Already planning a triumphant return

Already planning a triumphant return

The future of Exercise Pitch Black promises to be just as storied and evolutionary as its past.

Traditionally held in the Northern Territory every two years, Exercise Pitch Black is the premier international engagement activity of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Restrictions due to COVID-19 led to a decision to cancel Exercise Pitch Black, but planning is underway for the exercise’s return in 2022.

It will see the return of regional neighbours flying Large Force Employment missions with the RAAF, which will debut its F-35A Lightning II aircraft in the exercise.

Going forward, Exercise Pitch Black is expected to diversify beyond the practice of air power.

Director General Air Defence & Space in Air Force Headquarters Air Commodore Philip Gordon said future exercises would need to adopt a multi-domain approach.

“As an Air Force, we have already made the shift from de-conflicted to coordinated operations and we are now working towards realising truly integrated operations,” Air Commodore Gordon said.

“In the past, Pitch Black has focused heavily on air combat training. While this will always be a bedrock of our contribution to the joint force, I see Pitch Black increasingly moving to multi-domain operations with the increased inclusion of space and joint considerations.”

When the exercise was first conceived in 1981, it was focused on air defence, with Mirage IIIO fighter aircraft scrambled to intercept ‘enemy’ strike aircraft.

The scope of the exercise grew significantly with its relocation to the Northern Territory, but the air defence nature of the exercise remain unchanged until 2002.

The focus then shifted towards large force employment, with groups of ‘friendly’ aircraft required to cooperate with one another on missions in an increasingly networked airspace.

That focus remains in practice today but future capabilities for Defence – including those outlined in the 2016 White Paper and 2020 Defence Strategic Update – will need to be factored into future Pitch Black exercises. 

“As Australia introduces an integrated air and missile defence system over the coming years, there will be obvious mutual training opportunities in future Pitch Black exercises,” Air Commodore Gordon said. 

Ensuring this multi-domain approach will be critical for keeping Exercise Pitch Black relevant, not just for the Australian Defence Force but also for regional partners.

Director General Strategy and Policy within Air Force Headquarters Air Commodore Philip Champion said the exercise remained extremely relevant within the region.

“Exercise Pitch Black is aimed at high-end air combat training and is a major opportunity to train with our partners on a large scale,” Air Commodore Champion said.

“The rapidly evolving strategic environment in our near region, as outlined in the Defence Strategic Update 2020, will help focus Pitch Black towards the generation of integrated air and space effects that demonstrate our commitment to working closely with our partners in support of a free and prosperous Asia Pacific.”

The clearest indication of Pitch Black’s popularity within the region is from Air Force’s Director of International Engagement, Group Captain Michael Jansen.

“Pitch Black is always oversubscribed for interest, so it takes a fair bit of work to get the invitations right,” Group Captain Jansen said.

“The actual attendee list is quite challenging, as we have to balance both available space against the desire to have as many of our partners join as we can manage.

“Pitch Black provides us an outstanding opportunity to work with partners from around the world and it has grown significantly in reputation over the years as a high-quality exercise to be part of.”

International involvement in Exercise Pitch Black has grown significantly since the United States became the first foreign participant in 1983. 

Since then 12 nations have participated in the exercise with their aircraft.

Singapore has contributed to every exercise since 1990 and regional neighbours such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand are now regular participants.

More recently, the exercise has seen first-time participation with aircraft and personnel from the United Arab Emirates (2014), Canada (2016) and India (2018).

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