Exercise Pitch Black — a message to China

The current exercise is hosting up to 2,500 personnel and 100 aircraft from around the globe

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As reported by Australian Airforce website, “Exercise Pitch Black is a biennial three-week multi-national large force employment exercise conducted primarily from RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal. RAAF Base Amberley, located near Ipswich, will also be included in the exercise this year. Exercise Pitch Black 2022 is the Royal Australian Air Force’s most significant International Engagement activity with forces participating from a wide range of partner and allied nations developing and enhancing military relationships at all levels.”

The history of the exercise, as posted by Royal Australian Airforce, suggests that first Pitch Black exercises took place on 15–16 June 1981 between different RAAF units. It took an international colour with participation of Singapore Airforce and expanded in 90s to include France’s Armée de l’Air; the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the Republic of Singapore Air Force; the Royal Thai Air Force; the Royal New Zealand Air Force; the United States Air Force; and Britain’s Royal Air Force.

The 2018 exercise ran from 27 July to 17 August. Participating countries included Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Thailand and the United States. The Indian Air Force took part in the exercise for the first time. As many as 131 aircraft were involved and almost 4,000 personnel.

The current exercise is hosting up to 2,500 personnel and 100 aircraft from around the globe including Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea, UK, the Philippines, Thailand, the UAE, Canada, the Netherlands, Malaysia, New Zealand and the US. Significantly, Germany, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) will be participating fully for the first time.

Is Pitch Black a prelude to an expanding Quad? Or it’s building up of a formidable coalition in the Indo Pacific, where the US-led western block is playing on the fear psychosis of the littoral state of the region? The inclusion of Germany, Japan and ROK for the first time indicates that Exercise Pitch Black has become a global platform including North America, Europe, South East Asia, East Asia and even Middle East.

What could be strategic objectives of this military maneuver?

We have tried to analyse political messaging thrown up in the media and diplomatic language used through the platform of Pitch Black to decipher its strategic objectives. These are summarised below:

One; it assures the Western block and its allies in the Indo Pacific that expansion of Quad is a reality and it would welcome members from the Indo Pacific region to become part of a collective security apparatus for common good.

Two; it conveys a strong message to the People’s Republic of China and President Xi that US military power in the Indo Pacific will be expanded to contain Chinese influence and ultimately isolate it.

Three; due to recent developments across the Taiwan Strait and growing tensions, the US would not only use conventional diplomacy but also gun-boat diplomacy to enhance her strategic interests and suffocate China.

Four; the US and her allies are ready to meet the challenges of another international conflict after the Ukraine-Russia war and will be ready to open another theater of military operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is interesting to read the projections of this exercise in Indian media. Indian military under the guardianship of Modi suffered humiliation at the hands of PLA in Ladakh in 2020 and lost an area of 1450 sq kms. Exercise Pitch Black has helped India build a fake narrative of bravado and its traditional anti-China rhetoric.

Indian military analysts and diplomats are projecting IAF participation to be a significant message to China that India will join the Western-led coalition in the Indo Pacific to thwart Chinese designs against India and the littoral states of the Indo Pacific. In a recent programme on Exercise Pitch Black, Vineet Malhotra of Indian News X TV described Chinese actions against Taiwan as ghunda-gardi i.e. gangsterism. In the same programme Ambassador Mukherjee accused China of browbeating India on what policy to adopt on the question of Taiwan and went ahead to state that India will not only confront China along the LAC but also in the Indo Pacific. Ambassador Mukherjee also highlighted that many of the littoral states of the Indo Pacific, including Vietnam and Thailand, were worried about Chinese aggressive behaviour and the international community needed to come together to stem the tide of Chinese aggressive posturing.

Another self-styled defence analyst, Wing Commander Bakhshi was of the view that China has only few allies, mainly Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia and it will stand isolated if a conflict breaks out across the Taiwan Strait. The panel discussion also focused on Chinese growing maritime ingress in ports like Sri Lanka’s Humbantota, Pakistani Gwadar, and Djibouti.

While the international media debates and dissects the aims and objectives of Exercise Pitch Black, it has gained significance and traction as it comes at the heels of recent tensions across the Taiwan Strait. China has to remain alert to an expanding Quad, which is somewhat visible in the skies of Australia.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2022.

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