77 Sqn in the Top End at Pitch Black 2016 By Phil Buckley
During Pitch Black 2016 at RAAF Darwin, Down Under Aviation (DUAN) was given access to what many suggest is the RAAF’s most deployed and most combat experienced squadron, who has being to war in both air to air and air to ground roles over the past 75years – No. 77 SQN.
77 SQN’s motto is “Swift to Destroy”. The unit has a colourful crest design which can be found adorning the aircraft, patches, hats and shirts. The creat features as a legacy of No. 77 Squadron’s role in the Korean War, an oriental temple lion, nicknamed the “grumpy monkey”. The lion represents “a defender of peace, which, when disturbed, is swift to destroy”. Squadron has had up until recent times very colourful aircraft art but with low vis warfare much of the colour has been drained. Some select aircraft still carry specially approved colour artwork, with one example you see to the right.
No. 77 Squadron is located at RAAF Base Williamtown, Newcastle, New South Wales. It forms part of No. 81 Wing, which is part of Air Combat Group.The main role of No.77 SQN role is to provide land strike, close air support and maritime strike missions along with offensive and defensive counter-air operations.
The history of the squadron dates back to WW2 when it was formed in 1942 at RAAF Station Pearce, Western Australia, From here on it was involved in combat operations across the South West Pacific theatre operating Curtis P-40 Kittyhawks tasked with providing air support and air to air roles.
Postwar the squadron reequipped with US supplied North American P-51 Mustangs and sent to Japan to form part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). 77 SQN was still there in 1950 when the Korean War broke out and they were then immediately dispatched across the sea to help save South Korea.
During the war in 1951 the squadron reequipped with Gloster Meteor jets, while also setting up base in South Korea to be closer to the front line. 5 MiG kills were achieved using the Meteor over the skies of North Korea. In contrast the squadron lost 60 aircraft during the war. The squadron returned home in late 1954 to its new base at RAAF Williamtown. Soon after in 1956 77 SQN converted to the CAC Sabre Jet.
More combat experience loomed with the squadron deployed to RAAF Butterworth, Malaya in 1958 to tackle communist guerrillas in the last stages of the Malayan Emergency. After the end of the Malayan Emergency, the squadron remained at RAAF Butterworth during the 1960s, again providing air defence during the Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia. 77 SQN’s Asia role ended in 1969 when it returned to RAAF Williamtown to upgrade to the Mirage III-O fighter.
Mirages rotated through RAAF Butterworth over the next 16years at times but interestingly the RAAF Mirages were never deployed in the Vietnam War. During 1987 the Squadron reequipped with its current platform, the F/A-18 Hornet which introduced high technology aircraft for the first time.
Since acquiring the Hornet, the Squadron has been very active in combat patrols and operations with a detachment based at Diego Garcia during 2001–02, providing air support during the war in Afghanistan and deployed to the Middle East as part of the military intervention against ISIL in 2015–16.
No.77 SQN has also operated in recent times 2 other types tho in minor roles, the Macchi MB-326 trainer as interim aircraft from 1985-1987 and the Pilatus PC-9s in the forward air control role (FAC) role from 2000-2003, which was in lead up to the forming of the RAAF’s Forward Air Control Development Unit (FACDU), which is now handled by 4 SQN.
While deployed at Pitch Black 2016, 77SQN was operating under what would be potential wartime conditions and the headquarters they were working out was one of the secure bunkers on the base.
The embed media was given the very rare opportunity to be allowed inside one of the bunkers to listen to and put some questions to the 77 Squadron Commanding Officer, Wing Commander “Grant”. During the short media discussion, WGCDR Grant proudly explained to us that the squadron classic Hornets, were more than holding their own against their counterparts like the USAF, RSAF and RTAF F-16s and F-15s etc.
This ability to hold their position, is due to the RAAF Hornets having being upgraded over the past decade under the various spirals of the Hornet Upgrade program, (HUG), which enhanced the aircraft’s onboard systems, weapons and airframe structure.The Hornet Upgrade Program (HUG) began in 1999 and had three main phases 1,2 and 3. Phase 1 which ran from mid-2000 to 2002, focused on replacing the Hornets computer systems, navigation system and radios.
The aircraft were upgraded to operate the AIM-132 ASRAAM air-to-air missile; which replaced the legacy model AIM-9M Sidewinder.Phase 2 comprised four sub programs which were aimed at expanding the Hornets combat capabilities. During Phase 2.1 the APG-65 radar was replaced with the improved AN/APG-73. The aircraft were fitted with a secure voice encryption communications system as well as further updates to their onboard computer systems.
In HUG Phase 2.2, the Hornets were fitted with a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), further equipment to help share data through the Link 16 network, a new countermeasures dispensing system and upgrades to cockpit displays.
In Phase 2.3, starting in late 2006 an improved Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) the ALR-67 Radar Warning Receiver system was fitted to the Hornets. During HUG Phase 2.4 the Hornets were modified in 2007 to be able to use the AN/AAQ-28(v) Litening targeting pod. Phase 3 sought to rectify airframe damage.Phase 3.1 involved minor structural work to all aircraft as they passed through other phases of the program.
Phase 3.2 focused on the ten Hornets assessed as suffering the greatest amount of centre fuselage structural damage and these were replaced.With the HUG upgrades completed after a few years, the RAAF Hornet fleet is now more capable than ever before.
When operating in combat operations the RAAF air warfare doctrine and tactics are similar to USAF doctrine, in that 77 SQN role is to act as a “first in” asset (think like USAF and USN Wild Weasel / Iron Hand assets) along with where they protect the following strike packages (such as escorting USAF B-52 Stratofortresses and if you go back in 77SQN history during the Korean War, USAF B-29 Superfortresses).
77 SQN is also able to conduct offensive counter-air to air missions along with establishing and maintaining air superiority across the assigned airspace.
While deployed to Pitch Black 2016 the squadron was taking part in some training putting in air to ground strikes at the Bradshaw weapons range. During the missions 77SQN aircrew and others would have been exposed to what is called “dynamic targeting” or otherwise known as enroute targeting, where they are informed after take off or on once patrol, of a target of opportunity. This target may have been reported in by a JTAC to an E-7A who then informs the airborne strike assets, the F/A-18s as to what needing to be attacked.The 77SQN aircraft we observed carried a JDAM practise weapon which enabled the pilot to practise dropping JDAMs many times electronically without expending a real JDAM shape.
DUAN came away from the media visit, with the opinion that WGCDR Grant was happy with squadron’s aircraft operations and this is critical to maintain the ability to defend Australia. He highlighted how the many different nationalities deployed have different understandings of military procedures and before large scale Pitch Black operational sorties were undertaken out of RAAF Darwin and over the Delamere Range, this had required the resolving of different terminologies and tactics, to ensure all aircrew operated in a safe airspace.
Based on what DUAN observed at Pitch Black 2016, the RAAF frontline F/A-18 squadrons are able to provide Australia with a credible and highly effective military response if and when required.
Looking to the future, the RAAF is planning to requip its Hornet squadrons with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II starting in 2018. No. 77 Squadron is scheduled to convert to the F-35A by 2021.
The F/A-18A Hornet DUAN had access to on display in the “shed” at RAAF Darwin was A21-49. This had been painted back in 2012 in the special colours for 77 SQN’s 70th Anniversary. The green and gold scheme stand out as does the South Korean flag, which is a reminded again of the Korean War legacy. At the time of the media visit, the aircraft was being prepared for a Pitch Black sortie and the ground crew accommodated the media access for a short while. DUAN also witnessed the same aircraft take off a short time later on a Pitch Black sortie.
DUAN thanks the members of RAAF 77 SQN and the RAAF Public Affairs team for making this media visit possible.