and enabling each nation to benchmark its best practices against established air forces. The presence of the SU-30MKI has made the Indian Air Force a popular adversary. The large number of dual-seat aircraft allowed pilots to “back seat” missions in a foreign airframe.
The ability to operate in large and uncongested airspace is a welcome opportunity, allowing aircrews to focus on the mission at hand, and fly their aircraft to their full capabilities without the added burden of deconflicting with civilian aircraft or risk of straying from the military operating area. The 50,000 square nautical mile area allows aircrew the opportunity for supersonic flight. Exercise commander Air Commodore Tim Alsop believes that Northern Territory ranges rank among the world’s best. “The Top End has some of the largest training airspace in the world, and it was fantastic to be able to share these training areas with our international partners.”
One of the main challenges of Pitch Black is developing a common procedural understanding and overcoming language barriers. The first week of the exercise involves generating familiarity and experience between aircrews with familiarization flights and BFM missions. Interviewed aircrews felt the highest cognitive load occurred when entering and exiting the assigned mission airspace. As the exercise progressed to the operational phase, aircrews spent a twelve-hour day from mission planning to debriefing, with each scenario increasing in difficulty and including day and night flying. The final mission of Pitch Black involved almost all 100 aircraft operating in the airspace. RAAF Base Curtin was “stood up” for the exercise to facilitate the entry of fighters into the airspace.
The logistical effort to support deployment to Pitch Black was a significant challenge for the European forces. France moved fifty tons of cargo containers into Darwin to support their Mission Pegasus, which required three months of logistical planning. For the RAF, the importance of being able to deploy at short notice in a global environment is an essential skill. Pitch Black has provided the RAF with valuable learning points to achieve this aim. The 8,600-mile trip was the farthest deployment for the RAF Typhoon squadron to date. Luftwaffe preparations for the Rapid Pacific 2022 began six months before the exercise. For every individual aircraft that takes off during the exercise, fifty ground-based personnel work behind the scenes to facilitate its launch.
French Air Force and Space Force (Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace)
3 Dassault Rafale B 1/4 “Cascogne and 2/4 “Lay Fayatte Squadrons
1 MRTT Phoenix Tanker Air Refueling Squadron 1/31 “Bretagne”
Colonel Bottero, French Pitch Mission Commander, briefed us on the French involvement in Pitch Black:
Deploying under Mission Pegasus demonstrates “responsiveness, power and reach” into the Pacific. The mission itself comprised of three major components:
- Henri Brown, a power projection mission to demonstrate the ability of 3 Rafale to arrive in New Caledonia within 72 hours from France supported by 2 A330 MRTT Phenix and Two A400M Atlas.
- Exercise Pitch Black
- Enhanced Exercises with Indonesia, Singapore and the UAE.
The French detachment achieved three primary aims during the exercise:
- Strengthening France’s friendship with Indo-Pacific nations
- Training aircrews for a first entry mission against a “Power State.”
- Developing interoperability between the F-35 and Rafale
The deployment planned for six Rafales to participate, but due to ongoing NATO security requirements, the number was reduced to three. French pilots were a mixture of single-seat and dual-seat Rafale crews drawn from all four operational wings; over the three weeks, Rafale pilots flew 38 sorties. The MRTT Phoenix tanker flew seven sorties representing seventy-two hours of flight time and refueled a RAAF C-17 for the first time. Operating from RAAF Tindal, the CN-235 acted as a high-value target simulating the insertion and retrieval of special forces units.
At present, approximately 1.7 million French citizens reside in the Indo-Pacific. Mission Pegasus forms part of the ongoing commitment to greater French participation in the region, per the French Government’s 2018 Indo-Pacific strategic plan. Mission Pegasus commenced on the 10th of August and concluded on the 18th of September with the return of forces to France. RAAF Darwin acted as the central logistics hub for the mission’s duration.
Luftwaffe (German Air Force)
6 Eurofighter Typhoon (EF-2000) “Bavarian Tigers” 74th Tactical Airforce Wing from Neuberg Airbase
3 A330-200 MRTT from the Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit (MMU)
2 A400M Atlas
Deploying under “Rapid Pacific 2022,” aiming to reach Singapore within 24 hours from Neuberg Airbase in Germany. The most taxing leg to the pacific was the flight from Abu Dhabi to Singapore due to the seven-hour length and thunderstorms along the route. The objective was achieved with five Eurofighters reaching Singapore within the 24-hour target, a journey of 12,800km. For the MMU, it was their first significant deployment with A330 MRTT. One Typhoon was delayed due to a hydraulic issue in Abu Dhabi.
The Luftwaffe’s participation in Pitch Black represents several milestones. First time attending the exercise, the first-time training with the RAAF and the longest strategic deployment by the Luftwaffe. Pitch Black represents an exciting training opportunity for the Luftwaffe’s personnel after the suspension of international exercises due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
The beautifully painted “Air Ambassador” was a highly photographed livery during the exercise, with the flags of the visited nations painted on the wings and tail art demonstrating the stops during the deployment.
At Pitch Black’s conclusion, new aircrew was rotated from Germany to participate in Exercise Kakadu. After five weeks in Australia, Rapid Pacific 2022 will conclude with three Eurofighters going to Singapore, three to South Korea/Japan for a week of exercises, and then returning to Germany.
Rapid Pacific 2022 demonstrates the Luftwaffe’s capability to deploy to the Indo-Pacific while simultaneously fulfilling its NATO obligations in Europe.
Japanese Air Self Defence Force
5 Mitsubishi F-2A 3rd Tactical Fighter Squadron
This iteration of Pitch Black marks the debut of the JASDF and the first time participating in a large force exercise in the southern hemisphere. The Japanese contingent made its way to Australia, stopping via Guam supported by a KC-767 Tanker from 404th Squadron. From a logistical standpoint, moving the required equipment for the exercise to RAAF Darwin took one week. Air to Air refueling during the exercise was exclusively done by the RAAF KC-30A on the back of successful refueling trials conducted in April this year. The F-2A’s Blue colour scheme is for ocean camouflage due to the island geography of Japan and the fighter’s role in conducting maritime strikes. Pilots were drawn from all three operational F-2 Squadrons with airframes from the 3rd Tactical Fighter Squadron.
We had the pleasure of a press briefing by Col Tadano, Pitch Black Mission Director:
“We believe this exercise is very significant to improve our flight skills and enhance the relationship between Japan and Australia and other nations and reinforce mutual understanding with each other. This exercise will support us to uphold and reinforce a relationship of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Complimentary of the large airspace and other air forces’ Col Tadano felt that JASDF pilots had been challenged with each sortie, gaining invaluable experience and learning points, particularly in large force employment. For junior pilots, Col. Tadano said it was an essential step in their development as they gain exposure to best practices of other nations and exposure to air forces with combat experience.
The presence of the JASDF as a flying nation at Pitch Black is the culmination of increasing bilateral cooperation between Australia and Japan since Bushido Guardian in 2019. Col. Tadano feels there will be further opportunities for joint exercises between the two nations.
Republic of Singapore Airforce
8 F-15SG Strike Eagle 149 Squadron “Shikra”
8 F-16D+ Fighting Falcon 145 Squadron “Hornet”
G550 CAEW 111 Squadron “Jaeger”
Airbus A330-200 MRTT 112 Squadron
RSAF has been participating in Exercise Pitch Black since 1990. Deploying the largest foreign contingent to the exercise, Pitch Black allows the RSAF to train in a real threat environment with far more scale and complexity than can be achieved in local airspace. The MRTT was the “new kid” on the block for the RSAF, gaining valuable experience during day and nighttime operations and refueling the F-35 for the first time.
As a purchasing nation of 4 F-35B’s, the RSAF worked extensively alongside the RAAF and USMC to understand its capabilities and how to integrate the aircraft into its current inventory of fourth-generation aircraft. After the exercise, the Singaporean forces stayed in Darwin as part of Darwin Detachment 22 (DD22), finishing on October 7th.
Royal Air Force
4 Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 No. 6 Squadron
Airbus A330 Voyager KC2
Airbus Atlas C1 RAF
Typhoons commenced their journey from RAF Akrotiri, stopping in UAE, India and Singapore before arriving in Darwin. The ability to deploy to Australia demonstrates the versatility of the A400 and Voyager tanker. Deploying over a long distance provides invaluable team training between fighter pilots, Tanker force and Air Mobility Force. Squadron Leader Brown, Commander of the Voyager detachment, stated, “Enabling the deployment of four Typhoons halfway around the world is a great example of the essential air mobility role Voyager delivers in the projection of RAF air power.”
For the RAF Wedgetail Seed-Corn Programme, Pitch Black presented an opportunity for RAF personnel already embedded with No.2 Squadron to witness the employment of the aircraft in a large force exercise.
Wing Commander Noel Rees, CO of No. 6 Squadron, interviewing for RAF Media, was complimentary of the training value of the exercise “We have a number of pilots here who have not conducted large force employment exercises before, so for them, this is their first time of an exercise of such magnitude so for them it’s their first experience. For Experienced pilots, they’re getting the opportunity to lead and lead alongside other nations. But the airspace itself and the ability for us to train supersonic against such a large number of adversaries is almost unmatched.”
Republic of Korea Air Force
6 KF-16U (Two Single Seat and Four Double Seat)
1 A330 MRTT Cygnus 261st Air Tanker Squadron
The ROKAF has observed several iterations of Pitch Black. This year marks their first participation as a flying force. The KF-16U represents the latest upgraded version of the KF-16; upgrades commenced in 2015 with approval by the U.S State Department to upgrade 134 aircraft. The upgrades bring the fighter up to F-16V standard.
The 130 personnel were from the 19th Fighter Wing and 39th Reconnaissance Group; fighter jets bore the squadron markings of the 20th and 38th Fighter Wings. The detachment stopped en route via the Philippines before arriving in RAAF Darwin; the nine-hour flight required six refueling contacts with the tanker.
Captain Kwon (F-16 pilot) stated it was his first time visiting Australia; on flying into Darwin, he was amazed at the vast flat terrain. He commented that the weather was excellent for flying; it was a welcome break from inclement weather in mountainous terrain.
Preparations for the deployment commenced in January this year, with pilots undergoing extensive simulator and actual flight time. Cpt. Kwon stated that the primary aims of the deployment were to demonstrate the skill and professionalism of the ROKAF and enhance military cooperation with participating nations.
4 Sukhoi Su-30MKI 20th Fighter Squadron “Lightnings” Lohegaon Air Force Station
2 C-17 Globemaster
Indian Sukhoi’s were supported by IAF IL-78 tankers en route, with the last leg of refueling provided by the French Air Force A330 MRTT. Before the arrival in Darwin, the Indian contingent took part in Exercise Udarashakti with the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
The presence of a Russian-designed airframe generated significant interest amongst military personnel. We were briefed by Group Captains YPS Negi (Det. Commander) and BS Reddy (CO 20th FS). The airframe was assembled in India with customized avionics and weapons load to suit the IAF requirements. The aircraft integrates seamlessly with the command-and-control systems used in Pitch Black. The front and rear controls are identical, allowing the plane to be flown from either seat. Grp Cpt. Negi highlighted that it was a common misnomer for people to believe that the jet is comprised of Russian avionics.
Grp Cpt. Reddy highlighted the various roles the aircraft can perform, making it well suited to Pitch Black. One of the highlights for the squadron was a BFM sortie where all 4 Sukhoi’s flew against the EA-18G, F-35, Eurofighters and F-15C in one afternoon.
Group Cpt YPS Negi highlighted that few multinational exercises have the complexity and scale of Pitch Black and it is essential for all pilots to be on a “common pitch” to achieve mission success.
3 F-16 Block 25 (2-F16C, 1 F-16D) Millennial Paint Scheme
1 F-16 AM and 2 F-16BM Air Squadron 3 “Dragon’s Nest” Iswahyudi Air Force Base
The TNI-AU has attended Pitch Black since 2012. Lt Colonel “Barong” Yoga stated that the training the TNI-AU receives during the exercise could not be replicated in size or complexity in Indonesia and bringing as many pilots as possible is essential. Three fighter weapons instructors were tasked by senior leadership to develop comprehensive points of learning, to be taught to home squadrons.
For the Indonesia forces, this iteration of Pitch Black focused on developing interoperability with the EA-18G; Lt Col. Yoga believes that the lessons learned at this year’s exercise enhance the survivability of 4th generation aircraft; he praised the Growler’s ability “to level the playing field” against the F-35.
The United States Air Force
6 F-15C 67th Fighter Squadron “Fighting Cocks” Kadena Airbase
We had the pleasure to interview Major Addy, a second-generation fighter pilot, and USAF Weapons School graduate. Pitch Black for the 67th Fighter Squadron allowed a “prized and phenomenal opportunity to integrate with airframes outside the F-15”. The exercise marks the first time the 67th has flown with the RAF and Luftwaffe. During the exercise, the squadron kept the theme of flying blue and red Air missions; given his seniority as a Weapons School graduate, Major Addy was mainly involved with threat replication. Most of the squadron’s missions were conducted at high altitudes taking advantage of the extended range offered by the airframe allowing them not to refuel during missions.
Major Addy highlighted the exercise’s importance for the successful integration between 4th and 5th generation fighters. After the exercise, the senior personnel of the squadron will complete a “lessons learned” debrief, allowing the knowledge gained from Pitch Black to direct future training.
From a historical perspective, the presence of serial No. AF 85-119 marks one of the last operational F-15Cs with an aerial victory during the Gulf War; the star painted on the airframe is for a Mig-23.
Given the aging airframe and reaching the ceiling for modernization upgrades, Pitch Black 22 could be one of the last overseas appearances of the F-15C.
United States Marine Corps
Marine Aircraft Group 12 (MAG-12)
12 (airframes total) F-35B From VMFA 121 “Green Knights and VMFA 242 “Bats” MCAS Iwakuni
2 KC-130J VMGR-152 “Sumos”
We had the pleasure of interviewing Major Bowser, MAG-12 detachment commander; he stated this was the first land-based deployment of the F-35B to Australia, with planning beginning in January this year. “From a Marine aircraft group perspective, we are actually rehearsing tactics, techniques, and procedures for deploying in a more expeditionary type manner.”
Deploying ten days before the commencement of Pitch Black to test and refine a new concept known as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operation (EABO). RAAF Tindal acted as the main base, while RAAF Curtin stood up as the advanced forward base. This deployment allows MAG-12 to practice near real-world conditions it would face as an expeditionary squadron. Both aircraft and personnel from the two fighter squadrons acted as a single unit for the deployment duration.
Using the EABO deployment into Pitch Black marked the most extensive and robust concept test to date, generating many discussion points to improve future implementations. Major Bowser stated that deploying the F-35 in partnership with the RAAF was a win-win for both nations allowing to accelerate the development of best practices in employing the aircraft in large force employment.
In closing, I would like to thank all the aircrew who gave up their time to be interviewed to make this article possible. I would also like to thank the RAAF for hosting me on the media day and acknowledge the hard work of 464 Squadron. I want to thank Flight Lieutenant Bronwyn Marchant for escorting us around RAAF Darwin and Squadron Leader Eamon Hamilton for accompanying us around RAAF Tindal; without their hard work, this article would not have been possible.