Pitch Black 2016, Part 2 – Operations

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Run over the first three weeks of August, Exercise Pitch Black 2016 ran a “Media Embed Program” for the benefit of local and international media organisations, during the exercise. PHOTORECON was privileged to be invited to participate. Briefings were held by many of the participating nations’ air (and some land-based) units. The activities included airside and ramp photographic opportunities, tours of ground facilities – including aircraft in OLAs (Ordnance Loading Areas), a ground-based Command and Control unit, and an air-to-air session in a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Airbus KC-30A Tanker, refuelling fast jets.

The patch for PB16 – the ‘spiderweb’ – represents the ‘land’ aspects of this exercise. Emphasis is on the development of air cooperation with ground assets. Far from a training exercise, the opportunity is taken to have participants, the “subject matter experts”, share their skills with other talented individuals. Regardless of the labelling, PB is less about general training, and more about practising the “Art of War”. “They have training skills … they create “art of war” using the fantastic airspace here.” Air Commodore Rick Owen “Ricko” (Air Command Representative for Exercise Pitch Black 2016) describes the “present threat” as “…dynamic, ever-changing and agile”.

During this exercise, Air Force (RAAF) constantly refers to Plan JERICHO – the plan to transform the Air Force into a fighting force for the information age. In a nutshell, it’s about ensuring all the right information is available for the right time. By moving away from (extrinsic) values (Rank etc) and by using the networked approach, Pitch Black is inclusive of all involved, from the Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) on the ground, to the Wing Commander in Wedgetail, to the pilots themselves. PB16 examines how information/data is integrated and communicated effectively across multiple platforms. With 115 aircraft and 2500 personnel from 10 nations attending (some have only sent personnel), Pitch Black is “an educational opportunity”.

PB16 is a perfect place to observe many aspects of military aviation working together. There is tactical use of C-17, ISR/AEW&C with Wedgetail (Boeing E-7A) and Gulfstream G550-AEW, air refuelling with KC-30A and KC-130 tankers and Forward Air Control with Pilatus PC-9s. Fast jets were a component of the deployed forces at Darwin (Blue Air offensive) and Tindal, near Katherine NT (Red Air defensive).

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Included in the Darwin Deployment were Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-16C/D Block-52s Vipers led by 143 Sqn “Phoenix”, with aircraft and personnel of 140 Sqn “Ospreys” from Tengah and F-15SGs of 149 Sqn (Strike) “Shikras” from Paya Lebar Air Base. Indonesia fielded Squadron SkU16 equipped with F-16As supported by various versions of Hercules airlifters from SkU31. Royal Thai Air Force had F-16A/B MLUs (Mid-life Upgrade) of 403 Sqn Wing 4, Takhli AFB and for support transiting to and from the exercise, C-130Hs of 601 Sqn, RTAF. France supplied a CN-235 tactical transport from Squadron ETOO.052 (Transport) “La Tontouta”, based at Noumea.

USAF sent the 14th FS “Samurais”, 35thFW from Misawa air base, Japan – equipped with F-16C Block-50 Vipers. Many of the visiting air forces brought examples of their own ordnance and many configurations were in evidence during the flying ops.

Rounding out the Darwin “numbers” were RAAF F/A-18A “Classic” Hornets of 77 Sqn and E-7As of 2 Sqn, from RAAF Williamtown NSW and F/A-18F “Rhinos” of 1 Sqn, RAAF Amberley, QLD. KC-30As of 33 Sqn Amberley QLD (detached to Townsville), C-130J-30s of 37 Sqn Richmond NSW, Townsville- based 38 Sqn B-350 KingAir and 36 Sqn (Amberley) C-17As.

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Interestingly, the first Royal Australian Air Force C-130J-30 Hercules to be fitted with a Link 16 Tactical Data Link (TDL) system has begun operational test and evaluation (OTE) around the time of Ex. Pitch Black and will be operating low-level tactical missions in a simulated high-threat environment, supporting Australian Special Forces within the remote Bradshaw and Delamere training ranges in the Northern Territory. C2 (Command & Control) support is via the RAAF’s Darwin-based 114 Mobile Control & Reporting Unit.

Tindal had for some weeks been home to US Marine Squadron VMFA-122 “Crusaders” (Code: DC) with their F/A-18C Hornets, rarely seen at Darwin. Tindal also hosted AEW&C, Heron, Forward Air Control PC-9As of 4 SQN RAAF and the Canadian based CC-130H (T) of 435 SQN “Chinthe” (appearing at PB for the first time), while the “Classic” Hornets of 75 Sqn “Magpies” continue to be based here. During the Exercise period, US Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) continued to train separately at the Bradshaw Field Training Area.

Explaining in detail how all this works, the AIRCDRE states that 2016 PB is characterised by air-land integration, using sensors – for example JTAC receives Heron feeds through a Control Reporting Centre. The exercise also features counter-air work. In response to questions, Ricko stated that USAF’s Nellis-hosted Red Flag program is more structured and scripted compared to PB. Northern Australia has far more space available (in which to add the ‘artistry’) – allowing for example, Blue Air to engage the Singaporean I-Hawk Surface-to-air missile “threat”. Both Red Flag and PB have “mission commands”. When participating nations’ air forces are asked how many mission commands they require during PB; 3 or 4 may be requested, but only 2 or 3 are negotiated for them.

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Ricko explained how PB16 runs: Week 1 features Force Integration Training (Local air orientation brief). Starts with small formations learning the airspace and conditions, while operating in separate, controlled blocks of airspace. RAAF escorts other participants over the airspace for familiarisation, such as the Indonesians as they are slowly being exposed to the scenarios. Weeks 2/3 are the main exercise – the airspace is open. Flying is in two high-volume windows, one in the morning around 11:00, featuring OCA/fights/AEW/Tankers with the second, high in intensity and volume, from dinner time to 23:00. In the middle to 18:00, there is low-intensity flying with land-based forces – JTAC, special forces, with surveillance above – usually without fast jets. PB16 offers first-time UAV integration and the C-17 debut as well. C-17 tasking might include insertion into dirt runways such as Nackeroo at Bradshaw Range, tactical operations, air-land work, or special forces insertions.

The Exercise Director, operates with a Mission Director (per scenario) who co-ordinates with Regular Public Transport to de-conflict the airspace. There may be up to 60 a/c in the airspace at a given time. During pre-mission briefings, “Spins” may be given – these are special instructions to be followed such as during fire danger periods when no use of flares or chaff may be permitted. Interestingly, increasing automation in the detailed planning for these exercises includes computer-generated allocation of callsigns for the strike packages. Illustrating the ‘human factor’, sometimes these callsigns or instructions are ‘tweaked’ for better overall understanding.

We now examine some specific units employed at exercise Pitch Black 2016.

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United States Air Force – PACAF (14th Fighter Squadron/35th Fighter Wing) “Wild Weasels” Code: WW
Lt-Col Mark Heusinkveld “Chainsaw”

There are 14x F-16CM Block-50 Vipers from Misawa, Japan (where the runway closed while works were being completed) ferried via Kadena, which incidentally were RAAF KC-30A tanked, in several flights from Okinawa-Darwin. Significantly, over 5 air-refuels per six-hour sortie, this was the first refuel of F-16s (combat-ready though not operational) by KC-30 outside of the test environment.

Mission role of the 14th FS is SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) – protecting other mission aircraft from surface & air threats utilising the HTS – HARM Targeting System (sensor on nose), Weapon is HARM AGM-88 radar-homing missile, which homes on to electrons emitted by hostile radar. They can further support strike packages with their Destructive SEAD role, utilising their “Sniper pod” (targeting via laser) to take out targets.

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114 Mobile Control & Reporting Unit RAAF (MCRU)
WGCDR “Nathan”

The unit Provides tactical airspace battle management and surveillance in the fighting airspace.

PB16 is our premier AVDEX (Aviation Defence Exercise). Germans and Dutch are included in the MCRU team for the first time.

Their history – 114 formed in 1943 in Northern Australia and South East Asia, performing long-range air surveillance and detection. They were Afghan Area of Operations – deployed. Based at Darwin since 2000, 114 MCRU also supports Army’s 1 BDE at Robertson Barracks.

These days, data is applied from all sources. They will operate on AWO/ABM instructor course and FCC/FCI courses. The unit interchanges between red and blue teams and is the lead C2 agency – Primary Command (eg Wedgetail, G550) can change however. 114 often deploys, but is garrisoned at Darwin most other times. TPS-77 is the radar used. They deploy about 10 personnel to remote locations like the Delamere Range. Christie noted that Heron (one of their data sources) is probably around 12-18 months from full Air Force integration.

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77 Sqn RAAF
CO 77 Sqn WGCDR “Grant”

This squadron trains operational and combat aircrew. We met the CO in their secure operations bunker which they use when deployed. Exercise roles include:

1. Offensive counter-air to gain or maintain air superiority across the airspace, protect strike packages (often first in), similar to the US “Wild Weasels”;

2. Strike proficiency with live weapons @ Bradshaw. Dynamic targeting – is specified after takeoff and planned enroute. Close escort, for instance, of B52s ex-Guam, is undertaken. Data is sourced from C2.

It’s clear WGCDR Grant is “impressed” with the F/A-18A; the “Classics” are still “fantastic aircraft”, he stated and with their avionics upgrades, weapons integration and software improvements, are “pretty much the best Classic Hornet in the world”. There are 14 of them based at Darwin for PB16.

Asked to rate the participants, WGCDR Grant noted Singapore impresses with their professionalism, simulating the US and Australia (they are training in the States). With so many nationalities participating, standardising the terminology and ironing out nuances becomes an important safety focus of the exercise – a common theme within all deployed units at PB16.

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PHOTORECON, along with local and international media organisations, was invited to participate in various photographic opportunities and media conferences during the exercise. We were taken to the runway for some fast jet launches during the morning “wave” and toured an OLA in which were parked two of 77SQNs F/A-18 “classic” Hornets. Undoubtedly, the highlight was the rare invitation to fly in the KC-30A for an air-refuelling mission with fast jets. As it turned out, RAAF 1 Sqn F/A-18Fs tanked and we were treated to several F-16Cs of the 14th FS keeping station off our wing. The results may be seen accompanying this article.

Mindal Beach photos…


On the Thursday of this busy week, Pitch Black participants put on an hour-long display off the foreshore of Mindil Beach on the night of the market. Always a highlight, PHOTORECON captured some of the atmosphere of this now-traditional thank you to the people of Darwin.

Darwin Open Day photos…

Further to this, RAAF Base Darwin opened its doors on the Saturday for Open Day. Aircraft and personnel representing the participating nations and many units were in attendance. It was a great opportunity to meet the crews who were seen regularly over what was an incredible week!

PHOTORECON wishes to thank the Royal Australian Air Force Media Embed Program for the superb access and many opportunities afforded to us at Exercise Pitch Black 2016. Your professionalism and care for your charges during the program was as good could be wished for, we specifically wish to thank:

Exercise Pitch Black Public Affairs (and Media Embed Program):
Squadron Leader Gavin Briggs
Squadron Leader Andy Anderson
Flight Lieutenant Nicholas O’Connor
Flight Lieutenant Darren Carruthers
Squadron Leader Skye Smith, Deputy Director, RAAF Public Affairs, Ex.PB16
September Clare
The PRO team at RAAF Headquarters, Canberra (Courtney Parkinson)
The Leadership of the various units we visited: 1 SQN, 77 Sqn, 114 MCRU, 14th FS (PACAF), and Royal Thai Air Force.

Dion Makowski

A keen photographer from an early age, Dion developed a genuine interest in all things aviation. After cutting his teeth on historic aircraft restoration and dabbling in model plane building, Dion took things further with a passion for collecting 1:1 scale and helped establish an aviation metal fabrication shop. With a former museum colleague, together they formed the Clyde North Aeronautical Preservation Group in 1989. Many years later, Dion published the Aviation Historical Society's of Australia's Journal Aviation Heritage and News and is currently active on the Society's committee. Today, he concentrates on aviation photo-journalism, specialising in current ADF activities and as always, fast jets, warbirds and antique aircraft historical research, remain his core passions.

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