Australia has informed India that their premier multilateral air combat training exercise Pitch Black 2020 scheduled from July 27 to August 14 has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 situation, defence sources said.
This was conveyed by Air Marshal Meg Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), in a letter to Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, in mid-April.
“The RAAF Chief informed of his decision to cancel the exercise this year due to the current and anticipated impacts of the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19,” a defence source told The Hindu. He also noted that while the IAF was not participating with aircraft, Ex Pitch Black 2020 would have provided an opportunity for engagement between our personnel, the source said.
The exercise is also an opportunity to interact with forces from across the globe, a second defence source said. The next edition of Pitch Black is scheduled in 2022.
In the last edition of Pitch Black in 2018, the IAF for the first time deployed fighter aircraft which it had said would “provide a unique opportunity for exchange of knowledge and experience with these nations in a dynamic warfare environment”. The contingent consisted of 145 personnel, four Su-30MKI fighters, one C-130 and one C-17 transport aircraft which went to Australia via Indonesia and during the transit had constructive engagements with Indonesian and Malaysian Air Forces as well.
The defence and strategic engagement with Australia has steadily gone up in recent years especially on the bilateral front with naval cooperation at the forefront. The bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX early last year saw participation of the largest Australian contingent ever to India with over 1,000 personnel.
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) has been long pending and is expected to be concluded soon as well as a broader maritime cooperation agreement including the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) to elevate the existing strategic partnership.
Last week, Australian High Commissioner-designate Barry O’Farrell made a pitch for trilateral cooperation among India, Australia and Indonesia to “identify new ways that our three countries can collaborate to be the best possible custodians of the Indian Ocean”.