Air Vice-Marshal (retired) John Quaife has a long association with Exercise Pitch Black, including one of its most significant changes.
This includes flying the Mirage and Hornet fighters in the exercise, as well as leadership positions as Commanding Officer No. 77 Squadron, Commander Air Combat Group, and Air Commander Australia.
His first experience with Exercise Pitch Black however was with the MB326 Macchi Lead-In Fighter in 1982.
My first experience of Pitch Black was in July 1982 when as a Pilot Officer, I flew six ‘target’ profiles out of Richmond. Two of those sorties were flown at night.
I had just finished my Lead-in Fighter training (with No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit) and I note from my log book that Flying Officers Rick Owen and Kym Osley flew in my back seat on some of those trips.
In 1982, Pitch Black was a Sector Air Defence Exercise (ADEX) designed to exercise the air defence sector as it was established at Williamtown – that meant exercising the alert-detect-scramble-intercept kill chain, with an emphasis on night flying.
As pilot of a Macchi ‘target’, my job was to simply fly a pre-planned route out of Richmond that entered the Williamtown airspace from the North West. Along the way, I would be intercepted by Mirages scrambled out of Williamtown, no doubt launching from an alert posture in the Willy Operational Readiness Platform.
There was no free play (in the exercise). I have no idea who was calling the shots, but I suspect it was the Sector Air Defence Commander, and in those days we used to have such things as SADOC (Sector Air Defence Operations Centre) executive courses to teach people how to do that stuff.
Separate to Pitch Black, my next major exercise was in 1985 when all the candidates for the upcoming (and final) Mirage Fighter Combat Instructor (FCI) course were sent along with No. 77 Squadron to the Philippines for Exercise Cope Thunder (which was led by United States Pacific Air Forces).
I had the opportunity to fly as the Red Air Mission Commander for one of the Cope Thunder serials. I mention this simply because this experience opened my eyes to how an exercise could be conducted, incorporating free play. Cope Thunder was not an Air Defence Exercise.
My next Pitch Black experience was in 1988. By this time I was a Hornet FCI flying with No. 77 Squadron. Five out of my seven exercise events were flown at night. By 1988, the exercise had shifted to Darwin but it was still an Air Defence Exercise. This meant the defenders were the good guys (Blue), with the attackers playing the bad guys (Red).
My log book shows me that there was a United States Air Force (USAF) F-15 outfit in town playing adversaries. Because the exercise was (centred) on Air Defence, it was very much a ‘clean’ exercise of RAAF air defence capability – no allies played on the Blue side. It’s worth noting that F-111s were always Red Air.
I also note from my log book that between 1982 and 2002 I flew in a lot of Air Defence exercises, but no complex strike exercises other than Cope Thunder. For example, every time we deployed to Butterworth/Singapore we flew in an IADS ADEX (Integrated Air Defence System Air Defence Exercise). I had my second Cope Thunder experience in 1989 and it was a lot more fun flying a Hornet in that exercise than it was flying a Mirage. Once again, that exercise reversed the roles that we usually exercised in Australia (with Blue Air flying strike mission profiles, and Red Air defending).
I also flew in Kangaroo 89 – once again a lot of hours flown on defensive Combat Air Patrols (CAP). This exercise was used to demonstrate the utility of AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) with a USAF E-3B Sentry participating.
In late 1989, I was now an FCI at No. 77 Squadron, and we instituted a ‘home-grown’ squadron exercise called ‘WAREX’ (a contraction of Western Area Exercise) where we finally got to free play the offensive Hornet capability, flying sweep/strike/escort missions using the airspace to the north of Richmond. There was nothing on the exercise program that would give us this sort of training.
I next flew a Pitch Black in 1991 as FCI with No. 75 Squadron. I flew 12 missions all labelled Vital Area Defence (Darwin) with four of them flown at night. Once again, visiting USAF F-15s flew as Red Air. By now I was beginning to think Pitch Black was getting a bit tedious.
We had excellent airspace, we had an exercise that included complex scenarios flown at night (no one else was doing that), but we had a purpose-built F/A-18 base at Tindal that was not being exercised, we were only beginning to think about developing Delamere Range, and we were still spending hours on alert practicing moving up and down the alert posture.
When we got airborne, we would spend many hours going around and around a CAP station - you would consider yourself lucky if you got to intercept anything. There was no real de-brief or attempt to analyse outcomes and there was certainly no kill removal (where participants who are ‘shot down’ are required to leave the airspace).
My next Pitch Black was Pitch Black 97, which I flew as Commanding Officer of No. 77 Squadron – seven missions with two flown at night.
By Pitch Black 2002, I was now Commander Air Combat Group (ACG), I was the Officer Conducting the Exercise, so I changed the rules. I converted Pitch Black from an air defence exercise into a strike exercise.
Anticipating that this may not go down so well with the Air Defence fraternity, my headquarters (including Air Commodore Rick Owen) separately developed ECADEX – East Coast Air Defence Exercise – specifically designed to exercise the Air Defence sector so that Pitch Black would be free to run with the good guys playing offense. I think we also introduced at least one serial that included permanent kill removal.
In developing the exercise, we tried to maintain the good bits from the previous incarnation, but avoid some of the bad stuff. Exercise Pitch Black 2002 was the first Pitch Black where we were able to exercise Air Combat Group as a Group with F-111 and F/A-18 finally working together. We certainly kept the night serials.
The exercise in 2002 was flown on the East Coast with No. 75 Squadron Hornets deployed to Amberley (the Republic of Singapore Air Force also participated that year). This was the exercise that generated some ‘crinkly faces’ in the planning conference because it was the first time that we changed the roles of Red and Blue Force. In 2002 we had just returned jets from the Diego Garcia deployment, and we would soon deploy No. 75 Squadron in early 2003 to the Middle East Area of Operations. There was a bit going on.
Exercise Pitch Black 2002 involved some heavy planning in order to generate enough over-land airspace (additional Training Areas off the top of the Richmond airspace was included too, as I recall). Out of that experience, we realised that we should retain an exercise as an annual event, but keep one focused on air defence (in odd years) while the bigger Pitch Black exercise (in even years) got heavily into the complex offensive exercise that it has become. I think ECADEX03 was the first ADEX event with the idea that it would also be held every two years in the intervening years between Pitch Blacks.
We kept the exercise to a planned day-time and night-time event, which meant we could control activity through ‘periods of vulnerability’ and, as long as the players stayed within the ‘VUL Time’ (VUL meaning Vulnerability Window – the time period when the exercise was ‘active’) they could free play their tactics. Moving off the ADEX script also gave the air defenders an asset management challenge that had been missing in scripted exercises. De-emphasising air defence also gave the exercise a lot more meaning and value for the participation of other Force Element Groups.
I was able to stay in control for Exercise Pitch Black 2004 as I was now at Headquarters Air Command as the RAAF’s first JFACC (Joint Force Air Component Commander). Unsurprisingly, I now wanted to exercise the Air Operations Centre (AOC) at RAAF Base Glenbrook as part of the exercise. This worked, but it was an interesting dynamic for a community that had not experienced an AOC directing the fight and managing a tasking cycle. The way we set up the tasking for each VUL period was to issue targeting instructions for each serial in accordance with broad campaign guidance, we also issued broad routing and timing instructions to ensure we were developing a flow of assets that would achieve a specific tactical outcome.
We also wanted to challenge (defeat) Red Air with a developed and complex presentation. This worked mostly well, but I recall one particular serial where the AOC became aware that No. 3 Squadron were taking the ATO (Air Tasking Order - tasking directions from the JFACC to units on elements including mission objectives, targets, airspace and scenario constraints) as advisory and were intending to do their own thing. That might have worked in previous Pitch Black exercises, but I couldn’t afford a rogue element doing its own thing. There was a stand-off for a little while until the No. 3 Squadron executives realised that I was seriously going to ground them for that serial unless they followed the ATO.
Exercise Pitch Black 2004 was a great success as amongst other things, we proved we were able to manage the exercise from the Recognised Air Picture (RAP) being fed to RAAF Base Glenbrook. There’s another story there with the wresting of the RAP out of EASTROC (Eastern Region Operations Centre) and the hands of the Air Defenders in order to facilitate the AOC.
By Exercise Pitch Black 2006 I was Air Commander Australia (ACAUST), and I had my own JFACC in Air Commodore Mark Skidmore. By now the development of the exercise was mature and understood – in fact it was hard to get volunteers to play Red Air and we had to cycle Hornet pilots through the role in order to ‘share the pain’. I kept out of the way but I did manage to fly an F-111 and F/A-18 serial (under supervision) and I also flew a back seat F-16 serial with the Royal Thai Air Force.
Exercise Pitch Black is a world class exercise that generates excellent training through realistic presentations of threats and engagements. It’s rated by our Allies and therefore well supported by dissimilar types. The Northern Territory airspace is awesome.
It was critical to the success of Air Combat Group in terms of breaking down the cultural barriers that existed between the previous Strike Reconnaissance and Tactical Fighter Groups (which were amalgamated into Air Combat Group in January 2002). We used to regard working with F-111s and F/A-18s as something ‘special’ – we even used to call it ‘CONJOINT’ activity – which is ludicrous when you think about it now.
The evolution of Pitch Black has enabled us to exercise as an Air Force. With the current capabilities in inventory, it’s very hard to imagine not doing Pitch Black in the manner that we do. We have managed to build something that is unique in the world and exceptionally valuable for the development of our people. Because it’s good, others want some of it. The value perceived by the RAAF is experienced by all who participate. That attraction factor also gives us a good look at our Allies – which is also a good thing.