A consistent highlight of Exercise Pitch Black is its international participation, both from within the Indo-Pacific region and further abroad.
For the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the international element of Exercise Pitch Black provides experience in working with aircraft, systems, and work practices that would be otherwise unfamiliar.
This isn’t limited to missions over the Northern Territory, but also extends to how the exercise is planned and conducted on the ground.
The cultural and personal exchange between RAAF personnel and their international counterparts is a highlight too, one which extends to the local Northern Territory community at events such as the Darwin open Day.
Exercise Pitch Black has a long held international element, but in the past 20 years it has grown significantly.
The first two exercises in 1981 and 1982 were limited to Australian participation, but then opened to the United States in 1983, and New Zealand in 1984.
It grew in 1990 to include Singapore – which has attended every subsequent Pitch Black exercise – followed by the United Kingdom in 1998, and France and Thailand in 2004.
More regional neighbours including Malaysia (2008) and Indonesia (2012) have since debuted, along with participants from further afield including the United Arab Emirates (2014), Canada (2016) and India (2018).
To date, 12 nations – along with a NATO contingent – have sent aircraft and personnel to Exercise Pitch Black, which is considered within the RAAF to be the Chief of Air Force’s premiere international engagement activity.
Group Captain Michael Jansen is the Director of International Engagement at Air Force Headquarters.
His team works with exercise planners at Headquarters Air Command on how to incorporate international participation at the exercise.
“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. 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 is always over-subscribed for interest, so it takes a fair bit of work to get the invites right.”
Having the international attendees attend allows not just for an exchange of tactics and procedures for the aircrew, but a chance to look at new ways of doing support tasks as well. “Whether it is a new approach to preparing a Fly Away Kit, or innovation in setting up a deployable detachment network for keeping in touch with home base, we are all learning off each other” Group Captain Jansen said.
He added: “For our partners, the chance to fly in an unconstrained exercise area the size that Pitch Black offers is unparalleled – 300 times the size of their country for our Singaporean friends – at a time when the weather is nearly always perfect for flying, it’s no wonder it’s a popular place to be.”
Group Captain Jansen was present in the Director of International Engagement role during Exercise Pitch Black 2018, which involved first-time participation from India and the return of Malaysia to the exercise.
He was also involved with planning for Exercise Pitch Black 2020, before the RAAF’s decision in May 2020 to cancel the exercise due to complications from CoVID-19.
Had the exercise gone ahead, it would have involved aircraft and crews from Japan and the Republic of Korea for the first time, along with a number of nations returning to the exercise.
One of the challenges of sending aircraft to Exercise Pitch Black is the distance required to travel to Australia, and Group Captain Jansen said the RAAF was looking at how else to incorporate international involvement.
“Being able to include participants who are not flying aircraft, but contributing in other ways, has been a real enabler for our ability to engage widely,” Group Captain Jansen said.
“We have had nations such as Germany send fighter controllers to work with No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit, and the New Zealanders offer outstanding support in Combat Support roles.”
Similarly, the Netherlands have sent Joint Terminal Attack Controllers to the exercise to work alongside their RAAF counterparts.
“Thinking laterally and looking for non-traditional ways to engage has really opened the Exercise up,” Group Captain Jansen said.
Diversifying the training conducted at Exercise Pitch Black can also extend beyond its historical roles.
“The focus of Pitch Black as a fighter-aircraft based activity will continue, but we will also look for ways to incorporate other assets into the fight,” Group Captain Jansen said.
“In the past, we have had transport aircraft taking part, but I can see in the future we will look to incorporate both Space and Cyber units.
The exercise will also need to remain ‘accessible’ for international participation, which can be a challenge as some Air Forces introduce new capabilities.
“We’ll also need to examine how we go about using Fifth Generation capabilities in a Coalition with older assets,” Group Captain Jansen said.
“The big issues we are facing are all about ‘how do we share information’ – with more assets attending with more sensors and information pipelines, being able to distribute analysis in real-time is the challenge.”
Despite the cancellation of Exercise Pitch Black 2020, the exercise is planned to return to the Northern Territory in 2022.
For international partners coming to Exercise Pitch Black, the pathway typically begins through the International Observers Group program.
A regular feature of each Pitch Black, is the International Observer Group Program that takes representatives on a week-long ‘tour’ of the exercise, allowing them to see it firsthand and to see what might be required for them to join as a full participant.
Countries can also send an advance party to the exercise to be involved with its planning, and gain a more detailed appreciation of how to deploy to the exercise.
Major planning conferences are held in the months leading to each Exercise Pitch Black to ensure all participants – including returning and debut nations – are given common information.
Even in spite of the cancellation of Exercise Pitch Black 2020, Group Captain Jansen said there is enthusiasm about the exercise’s future from overseas.
“I foresee that Pitch Black 2022 is going to be one of the most diverse Exercises we have hosted,” Group Captain Jansen said.
“We can expect to see the largest number of participating nations, with a number of new ‘first-timers’.
“Integrating the biggest collection of different platforms in the skies over the Northern Territory will be quite a sight.
“Looking at how all those different assets work together is going to be extremely challenging for our planners, although the Darwin flightline is going to be a very exciting place for the Australian AvGeek community!”