Pitch Black2018, High performance training [fr]
From the 27th of July until the 17th of August 2018, from the Royal Australian Air Force Base of Darwin in Australia, three fighter jets Rafale and a Casa from the French Air force trained non-stop to organize and conduct complex air operation side by side with Airmen from 15 different nationalities, as part of the “Pitch Black” exercise organized by the Royal Australian Air Force.
For three weeks, “Pitch Black” took place in the North Territory. The French participation has been of an unprecedented scale, with the involvement of three Rafale coming from France mainland and a Casa 235 coming from New-Caledonia. The involvement of such significant assets, on the other side of the world, reflects perfectly the capacity that the French Air Force has to offer to commit fast and far and lead high intensity air operations. It is often called: capacity of entering first in the warfare.
It is firstly about settling the mechanism of combat. Only a few days are needed between the decision of deploying aircrafts and their actual capacity to operate in remote & land based and maritime areas. This has been demonstrated for instance in January 2013 with the launching of French Operation “Serval” in Mali. The French President made the decision to respond to the request for military support from the Malian government and in only a few hours, the aircrafts were taking off from French airspace. Their quick strike managed to stop the armed terrorist groups who were threatening to enter Bamako.
To that regard, one of the major goal of the French participation in the Pitch Black exercise organized in Australia was to deploy aircrafts as quickly as possible whilst meeting the logistical challenges of deploying them 17000km from Paris and having all the assets available to be committed in air operations in a very short time frame.
The success of such a deployment is highly dependent on a complex logistic operation executed in a coordinated and flawless fashion. As part of Pitch Black, 80 tons of freight was sent which included technical support material for the aircraft, communication material, spare parts and 120 Airmen have all been sent to Australia. This team was placed under the command of Group Captain Arnaud Brunetta. The team included all the necessary fields’ workers to plan and conduct operations: aircraft crew members, intelligence officers, operations officers, aircrafts security crews, technical & logistical support teams for aircraft maintenance and supporting teams for the overall controls were all vital in the success of the deployment.
The second goal of this type of strategic exercise is being able to establish as quickly as possible an Air base that would allow to operate in time and to support the operations at the closest, if not directly at the center of the operation area –also called “The Joint Operations Area” or JOA. In January 2013, after the air strikes onto the armed terrorist groups, the combat aircrafts landed in Ndjamena, capital of Chad, where France has a permanent Air base which allowed the fleet of Rafale to quickly be involved in the heart of the Serval operation.
For Pitch Black, only two days after their arrival in Australia and thanks to the immediate flawless mobilization of the entire staff, the 3 Rafale & the Casa were able to participate in large scale combined Air operations which included up to 80 aircraft simultaneously. A perfect example of the military saying: “Train as you fight”.
The three Rafale that came from France and the Casa of the N°52 Squadron “Tontouta” from New-Caledonia, have, immediately, been engaged to participate in complex and intensive missions. These are called COMAO, for Composite Air operations which are operations combining numerous aircraft of different types, involved simultaneously on combined effects missions.
Inside a COMAO, every package of aircrafts will perform a dedicated effect such as to ensure the command and control of the entire dispositive using aircraft of type AWACS, to guaranty the airspace superiority with offensive and defensive missions using Air defense Aircrafts or “fighter”, to ensure that the combat situation knowledge is updated in real time and shared with all participants and are called missions of ISR which means: intelligence, surveillance and recognition, to execute air strikes, in depth for strategic objectives or as close as possible to the ground fighters to bring them fire support, with the help of fighter ground attack, to organize the air-to-air refueling of the entire airborne flow in order to allow a longer and further Air power and finally, to be capable of infiltrate - or exfiltrate - combat units as close as possible to the fighting area thanks to tactical transport aircrafts.
During Pitch black, the COMAO training involved two major air raids (or flow) per day, in an international environment, very similar to what can be found during operations conducted in the Middle-East at the present time. Whether it is “Okra” for the Australians or “Chammal” for the French we are all committed inside operation “Inherent Resolve” (US lead) to defeat ISIS. “An exercise of such scale is definitely instructive for the Air Forces to learn to work exchange and share with partner nations with whom we are used to cooperate in overseas operation” explained GPCAPT Arnaud Brunetta, French Flight Commander at Pitch Black.
At a tactical level there are numerous objectives regarding the crews’ training which are the maintaining of the skills of airmen to perform the entire spectrum of Air missions, but also to improve the coordination work with other partner Air forces which for some such as, India, Thailand or even Indonesia, do not use the same planning and conduct procedures than the NATO. On top of that the Rafale crews have regularly trained to the “mission commander” role otherwise called – MC, which is the highest operational qualification for a pilot, who, when he is MC, is responsible for planning and conduct of the entire COMAO whilst often operating his own aircraft. Regarding the Casa crew, their missions, inside the COMAO have been punctuated with very low level flights called tactical flights, airdrop operations or landings on tactical strips, various courses of action that allow a large flexibility in the infiltration and exfiltration of fighters, closer to the engaged areas, for example to put in place Joint Terminal Attack Controller also called JTC participating to the exercise.
The Pitch Black exercise counted 140 aircrafts from 16 different countries which included fighters, transports and Air to Air refueling tankers to be posted in the Northern Territory of Australia. This area of 500km long by 300km large represents the equivalent of one quarter of the French territory. It has allowed them to train realistically, freeing themselves from the restrictions imposed sometimes in Europe, given the narrowness of aerial training areas. Here, in the large Northern Australian desert, the training area would go from the ground to the flight level 660 which represent 66,000 feet, without speed limit. The aircrafts can fly at supersonic speed during the COMAO. “The combat zone is optimal. The very low population in the Australian bush has allowed us an almost total freedom in this area.” Explain Squadron Leader Antoine, Flight Commander of the Rafale team.
The 19th of August 2018, after three weeks of intense training and very rich exchanges with other participating nations, the entire French detachment left Australia for Indonesia in order to start the PEGASE mission which is a large scale aerial deployment in South-East Asia. This illustrate well the versatility and long range capability of French Air Force, capable of starting an operation in Asia-Pacific with a team of three Rafale fighters, a transport aircraft A400M, an airbus A310 and a refueller C-135.This deployment will contribute to reinforce the French presence in this strategic area, and maintain strong relationship with countries of this area.
See you in 2 years for Pitch Black 2020!
Copyright: @Armée de l’Air
- You may follow any update on PEGASE mission with the link:
In particular, the A400M committed into PEGASE performed an HADR mission in Indonesia in the aftermath of the series of earthquakes :
- Mission PEGASE on the map: