After years of preparation, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are making the finishing touches on the launch of their most significant International Engagement activity.
That’s right, Pitch Black is back – and it’s bigger and better than ever.
Cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the biennial Exercise Pitch Black is making a return after four years, and 2022 certainly sees an uptick from the previous iteration of the exercise in 2018. Against the backdrop of a deteriorating global security outlook, the list of international participants in this year’s Pitch Black has grown significantly to include first-time participants from Western Europe and Asia, who are wanting to prove that they too have the capability and the agility to project their military assets to far-flung areas of the globe.
When does Exercise Pitch Black kick off?
Operating over restricted military airspace within the Northern Territory, Pitch Black flying activity officially kicks off from Monday 22nd August and will conclude on Wednesday 7th September. The night flying component of the exercise, for what Pitch Black is typically known for (and named after!), begins in the second week. Official flying times, as at the time of publishing, are listed below per the AIP Supplement H89/22.
Who is here?
Following on from the initial announcement of participating aircraft and nations, the week leading up to the exercise has seen a flurry of movements into RAAF Base Darwin, with all nations ferrying aircraft from their home bases.
Under a deployment dubbed Exercise Rapid Pacific 2022, the Luftwaffe have deployed ten aircraft representing the most significant Indo-Pacific deployment for the Bundeswehr since the frigate ‘Bayern’ was in the area last year:
- Six Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000s of the Tactical Air Force Wing 74 from Neuberg Air Base
- Four Airbus A400Ms of the Air Transport Wing 62 from Wunstorf Air Base
These aircraft were provided refueling support by three Airbus A330-200 MRTTs of the Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit (MMU) from Eindhoven Air Base, and were tasked with arriving at Paya Lebar Air Base, Singapore, within 24 hours of departure from Neuberg.
Due to a hydraulic issue, the Air Ambassador, a highly anticipated special livery, was forced to stay in Abu Dhabi for repairs while the remaining five Eurofighters moved on.
Following their rapid 24 hour mission to Singapore, the majority of the Luftwaffe contingent arrived into RAAF Base Darwin on Thursday the 18th August.
Inspector of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, travelled to Australia as part of the contingent which also included the Luftwaffe’s factory fresh A321neo 15+10, arriving on Wednesday the 17th August ahead of the arrival of the main component of the Rapid Pacific 2022 deployment.
“The Indo-Pacific is of great importance to Germany. We share the same values with many partners in this region,” Lieutenant General Gerhartz said.
“Defending those values in case of a war emergency and being able to support our partners is something that needs to be practised.”
Lieutenant General Gerhartz will take the reins himself in a Eurofighter during Exercises Pitch Black and Kakadu, and through to Japan following the exercises.
Following a repair carried out in Abu Dhabi, the Air Ambassador finally landed in Darwin late on Friday 19th August.
Joining the Typhoon party were the Royal Air Force, bringing over the following aircraft:
- Four Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.Mk4 of 6 Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth
- One Airbus Voyager KC.2 from RAF Brize Norton
With logistics support from an Airbus Atlas C.1 (A400M) from RAF Brize Norton, the Typhoons flew from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus and had overnight stops in the United Arab Emirates, India and Singapore, arriving at RAAF Base Darwin on Thursday 18th August.
Wing Commander Noel Rees, Officer Commanding 6 Squadron said: “The relationship between the RAF and RAAF is a close and enduring one and we’re delighted to be invited to participate in what promises to be a very realistic and challenging exercise. “The high-end training and complex exercise environment offered by Pitch Black combined with the opportunity to share best practise with so many other partners and allies is invaluable. Our presence here is also a further demonstration of the UK’s longstanding commitment to deepening cooperation and engagement in the Indo-Pacific.”
The Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace have branded their own Indo-Pacific deployment as Pegasus 2022, which involved a 72 hour sprint from France to New Caledonia, with stops in India and Australia, labelled Power Projection Henri Brown. With initial refuelling support provided by a Boeing C-135FR Stratolifter of the Escadron de Ravitaillement en Vol 4/31 Sologne from Istres-Le Tubé Air Base, the main contingent involved:
- Three Dassault Rafale Bs of the 4e Escadre de Chasse from Saint-Dizier-Robinson Air Base and 30e Escadre de Chasse from Mont-de-Marsan Air Base
- Two Airbus A330MRTT Phoenixes of the Escadron de Ravitaillement en Vol et de Transport 1/31 Bretagne from Istres-Le Tubé Air Base
- Two Airbus A400M Atlases of the Escadron de Transport 1/61 Touraine from Orléans – Bricy Air Base
Arriving in New Caledonia on Saturday 13th August, the aircraft participated in a variety of missions around the French territory before departing back for RAAF Base Darwin on Wednesday 17th August to prepare for Exercise Pitch Black. Joining the entourage at this point was a CASA/IPTN CN-235 of the New Caledonian Armed Forces (FANC) from Paul Klein Air Base.
With the Rafales based out of RAAF Base Darwin, the A330MRTT Phoenix based out of RAAF Base Amberley, the CN-235 based out of RAAF Base Tindal, and the A400Ms moving equipment and personnel between, this represents the most significant deployment of the Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace in the Indo-Pacific to date. A Lockheed Martin C-130H-30 Hercules 5144 of the Escadron de Transport 2/61 Franche-Comté from Orléans – Bricy Air Base has been noted transiting through Sydney in recent days, likely providing further support for the exercise.
“The French armed forces are deployed all over the world and are able to participate in multinational exercises organised by their regional allies,” said Major General Stéphane Groën, officer directing the deployment.
“Our armed forces employ a high level of international cooperation to strengthen France’s ties and interoperability with our Allies and Partners worldwide; at the same time we are committed to peace, security and the principles of freedom of movement.”
In an impressive show of interoperability, the A330MRTT Phoenix rendezvoused with Sukhoi SU-30s of the Indian Air Force to provide refuelling support on their own trip to RAAF Base Darwin.
Following the end of Pitch Black 2022, the Pegasus 2022 force projection will enter its third phase and travel to Indonesia and Singapore for air diplomacy missions, promoting French expertise, and conducting operational cooperation with the local air forces.
After being a highlight in the 2018 iteration of Pitch Black, the Indian Air Force have once again chosen to participate in the exercise, bringing four Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs. With logistics support by two Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and refuelling support by a French A330MRTT Phoenix, the fighters arrived into RAAF Base Darwin on Thursday 18th August.
After being observers at the request of the RAAF for several years, South Korea are making their first full appearance at Pitch Black, bringing:
- Six KAI KF-16s of the 19th Fighter Wing from Jungwon Air Base
- One KC-330 Cygnus of the 261 ATS
Supported by a C-130J Hercules, the KF-16s will be based at RAAF Base Darwin for the duration of the exercise, while the KC-330 Cygnus will be based at RAAF Base Amberley. KF-16s have been noted arriving into Darwin via a stop in Clark Airport in the Philippines from Friday 19th August.
This represents a change in approach for South Korea’s military, and demonstrates the country is more willing to conduct expeditionary operations in order to collaborate with a variety of international allies around the globe. This follows on from past ROKAF deployments at Exercise Red Flag held at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
The KC-330 Cygnus, after providing refuelling support, arrived at RAAF Base Amberley on Saturday 20th August.
Another newcomer to Pitch Black 2022, the Koku-Jieitai have brought several Mitsubishi F-2As of the 3rd Tactical Fighter Squadron from Hyakuri Air Base representing a first-time deployment of the platform to Australia. With support from a Boeing KC-767J of the 404th Tactical Airlift Tanker Squadron from Komaki Air Base and two Kawasaki C-2s of the 402nd Tactical Airlift Squadron from Iruma Air Base, the Mitsubishi F-2s bring a splash of colour to the otherwise fairly grey lineup at this years’ exercise.
Japan’s presence at Pitch Black 2022 follows a recent joint statement made by The Foreign Ministers of Australia, Japan and the Secretary of State of the United States, who have expressed their commitment to deepening the trilateral partnership among Australia, Japan, and the United States to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The RAAF have also recently demonstrated their capability in refuelling Mitsubishi F-2As in the leadup to Pitch Black, with the milestone achieved in April.
Being part of Exercise Pitch Black since its early incarnations, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) are once again participating and have brought with them:
- Eight F-15SGs of 149 Squadron from Paya Lebar Air Base
- Eight General Dynamics F-16D+s of 145 Squadron from Tengah Air Base
- One Airbus A330-200MRTT of 112 Squadron from Changi Air Base (East)
- One Gulfstream G550 CAEW of 111 Squadron from Tengah Air Base
The group of aircraft were noted being supported by two C-130H Hercules of 122 Squadron from Paya Lebar Air Base.
Another common participant in Pitch Black is Indonesia, with the TNI Angkatan Udara (TNI AU) supporting a deployment of:
- Three General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcons of Air Squadron 16 from Roesmin Nurjadin Air Base
- Three General Dynamics F-16C/D Fighting Falcons of Air Squadron 12 from Roesmin Nurjadin Air Base
The F-16s had logistics support from a Lockheed Martin C-130H-30 Hercules of Air Squadron 31 from Halim Perdanakusuma Air Base.
United States of America
Two service branches of the United States Armed Forces are participating in Exercise Pitch Black this year.
The United States Marine Corps, on top of their committed presence in the Northern Territory with Bell-Boeing MV-22B Ospreys operated by the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D), have deployed twelve Lockheed Martin F-35Bs of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) “Green Knights” from MCAS Iwakuni.
Supported in the ferry flight by KC-130Js of the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 (VMGR-152) “Sumos” from MCAS Iwakuni, the F-35Bs will be based out of RAAF Base Tindal for the duration of the exercise.
The United States Air Force have brought six McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagles of the 67th Fighter Squadron “Flying Cocks” from Kadena Air Base to RAAF Base Darwin, with tanking support from several McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extenders, Boeing KC-46 Pegasuses and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers.
Heavy logistics support for both the USMC and USAF deployments have brought a constant flow of Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 movements via RAAF Base Townsville and RAAF Base Richmond to RAAF Base Tindal and RAAF Base Darwin, operated by the 535th Airlift Squadron from Hickam Air Force Base and the 815th Airlift Squadron “Flying Jennies” from Keesler Air Force Base respectively.
Concurrently, the USAF are sustaining a 19th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor deployment to RAAF Base Tindal supporting the existing Enhanced Air Cooperation Initiative under the Force Posture Agreement between the United States and Australia.
The host nation will incorporate nearly every type of aircraft in its inventory, with Australia’s 6 Squadron Boeing EA-18G Growlers set to be redeployed from RAAF Base Amberley to RAAF Base Darwin for the duration of the exercise, with support from 33 Squadron Airbus KC-30As.
RAAF F-35As will also be deployed to RAAF Base Darwin, and the E-7 Wedgetail will fill an AEW&C role for the duration of the exercise based out of RAAF Base Tindal. With the United Kingdom a committed customer for the E-7 platform, and the United States expecting to sign a contract for the platform in fiscal year 2023, the E-7’s role during the exercise will no doubt be observed with great interest by RAF and USAF participants.
Busily supporting the massive array of deployments around the country will be the RAAF’s Air Mobility Group fleet of Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs, Lockheed Martin C-130Js and Leonardo C-27Js.
Exercise Pitch Black also sees several other nations participating with ground-based assets or as observers. This year will see Canada, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand and the United Arab of Emirates joining the aforementioned countries above.
Are there any community events?
There will be two major community events for Pitch Black this year, allowing the public to get up close and personal with the aircraft:
- Thursday 25th August 5:00pm – 6:30pm: Flypast and handling display at Mindil Beach
- Saturday 27th August 9:00am – 4:00pm: Open day at RAAF Base Darwin
With the sheer scale and variety of participants, the next few weeks will certainly see some busy skies over the Northern Territory.
Can’t make it up for the exercise? Make sure to keep a close eye on our socials as we provide in-depth feature content on exercise operations!