Pitch Black participants benefit from Australian base upgrades

Australia — Participants in a recent air combat exercise used Australia’s upgraded air bases that are still undergoing work in part to support an increased rotational presence of U.S. forces.

The expanded facilities in northern Australia allowed a larger number of aircraft to park at RAAF Base Darwin during the biennial exercise Pitch Black, which ran Aug. 19-Sept. 8.

More work is taking place at RAAF Base Tindal, about 200 miles south of Darwin, with the work at both bases falling under the purview of the United States Force Posture Initiatives agreement with Australia.

Australia’s Defence Department said the initiative is designed to “improve interoperability between Australian and U.S. armed forces, provide opportunities to engage with partners in the Indo-Pacific, promote regional stability, and better posture both nations to respond to contingencies such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.”

Under the initiative, both governments have jointly invested in a range of capital infrastructure works and supporting arrangements, mainly in northern Australia. These include expanded aircraft parking facilities at Darwin, including two new expanded parking aprons; a new hangar for Australia P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft sustainment; and a U.S. Air Force aircraft maintenance support facility. These projects were completed between 2020 and 2021.

One of the expanded parking aprons is designed to accommodate large U.S. Air Force aircraft. During the exercise, Defense News observed markings painted on the ground at the expanded apron specifically for the KC-10, KC-46 and KC-135 tankers.

However, for the exercise, U.S. Air Force F-15C jets, Indonesian and South Korean F-16 fighters, and Indian Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft were parked at the apron, which was built under a $24 million contract awarded in 2018.

The apron is also notable for its four large jet blast deflectors on its southern edge, which manufacturer Blast Deflectors Inc. of Nevada said were built with the high-power engine run-ups for KC-10s in mind.

Work is also ongoing at RAAF Base Tindal, from which U.S. Marine Corps F-35B and U.S. Air Force F-22A fighters operating for drills in August and September.

According to Australia’s Defence Department, work at Tindal includes the lengthening of the runway by 2,000 feet to 11,000 feet; a widening of the main taxiway; a new 559,000-square-foot parking apron to support up to four large aircraft; and a new fuel farm with a capacity of 1.59 million gallons.

The base has hosted several recent U.S. military aircraft deployments under the bilateral Enhanced Air Cooperation agreement, with the ongoing F-22 deployment being the latest in a series of visits that previously saw B-2 stealth bombers operating from the base.

Work at the base is to conclude by 2027 and is expected to cost $1.1 billion. The upgrades will allow the base to support additional tanker aircraft for future instances of Pitch Black.

Three of the nine participating tankers at this year’s exercise were based at Amberley on Australia’s east coast due to a shortage of parking space at Darwin and Tindal.

Range facilities and associated infrastructure in northern Australia used by the U.S. military, including the annual six-month dry season rotational Marine deployments, will also receive upgrades. This year’s deployment saw 2,200 personnel take part, including nine MV-22B tiltrotor aircraft that are operating from Darwin.

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