Trisonics in the Top End


Nigel Pittaway spoke with Indian Air Force aircrew during their participation in this summer’s Exercise Pitch Black in Australia’s Top End


HAL-built Su-30MKI3 SB 307 breaks away from a RAAF KC-30A after aerial refuelling. All images Nigel Pittaway

In July and August, 2018, four Su- 30MKI fighters and a C-130J-30 Super Hercules from the Indian Air Force (IAF) deployed to Australia to attend Exercise Pitch Black 2018.

Pitch Black is the Royal Australian Air Force’s premier air combat exercise and the deployment marked the first time the IAF had participated in an exercise in Australia, other than as an observer. It was also the first time that India’s Sukhois had crossed the equator, to operate in the Southern Hemisphere.

Their deployment to and from Australia’s Northern Territory (known locally as the Top End) was supported by an IAF C-17A Globemaster III and tankers from both the IAF and RAAF – the first time that Australia’s KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) have refuelled Russian-designed fighters. Even the C-17A support eff ort notched up a first during the exercise, flying the longest ever IAF Globemaster flight.

On their return journey to India the IAF detachment visited Malaysia, where both the Su-30s and Hercules flew with similar Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM or Royal Malaysian Air Force) aircraft.

AIR International was privileged to accompany an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) sortie with the Su-30s during the large force engagement (LFE) phase of the Pitch Black exercise and spoke with key Indian Air Force personnel on the ground in Darwin.

IAF detachment

The Sukhois were from 102 Squadron ‘Trisonics’, part of 14 Wing based at Chabua Air Force Station (AFS), in the state of Assam. The Trisonics crews were augmented for the exercise by pilots and weapons systems operators from 31 Squadron ‘Lynxes’ (11 Wing) based at Tezpur, also in Assam. Both squadrons form part of the IAF’s Eastern Air Command, headquartered at Shillong in Meghalaya.

The Eastern Air Command has responsibility for air operations in the east of the country, including West Bengal and Assam. The Trisonics therefore form part of the IAF’s spearhead in that part of the country, which is close to India’s borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tibet. Before re-equipping with the Su-30 in the middle of the last decade, the squadron previously flew the Mach 3-capable Mikoyan MiG-25RB reconnaissance aircraft, hence its nickname.

The four aircraft deployed to Australia included one Russian-assembled Su-30MKI (SB 048) and three HAL-built Su-30MKI3s (SB 184, SB 307 and SB 323) although, typical of most IAF Sukhois, none wore squadron markings.

The single C-130J-30 was from the Indian Air Force’s special operations Hercules unit, 87 Squadron, based at Panagarh AFS in West Bengal, also a component of the Eastern Air Command. The squadron is the second of the IAF’s two Hercules squadrons and formed in May 2016. It began operations with two aircraft from the initial IAF C-130J-30 unit, 77 Squadron, but has since received six new aircraft from an order placed in July 2014. The aircraft at Pitch Black (KC-3807) was fitted with an electro-optical/infrared (EO/ IR) turret underneath the nose and deployed in conjunction with an element of the IAF’s Garud Commando Force to participate in the air-land scenarios of Pitch Black 2018.

Deployment Down Under

In all, the IAF detachment in Darwin was made up of 145 personnel, including aircrews and ground crews, Garud commandos, air battle managers, security personnel and support staff, and were on the ground in Australia between July 23 and August 18, 2018.

India has been represented at several of the biennial Pitch Black exercises over the past decade but decided to participate with aircraft for the first time in 2018. According to an IAF spokesperson: “Exercises such as Pitch Black are pivotal to ensuring operational exposure, and for mutual exchange of best practices towards enhancing operational capability.”

The spokesperson added: “Exercise Pitch Black features a range of realistic, simulated threats, which are expected in a modern battlespace environment and provide an opportunity to test and improve force integration, utilising one of the largest training areas in the world, which includes the Bradshaw Field Training Area and the Delamere Air Weapons Range.”

The Su-30s and C-130J-30 departed from Kalaikunda AFS in West Bengal for Indonesia on the first leg of their journey down under on July 19, 2018. The fighters were supported along the way by an IAF Il-78MKI3 tanker and the contingent arrived in Surabaya, on the island of Java, at 1300 hours, local time. During the seven-hour transit flight the detachment crossed the equator, marking the first time that IAF Sukhois had operated in the Southern Hemisphere. Also supporting the IAF contingent along the way was a single C-17A (CB8007) from 87 Squadron ‘Skylords’.

Following a night stop in Surabaya, the detachment flew to El Tari International Airport at Kupang (West Timor) the following morning. Following two days of interaction with their Indonesian hosts, which included a visit by the Mayor of Kupang, the main detachment departed for Australia on July 24, 2018.

The pilot of SB 323 extends the in-flight refuelling probe prior to aerial refuelling with a RAAF KC-30A tanker.

The distance between Kupang and Darwin is only 445 nautical miles (825 km), so the fighters did not require air-to-air refuelling support across the Timor Sea and the four Sukhois made the journey on internal fuel alone, arriving in Darwin at 1200hrs, local time. The C-17A had flown in to Darwin the previous day with support staff and equipment but did not stay in the Top End for the exercise, departing back to India on July 25, 2018.

For the duration of the exercise, the Sukhois were parked on the bomber replenishment/ refuelling apron (BRA) at RAAF Base Darwin, sharing the tarmac with a detachment of F-16C/D Fighting Falcons and F-15SG Eagles from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). Due to parking constraints imposed by the influx of around 100 military aircraft, the C-130J-30 shared RAAF Darwin’s air movements apron with other heavy aircraft, including RAAF C-130J-30s and an TUDM Airbus A400M.

Sukhois over the outback

The Su-30 detachment, led by 102 Squadron began flying from Darwin on July 30, 2018, in the force integration training (FIT) phase of the three-week Pitch Black exercise. During this phase the Indian air crews flew combined daylight missions with RAAF and allied fighters in small packages, designed to acclimatise crews to the local environment and procedures and to learn how to operate safely and effectively with one another.

During this initial period, AIR International spoke with the Commanding Officer of 102 Squadron, Group Captain Prem Anand, callsign ‘Andy’, who explained the value of the FIT phase of the multi-lateral air combat exercise.

Group Captain Anand said: “The sorties during the first week are flown with the RAAF, so RAAF Hornets are accompanying us, and it gives us a better perspective to cycle into the main phase of the exercise.”

He added: “We are exercising with one another and we are certainly improving. The main objective of the exercise is to improve our capability, learn from one another, get to know each other’s best practices and improve our relationships. I’m very sure that it is only going to get better.”

Russian-assembled Su-30MKI SB 048 on the flight line at Darwin.
Indian Air Force C-130J KC-3807 on final approach to Darwin. The aircraft is fitted with a multispectral imaging turret underneath the nose and was deployed in conjunction with an element of the IAF’s Garud Commando Force.

Because Pitch Black is largely conducted at the unclassiied level, Group Captain Anand said that the Su-30s did not deploy with weapons or additional sensors. He said: “The roles we are performing do not need large suites of equipment, the 1 v 1 and 2 v 2 within visual range [WVR] roles can be lown with what is in the aircraft. We have what we have in the aircraft and we’re using all of it.”

Group Captain Anand added: “We are using simulated weapons and I can’t discuss more about what they are [but] they are generic weapons. The intent is to keep it at an unclassiied level and this arena is to foster relations and develop good practices.”

During this initial week, the Indian crews were able to ly and ight with and against their RAAF colleagues for the first time and in another first, were able to conduct the first air-to-air refuelling sorties with the KC-30A tanker. By the second week of the exercise the Su-30s were tanking from the KC-30A on most missions.

The second and third weeks of Pitch Black 18 were dedicated to large force employment (LFE) missions, which could see up to 80 aircraft by day and 50 aircraft by night undertaking complex air combat missions.

The IAF crews lew their first Pitch Black night sortie during the first week of LFE and shortly afterwards, Group Captain RS Sodhi of 106 Squadron – Callsign ‘Lynx 1’ spoke with AIR International.

Group Captain Sodhi said: “Coming here to a huge airspace, where you can ly with very minimal restrictions is a great exposure for our crews. We have a lot of airspace available within India, but the population is high and there are restrictions in those airspaces, which are not here in the Northern Territory.”

Group Captain Sodhi said that the Su-30s were primarily lying air-to-air sorties during the exercise but had also been tasked with some air-to-ground missions. The IAF contingent were also primarily operating as part of the attacking Blue Air but lew for the defending Red Air as directed by exercise directors.

He said: “We are using the full air-to-air capability of the radar (and) everything in the aircraft is being used. Our primary objective is to ly with all of the diferent and platforms – and they are in plenty – from various countries which we do not get to ly with in our own area of operations.”

Group Captain Sodhi added: “Other than that, the huge airspace and the night conditions that you get out here. The name of the exercise sums it all up, it’s pitch black here and those conditions are what we would like to train in. We’ve already lown one night-time mission and we’ll be participating in the night exercise next week.”

Air-land integration

The integration of air and land operations has become a major feature of the Pitch Black series of exercises and the Garud commando force, supported by the C-130J-30, participated in the exercise scenarios on a daily basis.

Speaking to AIR International during the first week of LFE, Hercules pilot, Wing Commander Ravi Nanda, explained: “We are performing special operations support for the Garuds, as well as all the other team members allocated to us under the direction of the exercise planners. We are part of the tactical airlift during the LFE phase, so our missions include airdrop of troops as well as insertion of vehicles.”

Wing Commander Nandi said operations were lown both by day and night during the LFE phase. He added: “We’ve already landed at Delamere and we’re going to do it again tomorrow. We’ve also done some drops at Batchelor and we will be planned for other forward airields.”

The Garuds performed their maiden combat freefall jump in the exercise from the IAF C-130J-30 on August 6, 2018 and also used RAAF Hercules and C-27J Spartan aircraft as exercise scenarios played out.

Squadron Leader Anurag Saxena of the Garuds explained: “We are conducting freefall combat jumps here, working with Australian forces. We are getting exposure to diferent forces and operating with them – it is a very important way to enhance our own capabilities.”

Meeting the Cobras

The Indian detachment lew its inal mission in Pitch Black on August 16, 2018 and departed from Darwin two days later for Malaysia.

In support of the de-induction, the 87 Squadron C-17A returned and in the process, notched up the IAF’s longest ever Globemaster light on August 16, 2018, with an 11-hour trip from Chennai to Townsville.

The Sukhois lew direct from Darwin to Subang, near Kuala Lumpur and were assisted by an RAAF KC-30A on their journey, thanks to the earlier air-to-air refuelling clearances.

After a two-day rest period in Malaysia, the Su-30s conducted a bilateral exercise with the similar Su-30MKMs from the RMAF’s 11 Skuadron ‘Golden Cobras’.

During the two-day exercise, dubbed Cobra Meet, the IAF and TUDM ighter crews shared ideas and experience and these activities were mirrored by the 87 Squadron Hercules crews, who interacted with their TUDM colleagues from 20 Skuadron ‘Clouds’ at Subang, who ly the C-130H-30 variant.

The Indian contingent departed Subang on August 23, 2018, once again supported by an IAF Il-78MKI3 and inally touched down on home soil at Kalaikunda AFS at 1130hrs local time.

In conclusion, Group Captain RS Sodhi said: “We have participated twice in Red Flag exercises now [2008 and 2013]. Both Red Flag and Pitch Black have their own learning objectives [and] while I would not say that they are very similar, they are not that diferent either.”

He added: “Both have their own set of objectives and while we have twice experienced Red Flag, we have enjoyed Pitch Black as well and we would like to get back here again.”