Squadron Leader Paul Simmons has a unique perspective on Exercise Pitch Black, having last participated in 2016 as Lead Exercise Controller and Mission Developer.
But his first involvement came in 1994 at RAAF Base Tindal, flying the F/A-18A Hornet after having recently graduated onto the aircraft from No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit.
At the time, the Hornet – which entered RAAF service from 1985 – could be equipped with heat-seeking AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles, and the AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missile, as well as a 20-millimetre cannon just forward of the cockpit.
The weapons would not be fired during Exercise Pitch Black missions, but rather, pilots would have to manoeuvre into the correct parameters where they could simulate the weapon’s firing and call a ‘kill’ against their opposition.
Squadron Leader Simmons recounted his first Exercise Pitch Black in 1994, flying as a wingman to the Executive Officer for No. 75 Squadron – who eventually went on to become Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin (retired) – known to many as ‘Binny’:
The exercise was based on Defensive Counter Air (protect Australia from attacks) and Tindal was the centre of the action.
(There were) many memorable missions with some eye-opening night engagements against USMC (United States Marine Corps) Harriers and RAAF F-111s attacking at night and at low level.
My two most vivid memories are: Sitting at the end of Runway 14 at Tindal on Alert 3 (if given a scramble order, we had to be airborne in 3 minutes) as Number Two to Binny.
It was late afternoon and we had been there in an hour, all was quiet and I was calm.”
Suddenly we received the scramble order as a low level attack on Tindal had been detected 40 nautical miles north west of the field.
The heart gets pumping really quickly – start the left engine and scramble.
We did a formation take-off, and then at a couple of hundred feet Binny waves me away into tactical formation.
We set the switches in the cockpit to fight, heading south briefly before turning hard back to the north to engage.
We spent the 30 minutes in an old school crazy fight against many low level strikers and some escorts, killing most of the attackers before running out of weapons and fuel and landing back at the base a short time later.
The other memory is - it was night, and we were flying in the standard very dark Northern Territory sky - many years before we had Night-Vision Goggles.”
We were sitting in a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) with our radars searching the inky blackness for signs of attacking forces.
We detected low-level F-111s and headed west in afterburner to engage as quickly as we could.
Trying to hang on to visual contact with Binny while also working the radar and shooting at low level contacts and their escorts at height at night is busy to say the least.
I lost some heartbeats that night but stayed visual and shot a couple of bad guys…which for a new wingman was a win!
During Exercise Pitch Black 96, Squadron Leader Simmons was at No. 3 Squadron, leading a four-ship formation of Hornets through the exercise.
At the time, Squadron Leader Simmons was awaiting Fighter Combat Instructor Course – a six-month program that graduates expert leaders and instructors capable of tactics development, validation and instruction within the RAAF.
Squadron Leader Simmons recounted:
We were tasked as the ‘Kamarian Orange Forces’ and flying out of Darwin under the command of Air Marshal Geoff Shephard (retired), who was then Officer Commanding No. 82 Wing.
We were the bad guys, and included United States Air Force B-52s and F-16Cs, and RAAF F-111s.
We were flying against RAAF F/A-18s of Nos. 75 and 77 Squadron, USAF F-15Cs, who were supported by a USAF E-3C Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS).
We were escorting two B-52s where we started over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf at high level, with four F-111s, eight F-16Cs and six F/A-18s.
On the Mission Commander’s word, we had the B-52s and F-111s descend steeply to low level while putting out a ton of chaff (radar countermeasures), escorted by my four F/A-18s, while the rest of the fighters covered all altitudes from 50,000 feet to low level.
It was quite a mess for the defenders to sort out and stop.
Ingressing at low level on the wing of 2 B-52s with their wings ‘flapping’ due to the heat and thermals, while targeting and shooting defenders, remains quite a memory.
During Exercise Pitch Black 96, Squadron Leader Simmons said the Orange Force concocted a plan to ‘shoot down’ the Blue Force E-3C AWACS – a linchpin for the defensive team.
The day they chose to execute their mission however coincided with a visit by a delegation from Canberra to see the effect of an AWACS on the aerial battle.
The delegation was escorted by then-Wing Commander Mark Binskin, who was part of the program to acquire the Wedgetail (Airborne Early Warning and Control) capability for Australia.
Squadron Leader Simmons recalled that Orange Force had a plan to sweep in and stir up the defence from Blue Force fighters, then topping up their fuel tanks from air-to-air refuelling tankers over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, and then returning with strike aircraft to re-attack Blue Force:
The difference this day was that we would press in as usual, but stay for a while longer as a distraction while one of our F-16s in a ‘clean and fast’ configuration (they had taken all the radar reflecting and drag inducing tanks, pylons and missiles off) would do a tactic and then get to very low altitude and spring through the defenders and try and ‘kill’ the E-3.
The tactic worked a charm, and the F-16 got through and killed the E-3, which was south of Tindal, numerous times before being shot and recovering extremely high and slow back to Darwin with little fuel remaining.
In retrospect it was not the best mission to plan such a move with the VIPs on board and it was even less well received as the F-16 joined on the wing of the E-3 and kept mercilessly calling the ‘kill’ on the Blue Force radio frequency.
Later that day the E-3 landed in Darwin, and we all got out on the tarmac cheering our victory as it taxied by.
I still remember Binny giving me the ‘disappointed dad’ look in the bar that night, trying to explain to me why despite the great tactical execution, of all the days, today was not the best and we made the ‘sell’ he was part of all the harder.
Ultimately, the RAAF would select the Boeing E-7A as its Wedgetail AEW&C platform in 1999, although it would not be until 2010 that they were formally accepted into service – with their debut appearance at Exercise Pitch Black in 2014.
Squadron Leader Simmons said Exercise Pitch Black had changed since the 1990s, when its focus was on Defensive Counter Air missions to protect Australian airspace.
Today, we see much more focus on power projection into contested airspace, where fighters and electronic warfare platforms provide windows of superiority for the rest of the force to undertake critical missions.
To that end there are more mission sets involving the use of airlift and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platforms.
Mission scenarios during future Pitch Black exercises will need to continue to evolve, especially with the RAAF growing as a fully-networked Fifth Generation air force.
Squadron Leader Simmons is experiencing that evolution firsthand – since June 2019, he is posted to Luke Air Force Base in the United States, as an Instructor Pilot on the F-35A Lightning II as part of the RAAF team in the F-35 International Training Centre:
Traditionally, (Exercise Pitch Black) was solely a large force, fast jet-centric exercise, aimed at developing leadership at various levels of fast jet mission execution.
These critical skills must remain front and centre in Exercise Pitch Black’s purpose and structure, but increasingly we must find a way to train more of the Joint Force elements of the RAAF, under the stress of a realistic scenario.
These competing priorities will only grow and are not going away.