TOP END AIRPOWER – TRAINING FOR WAR by Phil Buckley and Mike ONeill

Every 2 years, amid the dry season of brown grass, heat and bright blue skies, the northern end of Australia witnesses Exercise Pitch Black. This military exercise has become a popular and very useful military exercise for both Australian and regional military forces. Down Under Aviation News was in Darwin, Australia during the period of 29 July to 19 August 2016 and covered various aspects of the RAAF organised Exercise Pitch Black 2016 (PB-16).

RAAF F/A-18A Hornets. Photo Phil Buckley

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This large scale exercise held in the “Top End”, brought together more than 2,800 military and civil personnel and 115 aircraft from a variety of Pacific, North American, Asian and European countries. This year countries taking part included Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, France/New Caledonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States.

TNI-AU  F-16A and USAF F-16CMs returning from sorties (Mike ONeill)


The rationale behind PB-16 is to provide air forces, land forces and sea forces the stable training platform to operate together as a regional coalition force and to ensure activities of this size, could be done safely and efficiently. This outcome was achieved by focusing on interoperability between all partner countries. This approach enabled all the countries to bring to the exercise their own unique capabilities, to refine and upgrade their training skills and to also learn new skills. The end result is the upgrade of training for the forces so if their skills are ever required to be put into use, they can operate in conflicts delivering air power as requested with high efficiency.The other big benefits for countries who have little military or congested civil airspace limitations is that by coming to Pitch Black, they can to train a large range area and to fly in extreme darkness, which may not be able to be done easily back at home in their own ranges.

The RAAF PR team had kindly provided an overview of the history of Pitch Black which is now into its 4th decade of simulated warfare training. The first Exercise Pitch Black (Ex PB) was conducted over 15-16 June 1981 and primarily involved 77 Squadron and 3CRU (No 3 Control and Reporting Unit) defending RAAF Williamtown against ‘attacks’ by F-111 aircraft. The next Exercise Pitch Black was similar in scope and was conducted from 28-30 July 1982. The first multinational Exercise Pitch Black was in April/May 1983 at RAAF Darwin which involved 77 Squadron, F-111s from 1 Squadron and United States Air Force (USAF) assets. A similar Pitch Black exercise was conducted in the Darwin area in May 1984.
Pitch Black 1986 – was conducted in the Williamtown/Amberley region between RAAF and USAF.
PB 1987 – Was conducted at Darwin from 10-23 June 1987 and involved USAF F-4 Phantom, KC-135 and KC-10 tanker aircraft. Australian Army’s 16 Air Defence Regiment attended for the first time with their Rapier missiles, and worked alongside US Army air defence personnel.
PB 1988 – United States Air Force F-15 and KC-135 tanker aircraft, United States Navy EA-6B Prowler aircraft participated in Pitch Black 88. The exercise ran from 5 – 22 July 1988 and included RAAF Mirage, F/A-18 and F-111 aircraft. This was the last Pitch Black exercise to include the Mirage.
PB 1990 – From 16 July to 3 August 1990, Exercise PB90 was conducted in the Darwin area and utilised RAAF Tindal for the first time. Aircraft from USAF and, for the first time, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), were involved.
PB 1991 – Was a similar exercise conducted 19 – 29 August 1991 in the Darwin/Tindal area. Some firsts for this exercise were: The exercise involved ground defence as well as air defence and RAAF B707s conducted air-to-air refuelling for the first time in a Pitch Black exercise.
PB 1996 – Was conducted in the Darwin Tindal area in August 1996 and involved RAAF, USAF (E-3, KC-135 tanker) USMC (F/A-18 Hornet) and Republic of Singapore Air Force (F-16 and E-2C) aircraft.
PB 1997 – Was conducted in Darwin/Tindal area between RAAF and RSAF. USAF did not attend as they had been involved with Ex Tandem Thrust in Queensland earlier in the year.
PB 1998 – Royal Air Force (E-3D first use in PB exercise, C-130), Republic of Singapore Air Force (A-4, E-2C, KC-130 tankers), Royal Australian Air Force (F/A-18 Hornet, F-111, P-3C Orion, C-130 Hercules, Boeing 707, Macchi).
PB 2000 – Darwin/Tindal area, Royal Air Force (E-3D, Tornadoes, VC-10 tanker), Republic of Singapore Air Force (F-16, E-2C, RF-5), Royal Australian Air Force (F/A-18 Hornet, F-111, Boeing 707) USMC (F/A-18D, KC-130 tanker)
PB 2002 – A reduced scale exercise conducted in Amberley/Williamtown area. Only RAAF and Republic of Singapore Air Force attended.
PB 2004 – July/August 04 – Darwin/Tindal area, attended by RAAF, RSAF and France. The United States and the United Kingdom were not able to attend due to commitments in the Middle East Area of Operations
PB 2006 – August 06 – Darwin/Tindal area, but RAAF Curtin also used for F-111s. Aircraft from France, Singapore, Thailand, UK and US participated.
PB 2008 – Darwin/Tindal area,
PB 2010 – Darwin/Tindal area
PB 2012, 27 Jul – 17 Aug 2012 –Darwin/Tindal area, exercise involved Indonesian Air Force aircraft for the first time, and the first use of RAAF KC-30 in an air to air refuelling role.
PB 2014, 1 – 22 August 2014 – Darwin/Tindal area. Participants include Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and French Air Force (New Caledonia). Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A operated from RAAF Amberley. Six Mirage 2000 and one A330 tanker from the United Arab Emirates Air Force took part. More than 2500 people and 110 aircraft took part.

As Head of the Special Events, RAAF, AIRCDRE Christopher Sawade noted in a media release before the beginning of PB-16, “major exercises such as Pitch Black are pivotal in ensuring the Royal Australian Air Force remains ready to respond whenever the Australian Government requires.“. Photo of AIRCDRE Sawade – CPL Terry Hartin, © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

“The training and integration of forces that occurs during these exercises directly supports Air Force’s ability to conduct operations, such as current missions in the Middle East against Daesh”.

While at RAAF Darwin, AIRCDRE Rick Owen presented DUAN and other media with an overview that explained more about Pitch Black from a personal perspective. AIRCDRE Owens career has stretched across 4 decades in the RAAF and part of his background has seen him fly a range of aircraft from the MB-326 Macchi to the F-111. AIRCDRE Owen has also taken part in a few Pitch Blacks, so he has an extensive understanding of how it works and who benefits. Photo Phil Buckley.

In addressing the media, AIRCDRE Owen discussed the exercise’s key range of objectives. He also stated that for the RAAF it is an exercise that is a focal point for the best talent in the RAAF – aircrew and ground personnel – to come together at and  learn to operate in a highly structured warfare package. He highlighted how different systems, operators and procedures are designed to be pushed to the limit by Pitch Black. This brings out various strengths and weaknesses in systems which can be analysed and improved upon.

The multinational flavour of Pitch Black exercise was illustrated by many of the exercise personnel on their work uniforms by the exercise patch, where the silhouettes of various aircraft were observed. Photo Phil Buckley


Overview of the various units taking part in PB-16 (included where known numbers of aircraft involved)
Royal Australian Air Force – F/A-18A “Classics” of 3, 75 and 77 SQN, 9 x F/A-18F Super Hornets of 1 SQN, AEW&C 2 x E-7A Wedgetail of 2 SQN, KC-30A MRRT tankers of 33 SQN , C-130J Hercules of 37 SQN, C-17A Globemasters of 36 SQN, Beech B350 Super King Air of 38 SQN, PC-9 FAC (A) of 4 SQN, AP-3C Orion of 10 SQN and the new kid on the range (block) – the Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of No. 5 Flight, RAAF Amberley.
United States Air Force – 14 x F-16CM of 14th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Wing (Misawa Air Base, Japan. It is understood a KC-135 Stratotanker was also deployed.
United States Marine Corps – F/A-18C Hornets of VMFA -122 and 2 x KC-103J Hercules of VMGR-152.
Republic of Singapore Air Force – 8 x F-15SG of 149 Sqn and 6 x F-16C Block-52 of 140 Sqn, 1 x G-550-Airborne Early Warning Eitam, 1 x KC-135R Stratotanker and C-130H Hercules.
Republic of Indonesia TNI-AU – F-16A Block-15 of SkU 3.
Royal Thai Air Force – 4 x F-16A/B Block-15 of 403 Sqn.
Royal Canadian Air Force – KC-130H Hercules of 435 Sqn and CC-177 Globemaster of 429 Sqn.
Armee Del’air – (France) CN-235 – used for general support role and troop insertion missions.


The foreign nations started arriving in late July 2016 to the associated based. Seen here is the arrival of Indonesian and Thai  forces in July. Photos – left, CPL Casey Gaul and right, CPL David Gibbs. © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

The allocation of the forces for the exercise was noted as –

RAAF Darwin

Royal Australian Air Force: F/A-18F Super Hornet, F/A-18A Classic Hornet, AP-3C Orion, C-130J Hercules, KC-30A MRRT , C-17A Globemaster, Republic of Singapore Air Force: F-16D, F-15SG, KC-135, G-550, Royal Thai Air Force: F-16, Indonesian Air Force TNI-AU : F-16A, United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF): F-16CM, FANC (France – New Caledonia): CN-235

RAAF Tindal

Royal Australian Air Force: F/A-18A Classic Hornet, E-7A Wedgetail, PC-9A, Heron UAV, TPS-77 Tactical Air Defence Radar System, Royal Canadian Air Force: C-130HT, United States Marine Corps: F/A-18C/D, KC-130J


Pitch Black is primarily focused around 2 teams – the Blue and Red Forces. Both have available assets and the Blue Forces aim is to ideally eliminate the Red Force’s air and ground assets. A very telling point that Rick explained was how the Pitch Black range massively dwarfs the very similar but famous exercise – Red Flag exercise range – which is run in the US out of Nellis Air Force Base. This reinforced to the media how much airspace the forces have to roam around in Northern Territory and helps to really push their skills to the limits. One difference between Red Flag and Pitch Black is the focus on integration of air/land and sea forces.

Royal Thai Air Force F-16A , 403 Sqn. Photo Phil Buckley

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The intensive aerial and ground operations required for Pitch Black 2016, draw in many personnel into the planning cells from the participating nations and this planning begins many months out from the actual activities taking place. On the back of this exercise framework, at the beginning of PB-16, a mass briefing at Darwin was conducted to ensure everyone understood the processes, outcomes and that they were all aware of the planning that goes into making Pitch Black work and be safe. Photo – CPL Casey Gaul, © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

The use of Blue and Red Forces was that it changed daily so sometimes Darwin units would be Blue and next day maybe Red. This approach enabled the combat elements to train for different threat conditions and employ different tactics, while learning and improving on their current training processes. During the mission planning process for each force element, complex scenarios were created for every wave of aircraft that were to be flown, in order to attempt to make Pitch Black simulate the stressful pressures found in war time conditions.

The planning commander duties would have covered details such as creating the mission objectives, assessing the airborne and ground assets that will be available to the forces and focusing on how they can complete the missions in the most efficient yet safest manner. The net result is that strike and support aircrews are able to utilise their skills gained from years of training in air to air / air to ground / combat support in a very realistic and challenging simulated threat environment, which is undertaken in both day and night timeframes.

RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet, 1 Sqn. Photo Phil Buckley


Once underway PB-16 pushes the tempo of operations to very high levels, putting many personnel under rigorous stress and time management challenges. Some of the challenges include working to very tight schedule between launching, landing, rearm, refuel, overhaul, checking for any problems and being ready to launch for the next mission cycle. The operational tempo is designed to ensure the interoperability of the various nations can function and generate a high number of sorties within a very tight timeframe. This level of workload is what could be expected in a war zone when sortie generation can literally mean the difference between life or death for military personnel or civilians on the ground.


The first week of Pitch Black saw small formations of aircraft flying, so that foreign air forces crews could learn along side their RAAF counterparts, the airspace and the environment in Australia that they would have to work in. It also enabled the foreign crews to learn procedures and different language terminology – which as we were told one word or a phrase can mean very different things to 2 different countries. This build up phase could be described as a crawl,walk, run approach, which enables the regional allies to watch, learn and fully understand a lot of the information prior to the more complex phases coming up in week 2-3.

RAAF C-130J Hercules , 37 Sqn. Photo Mike ONeill


By the 2nd to 3rd week, the air assets were working in small blocks of the assigned exercise airspace and working on different scenarios varying from low-intensity warfare through to high-level intensity warfare situations. An example of Pitch Black developing regional countries is shown by how the Indonesian air force is slowly exposing themselves to western military doctrines.

Each day and night time mission cycles routinely saw waves of Red and Blue forces take to the skies, departing from both RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal. Each mission waves was set out with a mix of types taking off with up to 80 aircraft airborne from the 2 bases, varying from FAC(A) to strike fighters, airborne command and control to tankers. Their cycles were mainly conducted from around 1130 to 1400 hours and another in the evening from 1900 to around 2200 hours.


These waves of aircraft once airborne would head out and operate over the relatively clutter free airspace south of Darwin, the Delamere air weapons range and the co-located Bradshaw training area (the exercise areas were located south of Darwin and west/south west of Tindal).

The Delamere Air Weapons Range is operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The range facility is located about 120 kilometres south of the town of Katherine and RAAF Base Tindal. The Delamere facility is managed by a RAAF detachment of 8 personnel from the No. 322 Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron. The range is 2,110 square kilometres and extends up to 60,000 feet (18,000 m) and this allows virtually unrestricted tactical training. Delamere has 3 other ranges – a large inert weapon range, along with 2 smaller practice ranges. Located on one of the ranges is a mockup target airfield and a town made from old shipping containers.

RSAF KC-135 Straotanker.Photo Mike ONeill


Located 100km to the west of Delamere can be found the Bradshaw Field Training Area (BFTA) which has an area of 8,700 square kilometres. This is where ground exercises primarily take place.

The Delamere range is electronically linked to Bradshaw Field and the Mount Bundey Training Area (located to the north). These 3 ranges form what is called the “North Australian Range Complex”. It is understood that the Department of Defence would like to acquire the land between the Delamere and Bradshaw ranges to merge them into one large military range. The general area of Delamere range is marked by the red dot on map below.


In the Delamere range area, the integrated formations conducted training with objectives to attack targets of a dynamic nature or a fixed nature and then to fight their way back to home plate (base). These activities primarily saw the Red force (mainly based at RAAF Tindal)  fly defensive counter air (DCA) and the Blue force (mainly based at RAAF Darwin) offensive counter missions (OCA) taking place with ground components also involved. The missions were structured on what objectives were to be completed but it still left some room for the opposition forces  to make life challenging for the attacking forces.

Found across the range for the aircraft to detect and overcome were a variety of different SAM threats. One system came from the Republic of Singapore who used the ground based MIM-23 Hawk batteries. They worked alongside ground based emitter systems simulating the lower end of the potential SAM systems that can be found in a hostile combat area, such as the SA-2 Guidelines and SA-3 Goa through to more advanced missile systems.

As already noted the training range at Delamere is vast and enables large scale operations to take place and be safely recorded. It is also suitable for practice and live weapon drops as done by USAF B-52 who visit from Guam.

RAAF F/A-18 Hornet.Photo Phil Buckley


To coordinate and control the operations, Pitch Black has a large network of feed in data coming in from assorted assets which are focused on passive collection, sorting, analysing and distribution of intelligence collection. These range from ground based units, E-7A Wedgetail, UAVs, JTACs and other assets providing critical mission data so that all integrated force units “can see” the bigger picture, swap information via secure datalink systems. This linking enables commanders to make timely informed decisions that are then relayed to specific areas of operations.

An example of unit networking would be would be a JTAC on the ground confirming that an air strike is needed for a dynamic/ time sensitive target. This request could be passed to an airborne PC-9 FAC (A)  who then relays to a further away, E-7A Wedgetail who then notifies and organises an airborne strike element (Eg F/A-18, F-16, F-15, etc) to attack the target in a time sensitive manner using assorted weapons.

Looking ahead into the years ahead, it is expected that the RAAF will be using more Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) as a part of Pitch Black exercises, as this technology changes the way combat airpower is used and enables safer and methods of delivery for the field commanders.

USAF 14th FS F-16CM flight. Photo Phil Buckley


In our next few stories we will be examining some of the units that were involved with Pitch Black 2016, looking at the flying operations out of RAAF Darwin, get up close and see what it is like onboard a tanker during an air to air refuelling mission and explore the popular public open day event. So stay tuned for more fast jets, powerful turboprops and insights to the people who make it happen.

DUAN wishes to acknowledge and thank the RAAF, the RAAF Pitch Black media team led by SQNLDR Skye Smith, SQNLDR Gavin Briggs and the many PAOs who made up the PB-16 Public Information Cells. The Public Affairs personnel invested a lot of time and effort to enable the media to have excellent access to the exercise personnel and aircraft.