Global air forces are poised to participate in Australia’s Exercise Pitch Black, one of the world’s largest and most complex air combat exercises.

Centred on Darwin in the Northern Territory and flown mainly over the vast airspace of the Delamere and Bradshaw Ranges, Pitch Black is the Royal Australian Air Force’s pre-eminent air combat exercise.

Italian Eurofighter Pitch Black

Source: Commonwealth of Australia

Italian Eurofighters taxi at RAAF Darwin with a KC-767A tanker

“Exercise Pitch Black is our premier activity for international engagement, held every two years to build stronger ties with like-minded nations,” says Exercise Director and Commander of the RAAF’s Air Combat Group, Air Commodore Peter Robinson.

“Training with our partner nations throughout Exercise Pitch Black demonstrates our commitment to the shared value of sustaining peace and stability across the region.”

The first Pitch Black was held in 1981 at RAAF Williamtown near Newcastle in New South Wales, with the name being derived from the emphasis on night-time flying over large unpopulated areas. In 1983 it moved to Darwin and involved RAAF Dassault Mirage 111O and General Dynamics F-111Cs, and for the first time a visiting US contingent.

Held every two years, each iteration of Pitch Black attracts more international participants. The complexity also increases. This year’s exercise will run from 12 July to 2 August and will involve some 4000 personnel and 140 aircraft from 20 nations.

While most of the aircraft will be based at RAAF Darwin, some will operate at RAAF Tindal, which lies to the southeast, and at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane.

Apart from host nation Australia, aircraft from France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Spain Thailand, United Kingdom, the UK, the US and the European Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport unit will participate. Embedded personnel from Brunei, Canada Fiji and New Zealand will also attend.

E-767 Japan

Source: Commonwealth of Australia

A Japan Air Self-Defense Force E-767 AWACS aircraft at RAAF Darwin

Pitch Black is not a three-week war simulation. Rather, it comprises a series of increasingly complex joint-force scenarios involving not only some of the world’s most advanced air combat aircraft, but also support aircraft tasked with air-to-air refuelling, strike and transport. Airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft feature prominently in the exercise.

RAAF Darwin will see by far the largest number of aircraft with RAAF Boeing EA-18G Growler and F/A-18F Super Hornets, Lockheed Martin F-35A and E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft; French Dassault Rafales, German Eurofighters; and Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKIs.

Also based at Darwin will be Indonesian F-16A/B/C/Ds, Italian F-35A and F-35Bs, Eurofighter EF2000 and G550 AEW&C aircraft; Italian navy F-35B and AV-8B Harrier IIs; Japanese Mitsubishi F-2A/Bs and Boeing E-767s AWACS; Philippine air force KAI FA-50PHs; and Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D Hornets.

The presence of Italian navy F-35Bs is especially notable, because they arrived aboard the INS Cavour aircraft carrier. Reports suggest that flight operations will take place from the carrier’s deck in support of the exercise.

Italian Eurofighters Pitch Black

Source: Commonwealth of Australia

Italian Eurofighters following their arrival at RAAF Darwin

Rounding out the Darwin complement are South Korean F-15K Slam Eagles; Singaporean F-16C/Ds, F-15SGs and G550 AEW&C aircraft; Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons, Spanish EF2000s; and Royal Thai Air Force Saab JAS-39C/D Gripens.

Numerous tactical transports will also operate from RAAF Darwin, with several A400Ms at this year’s event. 

At RAAF Tindal will be RAAF F-35As, KC-30A MRTTs, and C-130J Hercules; and US Air Force F-22As – this year marks the first time the stealthy type is appearing at the show.

RAAF Amberley meanwhile will be a transport and refuelling hub, with several air forces contributing Airbus A330 MRTTs.