Back In Black

Dec. 22, 2014

With fewer permanent American installations overseas, national military strategy now puts greater emphasis on frequent engagement with friendly and allied nations, usually in the form of short-term joint military exercises. The approach has been summed up as “places instead of bases.”

Remarkably, although the US and Australia have been fast friends and military partners for decades, joint exercises on Australian soil have been few and far between. Air Force bombers have visited Australia, but extended deployments of USAF fighters “Down Under” have been a rarity.

Members of the District of Columbia and New Jersey Air National Guard deployed with their F-16s to Australia last summer, developing lessons and tools that will pave the way for what are expected to be more frequent positioning and operations at bare-base locations. They also got a chance to see how the Royal Australian Air Force manages to defend its far-flung territories with relatively small forces.

“Around April, which is a little behind the normal planning time line, we were asked to move our forces to Australia to provide support for two international exercises: Pitch Black 2014 and Tri-Sling,” said Lt. Col. Valentine Arbogast, deployed commander of D.C.’s 121st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.

“It’s the first time an Air National Guard fighter unit has participated in any Australian exercise,” he said.

The two Air Guard units were already on tap to deploy to South Korea as part of what’s called a theater security package to augment Pacific Air Forces assets in the region. They deployed to Kunsan AB, South Korea, in May—a routine type of deployment—and the pop-up call came to go on to Australia from Kunsan.

The New Jersey ANG’s 177th Fighter Wing, based in Atlantic City, led the first half of the TSP at Kunsan, augmented by personnel from D.C., while D.C’.s 113th Wing would take the lead for the last two months of the rotation.

And so, in July, additional D.C. Air Guardsmen at JB Andrews, Md., made a middle-of-the-night departure aboard a chartered Boeing 767—destination Darwin, Australia. It marked the first time in a decade a USAF fighter squadron would visit Australia.

More Trips On The Horizon

Pitch Black is the RAAF’s largest air combat exercise. It’s held every two years from the bases RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal in the country’s Northern Territory.

Even as Pitch Black ’14 was underway, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was signing a new force posture agreement with Australian officials to make Air Force rotations to Northern Territory a routine occurrence. Not only is Australia a key ally in America’s Pacific strategy, but the country’s northern region boasts large swaths of unrestricted training airspace and some of the best flying weather in the Pacific. This year’s exercise drew 110 aircraft and more than 2,300 personnel from Australia, France, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the US.

Tri-Sling, previously known as the bilateral US-Singaporean exercise Commando Sling, usually takes place in Singapore. The wargame—renamed to reflect the third participant—made its debut on Australian soil and piggybacked on Pitch Black.

Most Pitch Black participants bedded down at Darwin, near the north-central tip of Australia. It’s about as far from Sydney as Montana is from Washington, D.C.

Singaporean F-15SGs, Thai JAS-39 Gripens, UAE F-16s, Australian F-18A/B Hornets and E/F Super Hornets, and an array of support aircraft flew in from the port city. The USAF contingent, however, was stationed some 200 miles south into the Outback at Tindal, whose night sky, free of any city skyglow, gave Pitch Black its name.

Because Tindal was a new location lacking a USAF host unit, on-the-ground preparations began with a series of scouting expeditions months in advance. A site survey team gathered information on everything from where vehicles, food, and supplies could be procured to the natural hazards and security threats unit members might face. Unit intelligence, logistics, and security personnel checked out quartering arrangements, usable ramp space, host-nation security, and numerous other variables to tailor the deployment package.

RAAF Tindal was constructed as a bare base, lacking a permanent flying unit, but capable of supporting exercises and periodic deployments of air units. In the late 1980s, half the base was built up as the permanent home of F-18A/Bs belonging to RAAF’s 75 Squadron. The other half remained a bare base comprising aircraft dispersal shelters, an operations bunker, a handful of administrative trailers, and limited housing.

As a result, the D.C. Guard had to bring in practically everything it needed, from aircraft tow bars to a containerized, secure debriefing facility airlifted into Tindal ahead of the F-16s’ arrival.

Until the D.C. ANG’s deployment, only a couple of B-52s, as part of a continuous bomber rotation to Guam, had been to nearby Darwin. The D.C. F-16s were opening a new operating location and building valuable lessons for the units that will follow.

The D.C. Guard’s advanced echelon touched down a week or so ahead of the main body, making certain that lodging, transportation, and basic amenities were ready and waiting when unit personnel arrived. An entire fleet of vehicles had to be rented just to support flight line operations, shuttle personnel across the expansive base, and provide command support on the ground. The F-16s themselves require a substantial amount of specialized ground support gear, so a small maintenance team flies ahead of the deploying jets each time they are ferried.

An En-route Support Package-Advanced (ESTA) team packs the minimum required spares, support equipment, and personnel onto a single C-17 and flies ahead to the destination or a divert airfield, if needed. The “ESTA bird” unloaded at Tindal a day before the first wave of F-16 arrivals, and the team quickly staged the tools and equipment needed to bring the aircraft in.

The team walked the taxiways and shelters, checking for infrastructure hazards or shortfalls—such as a lack of fire suppression equipment—and coordinated solutions with the Aussie host. The crew chiefs gauged that with artful taxiing and close coordination between crews, two F-16s could safely be parked, launched, and recovered from each shelter. With this in mind, shelters on one-half of the taxiways—laid out in unique figure-eights—were marked for flight operations, leaving the other half for use as makeshift back-shops for engine, fuel system, or deep maintenance needs.

The main body of personnel arrived in the early morning hours of the next day—a mere nine days before exercise flying kicked off. Their chartered Atlas Air 767 stopped at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, just long enough to refuel, delivering the contingent to Darwin Airport about 30 hours after leaving Andrews. Customs requirements dictated that incoming cargo and personnel pass through the port-of-entry at Darwin, instead of proceeding directly to Tindal. That tacked onto the journey a four-hour, 200-mile road trip south to RAAF Tindal.

The first package of six F-16s leaving Kunsan got airborne later the same morning, rendezvousing with tankers several times on the way over the open ocean to Australia. Since RAAF Tindal’s eucalyptus-forested maze of taxiways was unfamiliar to the incoming pilots, the ESTA team provided a truck to escort each F-16 to the next empty shelter as they landed.

The jets carried the wheel chocks, grounding cables, and basic recovery equipment they needed in travel pods on wing pylons. Crew chiefs opened the pods with the engines running, retrieved the equipment, ran through their checks, and cleared the pilots for engine shutdown.

Five Full C-17s

With half the fighters safely at Tindal, maintenance personnel inspected the spartan operational and technical facilities and then designated spots for incoming cargo. A centrally located aircraft shelter was chosen as an ad hoc supply section, aerospace ground equipment garage, and dispersal point for air freight. Cargo followed quickly on the heels of the main body, allowing just enough time to get people in place and ready to unload containers, pallets, and vehicles from the incoming airlifters.

It took five fully loaded C-17s to airlift everything but the weapons needed to sustain a squadron-sized F-16 detachment for two months. (To avoid shipping live ordnance, the F-16s only simulated ground-attack missions during the exercises.)

Australia has strict customs standards and aggressively controls anything crossing its borders. Everything loaded onto the C-17s at Kunsan or Andrews had to be pressure-washed and sanitized to remove potentially invasive organic matter or contaminants. Although the Air Force cooperated closely with the Australian Department of Defense, the civil border agency still subjected military cargo to standard scrutiny. All inbound cargo—tankers included—stopped for inspection in Darwin and was usually quarantined for several days, causing unforeseen delays for cargo into Tindal.

Once aircraft got airborne from Darwin, Tindal was a short hop away, so airmen volunteers were kept on short-notice standby to receive and unload cargo whenever the C-17s were released from Darwin. The first cargo “chalk” was only held up a day or two, and as soon as each arriving C-17 taxied in, everyone from admin to crew chiefs pitched in as aerial porters to quickly get the airlifters emptied and underway before the crew’s mandatory rest period began. RAAF air-movements personnel operated unloading equipment, and forklifts whizzed back and forth towing ground equipment and pallets from the cargo apron to the fighter staging area.

Meanwhile, another challenge brewed in the Pacific Ocean. As the last C-17s were unloaded, and just as the second wave of F-16s was scheduled to take off from Kunsan, the strongest tropical storm of the season churned through the Sea of Japan. Typhoon Halong began building into a Category 5 storm directly along the fighters’ planned route to Australia. Even without diverting to avoid weather, each jet needed to refuel several times en route, given the roughly 3,500 miles from Korea to northern Australia.

The F-16’s two 370-gallon external tanks gave it about 90 minutes’ flying time between refuelings, and KC-135s from Kadena AB, Japan, were scheduled to escort the package. As the storm closed in on Okinawa, the tanker mission was scrubbed. The longer the jets sat in Korea, the greater the chance they, too, would be forced to wait out the storm.

The fighters were initially slated to arrive early enough to allow several days’ maintenance and prep ahead of Pitch Black. As PACAF shuffled tankers, the F-16s’ departure slipped from early in the week, to Friday, then to Sunday. Sorties to acquaint pilots with the airspace were planned for the following Monday, and Pitch Black would begin in earnest later that week.

By the time the jets took off from Korea, the rumor on the ground at Tindal was that they might have to turn around due to the storm or tanker problems. Four of the six F-16s made it aloft and managed to join up with a tanker, now coming from Hawaii. It was rough flying for the pilots skirting around the storms—made rougher by the challenge of keeping contact with the KC-135’s jostling air refueling boom.

Two F-16s returned to Kunsan with maintenance issues and were caught behind the typhoon, ultimately missing all but a few days of Pitch Black.

Minutes before the F-16 four-ship roared over RAAF Tindal, there was still a chance they would have to divert to Darwin due to fuel, requiring a ground team there. They made it to Tindal, however, and after touchdown the weary pilots were met with cold Aussie beers on the flight line, while maintainers gave the aircraft a thorough pre-/postflight inspection ahead of Pitch Black familiarization flights the next day.

As the jets in the exercise launched on Monday, Aug. 4, 10 of the 12 ANG F-16s were in place, ready to begin the training. For the first sortie, four F-16s taxied out and queued up with Australian F-18s from visiting 77 Squadron, which shuffled places with the home unit to enjoy Tindal’s wide-open airspace.

After the typhoon dissipated in the South Pacific, the last two F-16s touched down on Australian soil Aug. 18. Planners were able to organize available aircraft to meet the flying schedule despite weather and logistical challenges, and within less than two weeks of arriving, Air National Guardsmen were flying a full exercise flying schedule Down Under.