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Pitch Black upholds free, open Indo-Pacific

Story by: The Australian

The rapid rise of China’s military capability continues to focus global attention on the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region and underlines the need to further establish close ties between like-minded nations.

These closer ties were highlighted recently at Australia’s Pitch Black 22 air combat exercise, which saw the participation of no fewer than 17 nations and 2500 personnel from around the world. Of these, 10 countries (plus NATO) sent combat aircraft to exercise together in the empty skies of the Northern Territory in August and September.

While the air forces of Australia, France, the US and several South East Asian nations regularly participate in the exercise, this year saw the debut of Germany’s Luftwaffe, the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) and the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). Shortly after the conclusion of Pitch Black 22 the government of the Philippines announced it intends to participate in the next exercise, to be held in 2024.

Germany also announced it intends to participate again in 2024, but this year the Luftwaffe’s mission was to prove it is capable of deploying combat jets to the region within 24 hours. It sent a force of six Eurofighter combat jets to Pitch Black under its Rapid Pacific 2022 mission, supported by Airbus Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft from the newly created NATO Multinational Multi-role tanker and transport Fleet (MMF).

“The challenge was to be in Singapore within 24 hours; if one of the fighters hadn’t developed a minor issue we would have done it in less than 20 hours, but it was 20 hours and 20 minutes,” explains MMF Detachment Commander Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Novak.

After the exercise, the Luftwaffe/NATO contingent remained in Darwin for Exercise Kakadu, after which three aircraft deployed to Japan for further exercises with the JASDF.

The French Air Force also used its Pitch Black participation to prove it is capable of reinforcing its territories in the Pacific, sending four Dassault Rafale fighters to New Caledonia in under 72 hours under its Projection d’un dispositif aérien d’Envegure en Asia du Sud-Est (PEGASE – Projection of a large air force in South East Asia) mission. The force then participated in Pitch Black before returning to France via Singapore, where further training missions were flown.

While Japan has conducted training exercises on Guam and in Alaska, Pitch Black was the first time the JASDF had deployed to Australia, bringing six Mitsubishi F-2A fighters to Darwin.

“This exercise is very significant for us to improve our tactical skills, to improve interoperability between Australia and Japan, and also enhance our mutual understanding with the air forces of other nations,” explains Detachment Commander Colonel Mastaka Tadano.

“This exercise will uphold and reinforce the initiative of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“It will help improve and enhance the initiative about freedom and the Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan and the US) to communicate and cooperate together. It’s very important for the security environment in the Indo-Pacific.”

Pitch Black 22 was also the first in the biennial series to include fifth-generation capabilities in the shape of Australian and US Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Royal Australian Air Force deployed a number of its conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35As to Darwin, while the US Marine Corps sent 12 short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35Bs to Tindal, near Katherine, for the exercise.

“We like the F-35 because of the high-fidelity information that it provides us,” explains Flight Lieutenant Mick Grey, an F-35 pilot with No.75 Squadron, RAAF.

“It’s above all else an airborne sensor, so it uses the equipment on the jet to provide extremely high-fidelity information for us to make better decisions on the battlefield.

“The other big reason we like it is because of the lethality and flexibility of the platform. It’s capable of dealing with such a variety of mission sets, and doing that all at the same time.

“Other platforms might need significant configuration changes before they can go and tackle different mission sets, whereas this aircraft can do suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) concurrently with air-to-air missions.

“There isn’t an aircraft I would rather be flying, it’s the most capable jet out there at the moment.”


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