MELBOURNE, Australia — Military aircraft from several Indo-Pacific air forces are joining aircraft from the United States, France, Canada and host Australia for a multinational air combat exercise that started Friday over northern Australia.

Code-named Pitch Black 2018, the three-week exercise will see the participation of combat aircraft from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in what will be the largest Pitch Black to date in terms of the number of aircraft involved and the number of countries sending aircraft, with 140 aircraft and 4,000 personnel from around the world taking part.

The U.S. Air Force is operating Lockheed Martin F-16s from a South Korean-based squadron while the U.S. Marine Corps is represented by Japan-based Boeing F/A-18D Hornets, Lockheed Martin KC-130J Hercules tankers, Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and helicopters from the six-month Marine rotation currently stationed at Darwin in northern Australia.

Pitch Black 2018 will also see a number of firsts, with the Indian Air Force’s aircraft making its debut at the exercise with its Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flanker fighter jets and a C-130J airlifter. It will also see the Boeing E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft taking part for the first time, with three Australian Growlers participating.

The biennial Pitch Black exercise started as a bilateral air combat exercise in the mid-1980s between Australia and the United States, and was named for the dark nights found over Australia’s sparsely populated north.

It has since evolved into a full-spectrum, complex air warfare exercise that includes large force employment of coalition air power, air-land integration activities and remote airfield operations. The Royal Australian Air Force regards Pitch Black as its “capstone international engagement activity” with the air forces from a range of regional and coalition nations.

Speaking at a media event at the exercise’s opening ceremony in Darwin, Australia’s air commander, Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, said the exercise aimed to strengthen regional partnerships, improve interoperability between nations and promote regional stability.

The exercise takes place in the sizable military training areas of northern Australia, utilizing one of the largest unrestricted blocks of training airspace in the world that includes the Bradshaw Field Training Area and Delamere Air Weapons Range. This allows for a realistic battlefield environment to be replicated during the exercise that previous participants have said was difficult to find in training areas elsewhere in the world.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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