The milestones of Exercise Pitch Black will be recounted through an online campaign on Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) social media channels.
Called ‘Exercise Pitch Black Online’, the campaign will run from 27 July to 7 August 2020, coinciding with the dates that the exercise was originally slated to occur this year.
But in May 2020, the RAAF elected to cancel this year’s Exercise Pitch Black due to restrictions associated with CoVID-19.
Air Commander Australia, Air Vice-Marshal Joe Iervasi, said the online campaign would provide an opportunity to recount the exercise’s history, its international participants, and its engagement of the local community.
“Exercise Pitch Black is our biennial international engagement exercise,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“It's the premier event that air force hosts every two years, and the exercise has evolved over many years to become the premier southern hemisphere air combat exercise.”
The last exercise in 2018 was held over three weeks and involved 140 aircraft and 4,000 personnel from 15 nations.
But Exercise Pitch Black has its own humble origins at RAAF Base Williamtown, north of Newcastle, where it was first held over 15-16 June 1981.
It began as an air defence exercise for delta-wing Mirage IIIO fighters from No. 77 Squadron, which were supported by radar surveillance from No. 3 Control and Reporting Unit.
Together, the Mirages fended off attacks from RAAF No. 1 Squadron F-111C strike jets.
A similar format for the exercise returned in 1982, but in 1983, it relocated to the Northern Territory and involved the United States Air Force.
Exercise Pitch Black grew significantly over the next four decades, but this year has seen the first time the RAAF has decided to postpone the exercise for another two years.
“It's been a challenging year for everyone right across the globe, and the CoVID-19 impacts have reached us here in Australia as well,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“A number of participating nations have found it difficult to send personnel and aircraft down to the exercise.
"So we're taking the opportunity, even though we can't exercise physically, to continue the engagement through Pitch Black Online.”
Ordinarily during Exercise Pitch Black, the RAAF would engage the community through an Open Day at RAAF Base Darwin, as well as local community events and media.
“Pitch Black really is the opportunity for the Air Force to demonstrate its full capabilities, not only within the Defence Force itself, but within local and state communities as well, and for the Australian public,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“As we've all found during CoVID, we can remain engaged through virtual means.”
“With that, it's a great opportunity for us to reflect upon where we've been as an air force and where we've been with Pitch Black, where we're at today, and what the future of our air force and Pitch Black looks like as well.”
Exercise Pitch Black Online will be an opportunity to share memoirs of past exercises, and Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi recalled his first exposure to the exercise in 1997.
With the experience of flying tours on RAAF Hornets and an exchange posting with the Royal Air Force Tornado F.3, even he admitted to being taken aback by the scale of the exercise.
“I remember the first time I stepped onto the flightline at Darwin, just to see so many air combat aircraft from all over the world, and going ‘wow, we're all going to be airborne at the same time in that airspace’,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“The key lesson I learned from those early days is get your head out, and have a look around, because chances are you're going to see someone coming before the radar finds them as well.”
Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi returned to Exercise Pitch Black 2008 as Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron, leading F/A-18 Hornets at RAAF Base Darwin.
At Exercise Pitch Black 2012, he served as the Director of the Task Unit Headquarters at RAAF Base Darwin, and at Exercise Pitch Black 2016, as Commander Task Force 640 – responsible for the entire airborne contingent at the exercise.
The roles have brought him into contact with a number of Exercise Pitch Black participant nations and their personnel.
“One aspect that I’m really fond of are the wonderful people I’ve served with over that time, not just through our Air Force but also with visiting forces as well,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“It's always great to have the (Royal) Thai Air Force come down because they always bring their kitchen with them and it’s always a special opportunity if you get invited to lunch with them as well.
“The Singaporeans I remember in the very early days, they brought their Skyhawks down for Exercise Pitch Black, and I’ve really seen them flourish in terms of their capabilities as well.
“From doing really small encroaches into the airspace, to being fully integrated and leading a lot of the work that we do for Exercise Pitch Black.
"The flying itself is incredible, in terms of the opportunities that are presented there, but the social life is also fantastic as well.
“About halfway through the Exercise we have an international night, and that's fantastic.
“All the nations get the opportunity to exhibit and show their food, and their culture, to all the participants.
“Those nights are great nights to get to know people as well, and some really close friends I've got right across the region who are in their senior ranks as well - we all started our days flying in Pitch Black in the mid-90s.”
A key element of Exercise Pitch Black that often goes unrecognised is the amount of airspace available to participants.
The main exercise airspace covers 225,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, and includes the Delamere and Bradshaw training ranges as well as several airfields.
Another 27,000 square kilometres of airspace is accessible to exercise participants, located over the Arafura Sea, north east of Darwin.
Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said the sheer size of that airspace – and the freedom of movement within it – was one of the biggest strengths of Exercise Pitch Black.
“It's the best airspace in the world to do it - as we say, you've got from the surface to the moon, (you can go) supersonic, and it’s got a great tactical training range there as well, dropping live or inert weapons, you can get shot at from an aircraft, you can get shot at from the ground - simulated or simulated live,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“So it really is a complex training environment to fight your way into the target and fight your way out.
“Some of the best memories I’ve had from the flying perspective are the most complex missions where it's an intensive planning process over the course of a day.
“You spend a few hours briefing that up and then you might actually step through the entire mission itself without saying a single word on the radio through no or limited comms procedures as well.
“The ability to take off with the formation that you started with, without talking in the middle of the night, finding the tanker, refuelling at night, marshalling and then pushing together as a 50 or 60 aircraft package, fighting your way through to the target, coordinating across airspace lanes, (then) finding your target, destroying your target, getting off target, fighting your way home with no fuel and no weapons left, and get back to home-plate at Darwin. There's no greater sense of achievement than having a successful mission.
“It's wonderful - and it's different both at day and night.”
Since 1998, Exercise Pitch Black has been held biennially, allowing the RAAF to support a joint exercise in the ‘off’ year – such as the Talisman Sabre series with the United States.
This also allows the RAAF to commit the necessary resources to plan Pitch Black exercises in even years, normally held between June and August.
Flying during the Northern Territory dry season typically provides ideal flying conditions but unique environmental challenges.
“Typically what happens in the time of the year that you’re flying in Pitch Black, particularly in the dry season, is that there can be a number of fires in the Northern Territory, so it can be quite a challenging environmental condition as well,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“At night, where it is literally pitch black with the exception of numerous fires burning throughout the Northern Territory, there’s some really strong memories of just seeing the earth on fire.
“The times of year that we generally run Pitch Black, we try to do them closer to the dry season, but the Pitch Black we did in 1997 was really late in the year, it was held end of October to beginning of November, and that was horrendous because it was the start of the build-up, weather-wise.”
“(There) was oppressive heat, oppressive humidity, but also thunderstorms around as well, so really challenging flying conditions.”
Historically, mission scenarios in Exercise Pitch Black revolved around friendly ‘Blue Force’ formations providing air defence in the exercise airspace.
They would face opposition from strike aircraft and fighters from Orange or Red Force.
Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said he’d flown as a friendly and enemy force in the 1990s.
“It's a great chance to see the full spectrum of air combat operations both from doing the hard missions with the long range strike, but then also defending your territory which was Tindal as well,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“They were just richly challenging days, a lot of flying going on, professionally challenging, professionally rewarding, very tiring as well - managing your own time and fatigue levels is a big part of that exercise.”
By the late 1990s, the scenarios evolved so that Blue Force would be required to plan and execute far more complicated strike missions into an airspace with an enemy presence.
While the focus remains on challenging the skills of participants, the missions can be scaled according to the experience levels and familiarity of air forces with the exercise airspace.
This has made the exercise attractive to returning air forces and first-time participants alike.
A learning curve over three weeks of Exercise Pitch Black has been established, building in complexity as each week progresses.
“The first week is colloquially known as the 'getting to know you' period,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“It's the opportunity for not just the Australian forces but the international partners to get used to the airspace itself, (and) also do some basic level integration training.
“(It’s) smaller numbers of aircraft doing dedicated training, and it's the opportunity to do dissimilar basic fighter manoeuvre training as well.
“The first week of Pitch Black is really enjoyable too, because you can do the smaller package work, and just start to feel comfortable with the operating environment.”
The first week of the exercise has no night-time flying, with participants flying a morning and afternoon sortie.
For the second and third week, the flying shifts to a day-time mission and night-time mission.
“The second and the third week though is when Pitch Black 'proper' starts, and that's where the large formations and large forces exercise commences,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“They end up being longer days, (with) longer planning processes, so what you find during the week is you might be on the day shift on one week, then you might be on the night shift the next week.
“You might not actually see the other half of your squadron until the end of the week because you’re working split shifts, and that’s why the weekends (are) when you get the only opportunity to catch up.
“The third week is also a large force employment week as well, but that just takes it to another level of complexity, and once again that's managed by the exercise control team to either dial up or dial down the complexity depending on how everyone's going.
“We've changed the flavour of what are the more important roles (in the exercise), and right now we have a blended range of skills, missions, and roles that we practice during Pitch Black which incorporates dynamic targeting, simulating an interaction with a Combined Air and Space Operations Centre.
“You might be mid-mission on your large force employment, and then a call comes through that a target has come up that has been unplanned and they need you now to find your way out of that large force, to then find a discrete target which has been a time-sensitive target.
“We try to bring as much real world realism into the complexity of the fight.”
Amidst the stress of Exercise Pitch Black missions however, there are opportunities for some creative release.
For example, references to the 1991 comedy film ‘Hot Shots’ found their way into mission planning during a Pitch Black in the late 90s.
“When you form your mission, you're generally allocated callsigns, and there were a couple of missions where we gave people the opportunity to make their own callsigns up,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“There was a replication of a few of the callsigns (from Hot Shots) there - there was 'Fluffy Bunny Feet', which is kind of difficult when you're trying to check in a dozen aircraft, and 'Fluffy Bunny Feet Two, Three, Four' check in.
“It was just enjoyable to play around with that, but in terms of the professionalism of the actual operation itself, it was always there.”
A land campaign has long been a feature of Exercise Pitch Black, including airfield defence and security throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
In more recent exercises, the air campaign has come to involve Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) more heavily, reflecting experience with recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The RAAF maintains its own JTAC capability under No. 4 Squadron, and international JTACs have come to participate in Exercise Pitch Black with them.
“We have the opportunity to practice our combat control team skillsets where we might choose to insert a force into Delamere to rescue a hostage who might be held, in the middle of a major air war going on,” Air Vice-Marshal Iervasi said.
“Equally, what started out as an air combat exercise, it goes across the spectrum of our air force capabilities - air mobility assets doing the insertions and airdrops, through to exercising airborne command and control, air traffic control, plus our ground defensive teams defending bases.”
“All these vignettes are squeezed into the exercise design.
“If people travel from the other side of the world to participate, we want to give them the richest experience possible - we want to make sure the exercise has meaning for them.”