Covering air space the size of the average European country, Exercise Pitch Black has taken to the skies over the Northern Territory in a three-week military operation hailed by defence chiefs as an invaluable training opportunity.
About 100 aircraft and 2500 personnel from 17 nations are in the Top End for a series of training drills that kicked off on Friday.
The exercise has been running since the mid-1980s, but returns this year after a break forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exercise Commander Air Commodore Tim Alsop said Pitch Black was becoming larger and more successful each time it was staged.
“It offers access to air space that is the size of a European nation and the ability to integrate with like-minded nations from across the world to achieve some very complex training objectives,” he told reporters in Darwin.
“That’s something that can’t be replicated in many countries. It’s so important to our ability to operate with international partners and do our job so well.”
Operations in the skies over Darwin and Katherine will start small over the first few days as visiting aircraft begin to work together and come to terms with air traffic control requirements in Australia.
But from there, crews will be given a series of more complex problems based around notional combat scenarios.
“Young crews are given a problem to solve and they have to take the assets that are provided, co-ordinate with a raft of different countries and come up with a solution they can execute safely,” Air Commodore Alsop said.
A focus this year will also include advancing mid-air refuelling capabilities between many of the participating nations.
“Air-to-air refuelling is a force multiplier, providing essential reach to our combat aircraft,” Air Commodore Alsop said.
“Working with participating nations aims to increase our force projection and maximise our capability.”
This year’s exercise will involve the German Air Force for the first time, with 200 Luftwaffe personnel, six Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, three A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports and an A400M transport aircraft being deployed.
Chief of the German Air Force Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz said the exercises mark the first time German and Australian air forces will train together.
“The Indo-Pacific is of great importance to Germany. We share the same values with many partners in this region,” Lt Gen Gerhartz said.
“Defending those values in case of a war emergency, and being able to support our partners, is something that needs to be practised.”
Also involved for the first time will be Australia’s new F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, giving the RAAF’s No.3 and 75 squadrons a chance to put the aircraft through their paces.
As well as German and Australian forces, those from Canada, France, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the UAE, the UK and the US are taking part.
Most will operate out of the RAAF bases at Darwin and Tindal in the NT, with support provided by the Amberley base in Queensland.
Air Commodore Alsop said while the exercises would include day and night flying, defence officials were working to minimise the impact on the local community and the environment.