The multilateral Exercise Pitch Black 2018, Australia’s premier air combat exercise, was its largest edition to date. Held from July 27 to August 17, some 140 aircraft and 4,000 personnel – primarily from host Australia, exercise regulars Singapore, Thailand and the United States, France, Indonesia, Malaysia and newcomer India – were involved in this year’s iteration.
Aircraft and units flying in the biennial three-week event were staged out of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Bases Darwin and Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory. As can be expected in a multinational large force employment exercise, aircraft are split into Blue and Red Forces, with twice-daily vulnerability periods taking place over the vast expanses of the Bradshaw Field Training Area and Delamere Air Weapons Range.
Flankers at Pitch Black
Without doubt, the major highlight of the exercise was the participation of the Indian Air Force (IAF). This came in the form of four Sukhoi Su-30MKIs from No 102 Squadron ‘Trisonics’ at Air Force Station (AFS) Chabua, which was augmented with personnel from No 106 Squadron ‘Lynxes’ based out of AFS Tezpur. A sole Lockheed C-130J-30 on the strength of No 87 Squadron ‘Raiding Raptors’ also participated in the exercise, providing a special forces insertion/extraction capability for a contingent of Garud commandos. In total, the Indian detachment numbered 145 personnel.
Gp Capt Prem Anand – callsign ‘Andy’ – the commanding officer of the ‘Trisonics’, led the Sukhoi detachment. “We had our observers coming in the previous exercise two years back and thereafter decided we should be participating,” Gp Capt Anand explained.
The Indian Flankers are not new to complex large-force employment missions, having participated in two Red Flag exercises in 2008 and 2016. Capt Anand added: “In addition, we have been doing a number of bilateral exercises, including our most recent one with the Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16s in November 2017. Our training structure caters for large-force engagement, so specifically for this exercise, we have not done much.”
The trip Down Under for the IAF Su-30MKIs started from AFS Kalaikunda, and took five days with stopovers in Surabaya and Kupang in Indonesia. An Il-78 was on hand to provide tanker support on the first leg of the journey while the accompanying C-130 and a C-17 supported the deployment in the ferry of spares and equipment.
The IAF wasted no time in cementing interoperability with the host, qualifying the Su-30s to take fuel from RAAF KC-30A tankers by day two of the exercise through a series of dry and wet refuels. It is worth nothing that although India has selected the Airbus A330 MRTT as its preferred tanker aircraft in two separate competitions over the last seven years, it has failed to ink a contract in large part due to its complicated bureaucratic processes.
Pitch Black, like any international training event, provided a level playing field for participating air forces, like the IAF, to not only to build relationships but also provide an intricate look into each other’s capabilities and operating procedures.
The commanding officer of No 106 Squadron ‘Lynxes’, Gp Capt R S Sodhi – aptly assigned the callsign ‘Lynx 1’ – gave his opinion as the IAF detachment exercise co-ordinator: “Pitch Black provides great exposure for our aircrew to fly with various platforms of the friendly air forces which are not available in our part of the world. Flying out here in one of the world’s largest training airspace with minimal flight restrictions has also been great experience for our aircrew. This is something we have not been able to do at home with certain restrictions in place over our large populated areas.”
Getting into action
Adopting the ‘crawl, walk, run’ template, the Su-30s were introduced to the exercise with some hand-holding by the RAAF through familiarisation flights and relatively simple missions in week one’s force integration training. The exercise increased in complexity, with structured missions and combined air operations (COMAO) flown in weeks two and three.
Air-to-air engagements were the focus of the IAF Su-30s, flying in scenarios that pitted as many as 50 Blue Force aircraft against 35 of the Red Force, with the latter being able to re-generate. “We fly primarily Blue Air missions but we also do some Red Air work,” said Gp Capt Sodhi.
The nucleus of the Red Force was composed of the ‘classic’ Hornets of RAAF’s No 75 Squadron and F/A-18Ds of the US Marine Corps’ VMFA(AW)-242 ‘Bats’ flying out of Tindal but was also able to call upon other assets flying out of Darwin.
The performance of the latest Russian systems in Western air exercises have usually been restricted to avoid revealing their full characteristics, as had been the case for the IAF Su-30s’ previous participation in such events. However, according to both Anand and Sodhi, the full air-to-air capability of the N011M Bars radar was used in the exercise, this being the first time it had been done. The Flankers – like all participating fighters – utilised simulated notional weapons with laid-out ranges during engagements.
Putting their new-found interoperability with the RAAF to good use, the Su-30s were supported out of Darwin post-exercise by a KC-30A on the flight to Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Subang, Malaysia. There, the IAF Flankers continued honing their skills and fostering relations with the RMAF in Exercise Elang Shakti. Roy Choo
The forthcoming October issue of AFM will feature a full report on Exercise Pitch Black 2018.