MELBOURNE, Australia — This year’s multinational air combat exercise Pitch Black hosted the largest number of tankers than previous iterations of the drill.
The three-week exercise, which took place Aug. 19-Sept. 8 in northern Australia, saw the aerial refueling platforms act as vital force multipliers to keep combat aircraft in the air longer.
The tanker support came in the form of two Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport planes, while France, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom and NATO each contributed one tanker. A pair of U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft fitted out for aerial refueling also took part in the exercise.
The NATO, Singaporean and British MRTTs flew from RAAF Base Darwin, where most aircraft were based for Pitch Black, while one of the Australian and both American tankers operated from RAAF Base Tindal 200 miles to the south.
The remaining MRTTs were based about 2,000 miles away at Amberley, due to a shortage of parking space at the two main northern Australian bases used for the exercise.
Based on manufacturers’ numbers, the nine tankers would have put an estimated 831 tons of fuel into the air had they gone up at the same time, although the largest number of such aircraft observed in the air at a given time during Pitch Black was five.
Not all of this fuel would have been made available to pass on to the receiver aircraft, however, with some needed to keep the tankers in the air. Nevertheless, it was a new record for the exercise in terms of the number of participating tankers and the amount of fuel available.
Some of the tankers, like the South Korean aircraft, only refueled aircraft from their own contingents; however, others took the opportunity to support aircraft from different countries.
This was the case for the jet coming from NATO’s multinational MRTT fleet, which supported Germany’s deployment of five Eurofighter jets to the Indo-Pacific region. According to detachment commander OF-4 Marcel Nowak, the jet is registered with the Royal Netherlands Air Force but operated by a mainly German crew.
Nowak, who spoke to Defense News during the second week of Pitch Black, said at the time that the NATO contingent was due to refuel Australian EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and F-35A fighters in the final week of the exercise.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force also took the opportunity to refuel both Australian F-35As and American F-35Bs at the exercise, along with French Rafales, British Eurofighter Typhoons, and the host country’s Growlers and KC-30A tanker, which is the Australian designation for the A330 MRTT.
The Singaporeans also conducted an unplanned refueling of German Eurofighters during the first week, when an airfield emergency in Darwin temporarily shut the runway while the German and Singaporean jets were airborne.
Meanwhile, the French tanker refueled Singaporean F-16D, Indian Sukhoi Su-30 and Australian F-35A aircraft at the exercise. They also conducted separate refueling trials with other Australian aircraft including the C-17 airlifter and P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft.
Similarly, the U.S. Marine Corps’ KC-130Js refueled jets from coalition partners at Pitch Black, with Lt. Col. Richard Behrmann, the operations officer of Marine Air Group 12 based in Iwakuni, Japan, telling Defense News that they refueled British Typhoons.
“Working with all the Indo-Pacific nations here has just been fantastic,” Squadron Leader Andy Brown, detachment commander of the British tanker crew, said during a mission involving saw his tanker, dubbed Voyager, refuel French Rafales and American F-35Bs.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.