U.S. Air Mobility Command Removes Tail Numbers And Unit Markings From Aircraft For OPSEC

A U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules aircraft starts engines at the Luis Muniz Marin International Airport in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Feb. 18, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Courtney Sebastianelli)

C-130s and KC-135s have been spotted flying in a plain grey livery with low-visibility USAF roundels and a small US flag on the tail.

The U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command is making a drastic change to its fleet of cargo and tanker aircraft, removing all identification markings, including tail numbers, tail flashes, unit markings and the iconic U.S. Air Force writing usually found on the fuselage. The AMC, in fact, decided to remove all the identifying information from aircraft for operational security (OPSEC) reasons, leaving the aircraft wearing a plain grey livery with a small US flag on the tail and low-visibility USAF roundels.

“We operate across the globe every day, often supporting sensitive movements of people and cargo. Understandably, we have concerns about the operational security impacts to these missions in the modern era of on-demand, real-time information,” AMC says in a statement. “Subdued paint schemes that limit identifiable information is one way we are taking a hard look at how we operate to ensure our ability to continue to deliver for America and our allies and partners around the world.”

Photos published on the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) network already show C-130Js and a KC-135 with the removed markings in February. The C-130s are deployed to Puerto Rico supporting Operation Forward Tiger, an Air Forces Southern exercise designed to increase combat readiness alongside humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities with U.S. partners and allies throughout the Caribbean. The KC-135 is flying with the 509th Weapons Squadron, a geographically separated unit of Nellis AFB’s 57th Wing, at Fairchild Air Force Base.

AMC already did a similar, but less radical, change when the KC-46 was fielded and it was decided to remove tail flashes to make it easier for aircraft to move between units without having to be repainted. This new change comes just a month after Air Mobility commander Gen. Mike Minihan told his service members to prepare for a war with China in the next two years and while the command is working to get a more active role in the fight, using its aircraft to launch cruise missiles and drones.

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing returns from training with the 509th Weapons Squadron to Fairchild Air Force Base, Feb. 2, 2023. The 509th WPS consists of an elite team of experts who teach the next generation how to effectively pilot the aircraft in extreme situations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Stassney Davis)

Government watchdog groups and transparency advocates are already considering this move as alarming and puzzling, saying the move is making information less available to the public for a seemingly unclear and unjustified reason. Some of these groups mentioned that this trend in the decrease of information released to the public has been going on for years and getting worse, making it difficult for civil society organizations to be able to monitor the US military.

While the marking’s policy change might make it more difficult to track visually the AMC aircraft, there is still the ADS-B system. Each aircraft is linked to a unique ICAO hex code for identification and many open-source intelligence aircraft trackers built databases with the relevant info for each aircraft. AMC aircraft are usually visible on flight tracking websites and trackers always keep an eye out for them, as their movements can give out precious info.

For an instance, in January 2020 online tracking provided a look at the buildup of US forces in Middle East that followed the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. The same happened a year later with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, where aircraft evacuating military personnel and refugees were trackable as they left Afghanistan and flew to Kuwait and Qatar before moving on to their destination. So, unless the AMC leadership changes the policies regarding Mode-S and ADS-B, the aircraft will still be trackable with ease.

It is worth noting that the reduction of identification markings in not unprecedented. Air Force Special Operations Command’s aircraft fly with minimal markings, usually only low visibility USAF roundels, a small USAF writing and the tail number. Other air forces did the same on the other side of the world, like France removing national markings on some VIP aircraft and Tiger helicopters, Israel removing national markings from C-130s, UAE removing national markings from A330MRTTs and C-17s, Italy removing serial numbers from some C-130s, and the list could go on with many more.

In the past, for instance during Operation Desert Storm, aircraft of some air forces, operated over Kuwait and Iraq without markings or subdued ones, including the Italian Air Force Tornado IDS, which were stripped off the individual codes and squadron insignia (and given a desert paint scheme).

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jovanya Dominguez, 822nd Base Defense Squadron fire team member, lays in a hasty defensive fighting position during a simulated airfield seizure at the Rafael Hernández International Airport, Puerto Rico, Feb. 25, 2023. These forces were supporting Operation Forward Tiger, an Air Forces Southern exercise designed to increase combat readiness alongside humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities with U.S. partners and allies throughout the Caribbean. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Christian Little)


About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.