Pitch Black 2018: RAAF Perspectives


By Robbin Laird

During my visit to Australia in August 2018, I was in country as the Pitch Black 2018 exercise was wrapping up and will have more on this exercise later.

Very good coverage of Pitch Black 2018 was provided by Jaryd Stock on the website Aviation Photography Digest and readers are encouraged to read his various pieces to be found there.

From one his stories, he highlighted comments made by RAAF Air Commodore Mike Kitcher who is the Commander of the Air Combat Group with regard to what was identified as a “typical mission” from the second week of the exercise.

“As you are aware Pitch Black has been running for a couple weeks now and so far the exercise has been really successful, and during the second week we have managed to launch (From RAAF Base Darwin and Tindal) some big packages and they are some of the biggest missions that ever been launched since I have been associated with Pitch Black.

To give you an insight in how that’s going and give a bit of an idea into the missions undertaken, yesterday (Thursday, August 9th) we flew a mission where we had RAAF Classic Hornets (77 Squadron), RAAF Super Hornets one of which I was flying (from 1 Squadron). We also had Indian Air Force Sukhois Su-30s (102 Squadron), USAF F-16s (80thFighter Squadron) also with Indonesian F-16s (3 Skuadran), Singaporean F-16s (143 Squadron) and Thai Gripens (701stSquadron) and a bunch of aircraft that were all designed to escort a couple of transport aircraft.”

A skill set associated with the strategic shift, battlefield extraction, was exercised in this context as well.

In the escort scenario that was played out on August 9thduring the second week of Pitch Black 2018, a RAAF C-27J Spartan from No. 35 Squadron at an airfield strip in the Delamere weapons range was tasked to provide extraction for ground forces (35 Squadron were also partaking in humanitarian relief missions during the exerecise but du tot the complexity of this particular scenario it would suggest the C-27J Spartan and crew seems as though they were operating in the battlefield air-lifter role, with the squadron harnessing their skills to successfully extract ground forces from a conflict battle-space and return to home base safely).

Clearly, during the exercise the RAAF and the allies were playing through a number of key skill sets which are being highlighted by the strategic shift to higher tempo operations.

Those skill sets were highlighted by the RAAF’s official Air Force newspaper.

One of those skill sets which was  highlighted was the need to evolve greater capabilities to execute mobile basing.

During our visit with the Commander of the Combat Support Group, Air Commodore Robinson, earlier this year, this skill set was identified as follows:

What mobile basing might mean in today’s world is a work in progress, but one which will need to deserve more attention going forward….

The RAAF works closely with the USAF as well both in terms of cross learning with the USAF’s Contingency Response Groups as well as the USAF sorting through the growing demand for supporting mobile basing in the Pacific, in terms of flexibly moving away from an over-reliance on fixed basing in the region in times of crisis.

But as the Air Commodore pointed out, the two Contingency Response Groups in the USAF can focus full time on contingency response whereas the RAAF has to include that capability within the overall force.

We discussed at some length the challenge of rethinking mobile basing in times of crisis, which is a work in progress.

“We are having to reacquaint ourselves with some tasks and challenges which we parked to the side a bit while we were in the Middle East for so long.

“We did not have to worry so much about mobile basing to counter the principal threats in that theatre. 

“The mindset is in transition now.”

This clearly is an Army and Air Force challenge.

“We are good at supporting maneuver with our tactical transport aircraft and Australia’s Army aviation capability, including the Tiger Reconnaissance Helicopter, but what we need to do is move to the next level of support to maneuver the most lethal part of our air power capability across a range of airfield options.”

In an article published August 23, 2018, the Air Force newspaper discussed the exercising of these skill sets as follows:

The article was entitled “Takeoff for Airbase”.

It was written by Leut Harley Slatter and focused on the creation of mobile basing.

Constructing an austere airbase over two days at Bachelor in the Northern Territory was a great training platform for our combat support personnel

FLTLT Michael Fox, operations officer No. 382 Contingency Response Squadron, said the location and exercise were ideal to train and showcase Air Force’s ability to rapidly set up and steer airbase in Australia is remote north.

“Bachelor proved challenging, given the he significant proximity from infrastructure,” FLTLT Fox said.

“Pitch Black gave us the opportunity to verify our actions to deploy at short notice to an austere airfield activate it and receive aircraft.”

FLTLT Fox said the joint effort involved establishing the base as a hub for many complex missions and serials throughout the exercise.

“The Insertion into Bachelor airfield, was done by both road and air. Army assisted greatly by transporting cargo,” FLTLT Fox said.

“We also had security forces and a Contingency Response Group from the US Air Force and Army’s 9th  Force Support Battalion working at Bachelor Airfield.”

Once construction was complete these groups, along with the No. 2 Security Forces Squadron, continued to support operations at bachelor during the exercise.

FLTLT Fox said the objective of 382 CRS during Pitch Black was to be capable of receiving C-27 J Spartan aircraft and turn them around in support of the wider operation.

“Our services included an air load team, refueling, a 24-hour-day operations cell and an integrated US Air Force contingent including air traffic controllers,” FLTLT Fox said.

The ability to train in this environment and test themselves was also a great practical benefit for the members of 382 CRS, as a squadron often has to move at short notice.

A second article focused on the air traffic control skill sets which were performed by coalition forces during Pitch Black.

The story was entitled “Tracking Red and Blue in the Mix.

It was published on August 23, 2018 as well.

Exercise Pitch Black’s busy airspace over the Northern Territory gives our air battle managers a chance to work with controllers from the other nations to target, track, and direct friendly and deal with enemy aircraft.

For the first time controllers from India, Germany and Canada joined our integrated fighter control teams.

CO No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit Wing Commander Brett Risstrom said the exercise provided new opportunities to develop skills with foreign air forces during simulated aerial combat.

“At Pitch Black we have been able to integrate fighter control teams, which helped blue force crews in the air find, track and destroy enemy red force,” WGCDR Risstrom said.

During the exercise air battle managers directed dozens of friendly aircraft from multiple nations at once

Sgt. Ryan McGee of No. 1 Remote Sensor Unit, was put through his paces while working foreign militaries.

He said success meant putting blue aircraft in the right place at the right time.

“We were looking at where the red aircraft were and where they were coming from to ensure we had a safe air picture, or able to dominate the skies,” Sgt. Mckee said

Meanwhile, 114 MCRU operated the Tactical Air Defense Radar System, AN/TPS 77, to provide tactical aerospace battle management and air traffic surveillance during the exercise.

114 MCRU senior engineering officer SQLDR Mark Wilson said the deployed air defense radar was used for safety of flight and direct aircraft on target during exercise.

“Positioned at Poll Hill, 300 km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory, the radar had 15 technicians supporting it during the exercise,” he said.

“Conditions was harsh but morale was high and the capability had proved itself as an asset to defense.”

Cpl. Martin Larocque, a technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force, visited the remote site to learn about the deployable radar and speak with our personnel about their experiences.

“We have a similar radar but it’s a bit older.  It’s been great to see how the Aussies do their job with the radar and how they set up a remote camp.”

The featured photo shows a Royal Australian Air Force No. 4 Squadron ‘A Flight’ Forward Air Control PC-9A aircraft (bottom) providing an escort to a United States Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey in support of Exercise Pitch Black 2018.