Up to 100 fighter jets will be roaring across the skies over Darwin in the coming weeks as Exercise Pitch Black returns to the Northern Territory after a four-year hiatus.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) premier international engagement exercise is traditionally held in Darwin every two years, but was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Now it’s returning with more participating countries than ever, with dozens taking part, including three for the first time.

What Is Exercise Pitch Black?

Exercise Pitch Black is a large-scale, multi-national training exercise for the air forces of Australia and interested partner nations. It’s held over three weeks – from August 19 to September 8 this year – over a vast stretch of the northern part of the territory, with personnel using Darwin as their base.

A small, sleek, grey plane in mid-air, angled up, with tall apartment and commercial buildings in the background.

“When you go and look at the scale of our training airspace in the territory, and the access we have to some of our training ranges, there’s nothing like it in the world. It’s the size of a European country,” said the exercise commander, Air Commodore Tim Alsop.

“So people go to great efforts to plan and come here, to access this kind of training.”

First held in Williamtown, New South Wales, in 1981 with only Australian forces, in 1983 the exercise moved to Darwin and gained its first international partner in the United States.

It’s continued to grow ever since.

Several fighter jets in the sky seen from below and behind a couple of people looking up.

This year’s exercise will involve 17 countries, including Australia, NZ, the US, Canada, the UK, Netherlands, France, the UAE, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

Germany, Japan and South Korea will be taking part for the first time.

It will feature about 100 aircraft, as well as 2,500 people from all over the world.

What Is The Training For?

According to the RAAF website, Exercise Pitch Black is designed to “enhance regional security through multinational interoperability and understanding”.

That includes by strengthening military relationships between the participating countries and sharing procedures and knowledge.

“It’s very important we all understand how we operate, and that we’re more similar than we are different,” Air Commodore Alsop said.

Despite growing tensions in parts of the world, including the Asia Pacific, Air Commodore Alsop stressed that Pitch Black was purely a training exercise that doesn’t seek to “oppose” any nation.

“It’s not against anyone, but for a lot of nations,” he said.

What Kind of Planes Are Involved?

A plane nerd’s dream, there’s no shortage of impressive hardware on show during Exercise Pitch Black.

Aircraft involved this year include Su-30s from India, F-15s and F-16s from Singapore, and – for the first time –Eurofighter Typhoons from Germany and the UK, and Mitsubishi F-2s from Japan.

It will also mark the first time Australia will use its F-35 Lightning-II jets in such a large-scale exercise, with the machines set to take to the skies along with the RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers. With the largest engine of any fighter jet to date, and a heads-up display projected onto the pilot’s visor rather than built into the aircraft itself, the F-35s are “one of the most complex bits of machinery that’s ever been built”, according to Air Commodore Alsop.

He said overall, the aircraft part of this year’s exercise included some of the most cutting-edge aviation technology in the world at the moment.

“These systems are the absolutely leading edge of capability in the world, and they’re assembled here for the next two-and-a-half weeks with the chance [for people] to see them up close,” he said.

A row of grey, sleek, small military aircraft parked on a tarmac at night, with light flare above some of them.

What About The Action?

Top Gun fans, eat your heart out – over the three weeks, aviators part of Exercise Pitch Black will train for complex situations they could face with the air force by role-playing a series of fictional scenarios.

The scenarios will change each day, with personnel – divided into teams – rotating through the options.

“For example, they may be provided with a scenario where a fictional force has taken hostages, [and] we have to get a transport aircraft in to recover those hostages, but it’s opposed,” Air Commodore Alsop said.

“So we now have to plan how we protect that slow-moving [aircraft] for enough time to safely extract those hostages.”

The exercise will also feature a fly-over over Darwin’s famous Mindil Beach and an open day at RAAF Base Darwin, giving locals a rare chance to see the technology up close.

‘Larger And More Successful Every Year’

With 17 different nations participating, this year’s Exercise Pitch Black will feature the largest international contingent yet.

Air Commodore Alsop said the exercise’s success since the early 1980s had made it well-known internationally, prompting interest from more countries every time it was held.

He said the RAAF was proud of the exercise’s growing popularity, but it was currently “about at the size … that’s right”.

“It is becoming larger and more successful every year, as the world realises the astounding training opportunities that we have here,” he said.

“[It’s] so important for our ability to operate with international partners and to do our job well.”

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