Australia, France, Singapore and Thailand began a joint air combat exercise over Australia's tropical north yesterday as part of Canberra's efforts to strengthen international military ties.
The launch of the biennial exercise -- named "Pitch Black 2004" -- comes just weeks after Australia agreed to establish joint military training facilities in the north of the country with close ally the US.
The US and Britain were supposed to take part in "Exercise Pitch Black," which runs until Aug. 5, but withdrew after citing logistical problems because much of their air force was deployed elsewhere.
"Exercise Pitch Black is of great importance to Australia ... because of the invaluable opportunity it gives us to strengthen ties with our international friends," Air Marshal Houston said in a statement.
This is the first time Thailand and France have taken part in the Australian-hosted exercise.
The operation involves more than 1,500 personnel and 75 aircraft taking part in complex air combat training in the skies above the Northern Territory capital, Darwin.
Australia is using a variety of aircraft, including F-111s and F/A-18 Hornets, Singapore and Thailand are using F16 Falcons and France has Mirage 2000-5 aircraft.
Pitch Black will focus on attacking not defending, with a variety of scenarios aimed at knocking out potential threats, said a defence spokesman.
Under the deal made with the US this month, Australia's defense training areas in the Northern Territory and Queensland state will be upgraded to become joint training facilities.