One of the largest air combat exercises in Australia’s peacetime history will kick off in the Top End next week.
The biennial Exercise Pitch Black 2022 (PBK22) is centred around the vast military airspace and ranges of the Northern Territory, with most of the participating aircraft based at RAAF Bases Tindal near Katherine, or at Darwin.
Two large blocks of military airspace – one southwest of Darwin and the other south of Katherine – are considered some of the best available anywhere in the world due to the mild winter dry-season weather, a lack of commercial air traffic, and flat featureless terrain below with little or no human habitation.
A third block of airspace extending north of Darwin into the Arafura Sea is also used.
The goals of Pitch Black are to develop and rehearse combined and joint-force tactics between nations that operate dissimilar equipment and have otherwise different tactics. Such wargames are essential if nations are going to effectively work together in future operations.
“International participation in Exercise Pitch Black, from within the Indo-Pacific region and further abroad, provides all nations’ personnel with experience in working with aircraft, systems and work practices, in northern Australia’s unique environment, that would otherwise be unfamiliar,” the Royal Australian Air Force’s Director of Engagement, Group Captain Peter Wood said in a Defence release.
European participants have also used PBK22 as an opportunity to prove their ability to deploy a credible air combat force from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region, with both Germany and France bringing fighter aircraft, air-to-air refuelers, and supporting transport aircraft. Germany flew its aircraft via Singapore, while France came via North America and its Pacific territories.
Apart from host-nation Australia, other participants have come from Canada, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, UAE, UK, and the US.
While some may have just sent observers or transport aircraft, many have brought some of the best air combat aircraft in the world to the exercise. Some examples of these include the Eurofighter EF-2000 (Germany, UK), Dassault Rafale (France), Sukhoi Su-30MKI (India), Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler (Australia), Lockheed Martin F-35A (Australia) and F-35B (USA), Mitsubishi F-2A (Japan), Boeing F-15C (USA) and F-15SG (Singapore), and Lockheed Martin F-16A (Indonesia).
Those who have travelled to Darwin on a commercial aircraft may have noticed the many concrete shelters, taxiways, and military-style buildings of the RAAF base on the western or city side of the airport. With no permanent tenants these are usually empty, but for Pitch Black RAAF Darwin comes alive as the home base for the Blue Force participants.
Three hundred kilometres to the south, RAAF Base Tindal near Katherine is Australia’s ‘forward’ fighter base which permanently hosts a squadron of RAAF F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and various rotating detachments of command and control and reconnaissance aircraft.
For BK22, Tindal is home to the Red Force which is primarily tasked with defending targets in the vast Delamere Range to the south, and Bradshaw Range to the west.
Some of the larger, longer-range aircraft participating will be based at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane – primarily because of a lack of ramp space at Darwin and Tindal. These include several Airbus MRTT air-to-air refuellers from Australia, France, and South Korea, while Australian Boeing E-7A Wedgetail command and control aircraft will be based at Tindal.
A third element – the White Force – has people and equipment at both bases and on the ground in the ranges, and is tasked with developing the various exercise scenarios, augmenting the Blue or Red Forces for some serials, and acting as an ‘umpire’.
Rather than have an overarching scenario for the three weeks of the exercise, the White Force – in conjunction with the agreed goals of the participants – devises a series of stand-alone serials, each with its own distinct training objective.
The serials could include a multiple combat aircraft strike mission using live weapons against a ground target, a large-force air-to-air refuelling exercise, the extraction of a ground force using transport aircraft from one of the airstrips in the ranges, or an air combat serial using electronic data pods to simulate air-to-air missile shots … or a combination of all of these.
The exercise also brings together several ‘threats’ in the form of simulated and authentic systems placed at various locations around the ranges that are designed to simulate Soviet-era and more modern air defence systems commonly used by potential adversaries.
More than 100 combat aircraft and 2500 participants from 17 nations will attend the exercise from 22 August to 8 September.
Given the increasing tensions in our own region, will the advances gleaned from PBK22 and similar high-intensity wargames need to be applied closer to home?