Air combat over ‘Top End’ – Exercise Pitch Black

The international air defence exercise, codenamed ‘Pitch Black 2016’, provides air crews and supporting elements with the most realistic air combat training available in the Asia Pacific region. As such, it is a major drawcard for Air Force and participating allied forces, which deploy to the Northern Territory in July and August every two years.

Pitch Black has evolved from humble beginnings in the early 1980s to the large multilateral event that it is today, which involves daily launches of more than 60 combat jets to battle it out in the clear skies over Australia’s Top End.

Even more, it has grown to become an exercise with coalition partner, in which many of Australia’s neighbouring air forces take the opportunity to exercise with the United States in large force employment scenarios.

Pitch Black 2016 involved aircraft from the RAAF, the US Air Force and Marine Corps, the French Air Force (Forces Armées de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, FANC), and air force elements from Canada, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. Altogether, ten countries and more than 2800 personnel took part in the three-week exercise. Of these, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands were participating for the first time.

The exercise scenario has also grown from being a limited air defence exercise in which RAAF Mirages practised defending the Williamtown air base against attacking F-111s to the complex scenarios of the present multinational exercise.

This year, the exercise plan included an enhanced Air-Land scenario, involving transport aircraft and, for the first time, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Exercise Overview

Pitch Black was first held as an RAAF-only annual exercise. The United States joined in for the first time in 1983, and it became a multilateral exercise in 1990 when the Republic of Singapore Air Force first contributed aircraft and personnel.

The exercise soon outgrew the relatively congested airspace around Williamtown near Newcastle, relocating to the Northern Territory in 1983. Since then it has been held most times in the Top End.

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