PITCH BLACK 22: Armée de l’air

PITCH BLACK 22: Armée de l’air

Report and photos by Ryan Imeson

November 7, 2022

Many aircraft made their debut at Exercise Pitch Black in 2022. From the ROKAF (Republic of Korea Air Force) with their KF-16U’s to the RAF (Royal Air Force) with their Eurofighter Typhoons, and everything in between.

Highlighting the success of previous exercises, numerous aircraft made their return to Australia, such as the Armée de l’air et de l’espace (French Air and Space Force) with their Dassault Rafale. Following their appearance in 2018, this year Rafale was part of the large number (up to 100) of aircraft that descended on the Northern Territory for the latest installment of Pitch Black.

The Armée de l’air et de l’espace deployed to Australia three Rafale, an MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport) Phénix tanker aircraft and a Casa CN-235 of the Armed Forces of New Caledonia. RAAF Base Darwin played host to Rafale, while RAAF Bases Amberley and Tindal were home to the MRTT and the CN-235 respectively.

Australia is seen as a strategic partner to France. Since World War I, a strong bilateral defence relationship between the two nations has been created.

One of the fundamental reasons the Armée de l’air et de l’espace is taking part in Exercise Pitch Black 2022, is to strengthen their credibility in the sector. It is seen as an opportunity to declare France’s commitment to the security and stability within the Asia-Pacific region.

Currently in service with the Air and Space Force are 102 Rafale B two-seaters and C single-seaters. They are used by the 4th Squadron of fighter jets based at the Saint-Dizier Air Base and by the 30th squadron of fighter jets at the Air Base 118 of Mont-de-Marsan. France also presently has some Rafale residing in the United Arab Emirates.

Deployed to Australia are Escadron de Chasse 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’ and Escadron de Chasse 3/30 ‘Lorraine’. APD was given the privilege of having a brief chat to Rafale pilot Lieutenant (LTT) Johan of the 2/30.

When asked about his time at Pitch Black, LTT Johan said that Rafale was taking part in many aspects of the exercise.

“We do all the missions. Air to ground, air to air, (we fly as) red air and blue air. It’s a cool area to fly, a huge area to fight. We don’t have this kind of area in France”.

LTT Johan went on to say this is his first international exercise. He was looking forward to gaining experience with all the fighters in the same area. LTT Johan was loving his downtime in Darwin too, telling APD he enjoyed running on the beaches and spending time in town during his stay. APD thanks LTT Johan for his time.

For a 4.5-generation fighter like the Rafale, it’s a great opportunity to fly with and against 5th-generation aircraft such as the F-35. Making its debut at Pitch Black in 2022 is the 5th-generation Australian F-35A Lightning II. The United States Marine Corps have also brought over their F-35B’s (VTOL variant) to take part.

By having the Armée de l’air et de l’espace Rafale at Pitch Black in 2022, it means France and Australia are able to develop the interoperability of the latest generation jet-fighters. This is seen as essential to win high-intensity conflicts together.

Someone that is extremely passionate about keeping that interoperability growing between France and Australia is Colonel (COL) Franck Bottero. COL Bottero comes to Australia from the Air Operation and Defence Centre in Lyon. He is in charge of the Air Branch Exercise.

APD was fortunate enough to also speak to COL Bottero during his time at Exercise Pitch Black. He spoke of the long standing relationship connecting our two nations.

“We have participated since 2004 (in the exercise). We have a very long partnership with Australia, of course a partnership during history more than 100 years ago. I participated in the development of the MRTT boom (Australia’s KC-30 air to air refueller), and we are still working together. We are looking to be part of this part of the world. 1.7 million French people (live) in the Indo-Pacific”.

COL Bottero spoke of the professional organisation between multiple nations at Exercise Pitch Black.

“I used to prepare, plan and task exercises. With Pitch Black, it is a level higher. Each nation has a person to talk with. It’s not like an amphitheater where everybody is popping up. I think it is something that is really good. They are professional. We are learning a lot here”.

One of the advantages of training in Australia is the sizeable airspace. For the Armée de l’air et de l’espace, this is dissimilar to back home.

“In France with Rafale, every 3 minutes, 10 minutes, you may cross controlled airspace. So you have to contact, you have to switch, you have to avoid, you have to coordinate. It’s quite different. Here, if you want to fly 100 nautical miles without any contact, they are able to do that. So it’s good. They are able to train with very very huge space without all this traffic and coordination”.

When asked if the Armée de l’air et de l’espace would return to Exercise Pitch Black in the future, COL Bottero was more than happy to respond with a big yes.

“I think so, yes yes we will! Maybe not with more aircraft because it is very overcrowded. It is a huge exercise. The space on the apron is limited (at RAAF Base Darwin). Up to 6 (aircraft) could be nice. Pitch Black is part of the French training history for the air force, and we will continue”.

Following their involvement in Exercise Pitch Black, the Armée de l’air et de l’espace will carry out the remainder of PEGASE mission.

PEGASE stands for Projection d’un dispositif aerien d’EnverGure en Asie du Sud-Est, which translates to Projection of a large air force in Southeast Asia.

The first stage of PEGASE prior to Pitch Black was ‘Henri Brown’. This involved deploying to New Caledonia within 72 hours, in order to carry out a combat training action in a multi-environment-multi-field setting. This involved three Rafale, two A330 MRTT and two A400M Atlas aircraft.

Pitch Black was the second stage of PEGASE, which concludes for the Armée de l’air et de l’espace on September 11 with a departure from Australia. From there, they will head to Indonesia and Singapore.

The Armée de l’air et de l’espace will carry out air diplomacy actions, as well as promoting their know-how. Interacting with French nationals abroad and strengthening operational cooperation with local air forces are other objectives they aim to achieve. Like Pitch Black, this strengthens France’s presence within the Asia-Pacific region.

Once stage three of PEGASE has been carried out, the Armée de l’air et de l’espace will head back to their respective bases in mid-September – following a 5-week deployment that began on the 10th of August.

APD would like to thank COL Bottero and LTT Johan for their time. Also thanks to the French Air and Space Force and the Royal Australian Air Force for making this possible.

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