The military exercise “Pitch Black” is currently underway in Northern Australia.
Conducted primarily from RAAF Bases Tindal and Darwin, the biennial three-week long exercises date back to 1981 as a solitary training exercise for Australian military forces. The exercise opened to its first international partner, the United States, in 1983. It has since become the Royal Australian Air Force’s most significant international engagement activity, this year consisting of up to 2500 personnel and 100 aircraft from 17 nations.
As Pitch Black has expanded in size over time it has generated increased media attention. This year there is greater attention than ever before, including from international media, as the exercises take place during a time of increased regional tensions between the US and China. Critical media coverage of the exercises has been sorely lacking in Australia, with many reports merely repeating Department of Defence press releases describing Pitch Black as a benign training exercise and expression of multi-national cooperation, sometimes devolving into ‘Top Gun’ style recruitment propaganda for the RAAF.
Pitch Black serves multiple objectives. Certainly, it’s an opportunity for participant countries to practice complex and varied military manoeuvres as part of a large force employment, taking advantage of the uniquely vast airspace and weapons ranges in Northern Australia with few restrictions imposed on exercises that occur throughout the day and night. The Delamere Air Weapons Range in the Northern Territory, for example, covers 211,000 hectares and is regarded as one of only a few air weapons ranges in the world able to accommodate training with all conventional weapons.
There is also a significant relationship building element to Pitch Black as participant countries learn how to better interoperate their military forces in realistic combat simulations. On that score, it’s noteworthy who was not invited to participate. “Pitch Black is always over-subscribed for interest, so it takes a fair bit of work to get the invites right,” reports Group Captain Michael Jansen, Director of International Engagement at RAAF Headquarters.
It’s unlikely that China was left of the invitation list due to the constraints of excess demand. Pitch Black is one of many displays of “force projection” in the Indo-Pacific squarely aimed at China. The US, Australia and increasingly NATO are flexing their muscle in the region, cooperating with key regional allies like Japan and the Republic of Korea who are participating in Pitch Black fully for the first time this year, notably along with Germany.
Military exercises are fundamentally about maintaining and improving military preparedness for present and future identified threats. During the so-called “war on terror”, Pitch Black exercises reflected the priorities of US and Australian forces engulfed in fighting counter-insurgency wars in the Middle East. As those wars wound down, focus shifted to the Indo-Pacific and the need to be combat ready for the kind of modern battle-space environment and high-end threat scenarios posed by “peer competitors”. In other words, preparing for war with China.
As a result of this strategic shift, Pitch Black has sought to advance key skill sets such as the ability to establish and operate from remote austere airfields, or mobile bases, that are harder to target than large fixed bases. The US Air Force calls this Agile Combat Employment (ACE) and it is part of the US military’s broader strategy, which other elements of the ADF are also engaged, to overcome the constraints imposed on projecting force into the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait by China’s formidable missile forces. The US Air Force has reportedly studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific to find new mobile bases from which to fight China, recently partnering with Palau and parts of the Northern Mariana Islands to expand the capacity for such expeditionary operations.
A mobile airbasing force on Australian territory could potentially be employed for the defence of the continent should Australian and/or US forces come under attack, perhaps as part of an allied defence in depth strategy. However, the RAAF has also been working together with the US Air Force on mobile basing in an expeditionary capacity. In February this year, Australia and Japan participated with the US in the annual trilateral Cape North military exercises in Guam, which incorporated the ACE doctrine and involved flying over 2,000 sorties across seven islands and ten airfields. In one example of ACE at work, the United States operated a main airbase or “hub” on Guam while the RAAF operated two mobile bases or “spokes” on other islands.
Pitch Black is taking place as significant upgrades are underway at RAAF Air Bases Tindal and Darwin and other training facilities in the Northern Territory. As part of the US Force Posture Initiatives, the Morrison government announced in February 2020 a planned $1.1 billion upgrade to RAAF Tindal, the majority to be used to extend runways and upgrade fuel storage facilities to accommodate US long-range bombers. A further announcement in April 2021 will see a $747 million upgrade to training ranges and aviation facilities used by Australian and US forces, particularly the 2,500-strong US Marine Air Ground Task Force on permanent rotation through Darwin.
The latter upgrades are intended to enhance interoperability between the ADF and US military forces and include works to accommodate further US air elements, such as the MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which are operated solely by the US. In a first during this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercises, which are the largest air, land, and sea war manoeuvres in the world, two U.S. Marine Osprey aircraft embarked on an Australian amphibious ship for the entire duration of the sea phase, illustrating the capacity for joint amphibious landing operations in the Pacific.
The upgrades to RAAF Tindal are also intended to enhance air-to-air refuelling capabilities between the ADF and its partners, especially the US, which is a particular focus of this year’s Pitch Black exercises. The RAAF have been involved in refuelling exercises with US bombers in other major excises like Talisman Sabre but also as part of the regular rotation of US air elements to Australia. In early August this year, the RAAF was involved in refuelling exercises of US B1-B bombers at RAAF Darwin, demonstrating the capacity of Australia to provide US long-range bombers with a reliable refuelling source to project power globally. In the same month, four B-2A stealth bombers completed a month long deployment to RAAF Base Amberly, with more rotations to continue through different bases in Australia.
The signal being sent from these joint operations is not lost on the US Air Force. “Flying together with our RAAF allies sends a clear message that we can and will fight as a team”, declares the US Air Force’s Bomber Liaison Officer. The message is amplified by Australia’s intelligence and surveillance activities in the South China Sea that complement America’s containment strategy of China, and the recent agreement struck to expand rotations of US land, air and sea elements to Australia. The AUKUS agreement and the intention to acquire nuclear powered attack submarines is also likely to be interpreted by Beijing as an Australian contribution to US efforts to undermine China’s nuclear defence strategy. These developments strongly indicate that the Australian continent will serve as a substantial base for projecting power against China, particularly US power, but also Australian power in a US-led war.
The significance of Pitch Black needs to be understood in this wider context. The exercises are one element in a series of many recent developments that are tying Australia to US plans for retaining its regional military dominance in the face of China’s rise. Australian political leaders appear oblivious to the recklessness of this strategy by failing to take the risks of war seriously enough. Australia would be unlikely to escape attacks on the continent in a broader US-China conflict that recent wargaming exercises anticipate would be a bloody mess with terrible loss of life. That’s without factoring in nuclear escalation which is less unlikely than many assume and would entail utterly unimaginable consequences.
Dr Vince Scappatura teaches Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. His most recent book published by Monash University Publishing is titled ‘The US Lobby and Australian Defence Policy.’