DARWIN, Australia — Japan and South Korea have both sent combat aircraft to Australia for the first time to take part in a large multinational air combat exercise.

The South Korean Air Force sent six upgraded F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighters to northern Australia for the Pitch Black exercise, while the Japan Air Self-Defense Force deployed its F-2A jets.

Both contingents are operating from a Royal Australian Air Force base at Darwin for the duration of the biennial exercise, which is taking place Aug. 19-Sept. 8 and includes aircraft from 10 countries plus NATO.

Korean participation

The South Korean jets are a mixture of single- and twin-seat aircraft that recently underwent major upgrades and were given the local KF-16U designation. They were fitted with a new active electronically scanned array radar, an advanced identification friend or foe system, mission computers and an electronic warfare suite, according to notification to Congress issued by the U.S. State Department in 2015 when it approved South Korea’s request to upgrade 134 F-16s.

Some of the fighter jets carried markings of the 20th and 38th fighter wings. However, pilot Maj. “Coldgun” Lee said the jets and most of the personnel participating in the exercise are from the Chungju-based 19th Fighter Wing and 39th Reconnaissance Group.

Lee told Defense News the South Korean aircrew are flying both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions at the exercise, and are alternating between serving as friendly and adversarial forces for the drills. He added that Pitch Black fosters interoperability in the employment of large force scenarios for participants, while the dry-season weather and large airspace available for the exercise were also a key drawcard.

The pilot did not reveal his full name due to security reasons.

The South Korean F-16s arrived in Australia via a stopover in the Philippines in the lead-up to the exercise. They were supported by a South Korea KC-330 Cygnus multirole tanker/transport aircraft, which also took part in Pitch Black from RAAF Base Amberley.

Japanese contingent

Japan sent five F-2As from the 3rd Squadron based at Hyakuri, northeast of Tokyo. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force was originally due to make its debut at the 2020 iteration of Pitch Black, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a media visit to the Japanese contingent in Darwin, the detachment commander, Col. Mastaka Tadano, said his country’s participation this year is an opportunity to improve capabilities and interoperability with partner nations from the region and beyond.

The Japanese fighters also flew both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions at Pitch Black, alternating between friendly and adversarial forces during daytime and nighttime drills. Tadano told Defense News that one of the key objectives for the force at the exercise is to gain more experience in large force employment in a coalition setting — something the service lacks.

He added that the exercise also allows Japanese personnel to train with countries and aircraft they had never encountered before, specifically India’s Sukhoi Su-30s and France’s Dassault Rafales.

The Japanese contingent made its way to Australia via a stopover in Guam, supported by a KC-767 tanker of Japan’s 404th Squadron from Komaki air base. The tanker did not take part in Pitch Black, however, with the F-2s using Australian KC-30A tankers for midair refueling support during the exercise.

Australia and Japan have stepped up bilateral defense interactions in recent years, with the former’s fighter jets taking part in exercises with the latter’s in Japan, while an Australian KC-30A conducted refueling trials with F-2s over four weeks in April, flying from Komaki.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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