C-130 airlifter used to refuel an M1A2 Abrams tank for the first time

Air Mobility Command Planes Are Now Operating Without Tail Numbers, Most Markings (And Are Alarming Government Watchdogs)

By Dario Leone
Mar 4 2023
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Air Mobility Command directed its fleet to remove the large “U.S. AIR FORCE,” unit markings, tail numbers and other identifying markings.

US military airlift and tanker aircraft have flown with a proud “U.S. AIR FORCE” painted on the side of the fuselage for decades. They also featured markings indicating home units, tail numbers and oftentimes a tail flash showing the unit’s heritage.

But, as reported by Brian Everstine in an interesting piece appeared on AviationWeek.com, that is no more for much of Air Mobility Command (AMC).

The change was recently directed by AMC. The Command in fact directed its fleet to remove the large “U.S. AIR FORCE,” unit markings, tail numbers and other identifying markings. Recent photographs of KC-46s, KC-135s, C-130s and C-17s operating show just a small US flag on the tail and a light gray Air Force roundel.

The change was directed for operational security, AMC says in a statement.

“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. 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.

“Because of operational security concerns, we cannot provide specifics, though our aircraft will maintain markings as required by law.”

C-130 airlifter used to refuel an M1A2 Abrams tank for the first time
US Air Force Airmen assigned to the 317th Airlift Wing and U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 1st Armored Division run a fuel hose from a C-130J Super Hercules to an M1A2 Tank at Fort Bliss, Texas, Jan. 25, 2023. The aircraft does not sport any of the traditional identifying markings.

The news was confirmed by James Stewart, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command, who told Military.com in an emailed statement that airmen’s missions take them around the globe and often involve sensitive movements of cargo — the main reason behind the change.

“Understandably, we have concerns about the operational security impacts to these missions in the modern era of on-demand, real-time information. 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.”

AMC did not disclose other details in its statement, such as how many markings would be hidden on its planes and which ones it will apply to.

“Because of operational security concerns, we cannot provide specifics, though our aircraft will maintain markings as required by law,” Stewart said in the statement.

The new move to obscure some identifying info on planes is both alarming and puzzling to government watchdogs and transparency advocates, despite AMC’s statement.

Jason Paladino, an investigator for the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight, told Military.com that the move is making information less available to the public for a seemingly unclear and unjustified reason.

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 on the flight line at Fairchild AFB, Washington, without most of the traditional identifying markings.
A USAF KC-135 on the flight line at Fairchild AFB, Washington, without most of the traditional identifying markings.

“This is a data point that was previously available to the public that this command, it seems, is deciding for operational security reasons that it won’t get into, that the public doesn’t have a right to know, which I do think is concerning,” Paladino said.

Paladino was echoed by Jodi Vittori, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel and a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in government transparency. He told Military.com that this decrease in transparency from the Pentagon as a whole is alarming.

“The good governance community has seen transparency from the Department of Defense shrink over the years. We’re getting less and less information, not more, lately, and that’s been a troubling and difficult issue for civil society organizations to be able to monitor their own military,” Vittori said.

AMC boss Gen. Mike Minihan recently generated international headlines when a memo to his Airmen in which he suggested the US “will fight in 2025” with China leaked to the media.

The change in the paint schemes comes a little more than a month after Minihan’s memo.

AMC played a major role in the Afghanistan evacuation in 2021 and continues to help deliver weapons and aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army

C-17 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. C-17A Globemaster III 60th Air Mobility Wing / 349th Air Mobility Wing, 21st Airlift Squadron, 06-6160 – Travis AFB, CA

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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