Serial numbers are disappearing from the tails and rear fuselages of U.S. Air Force's secretive C-32B Gatekeeper personnel transport planes and its more commonly seen C-32A executive transport jets that often fly in the Air Force Two and Air Force One role. This is part of an initiative that originated with the service's Air Mobility Command that is ostensibly intended to improve operations security, but some experts and observers have questioned its utility.
For what appears to be the first time anywhere, plane spotters caught a serial number-less C-32A landing at Yokota Air Base in Japan, a major U.S. Air Force hub in that country, last week. The aircraft in question was reportedly serial number 98-0002, based on publicly available flight tracking data.
Starting last month, spotters began to observe Air Force C-32Bs without serial numbers in the typical location on their rear fuselages, as well.
"The Air Force does fly aircraft with limited markings," Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokesperson, said last month, speaking generally, in response to queries from The War Zone about the disappearing markings on the C-32Bs. "As confirmed earlier this year, aircraft markings in general are being reduced for operational security reasons as a part of our normal fleet maintenance management process."
In March, Air Mobility Command (AMC) had confirmed that it would be steadily removing serial numbers, tail codes, and distinctive and often brightly colored tail flashes from various cargo aircraft and aerial refueling tankers under its purview. It was not immediately clear at that time what specific aircraft type might be affected under the new policy, but KC-46 and KC-135 tankers and C-130J transports had already been spotted by that point without these identifying markings. C-17 and C-5 cargo planes and KC-10 tankers are also among the aircraft assigned to AMC.
A number of other fleets fall under AMC's purview, including the Air Force's C-32As. The jets, which are militarized Boeing 757 airliners, are often referred to as 'Air Force Twos' because they are commonly used to shuttle around the Vice President, their family, and their staff. However, C-32As are also employed as transports for other senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, as well as Congressional delegations and the President's spouse. They are even sometimes employed by Presidents themselves when Boeing 747-based VC-25A Air Force One jets are not available or are otherwise not suitable for the trip at hand. Shorter domestic trips and/or getting into smaller airports with shorter runways often result in their use in the Air Force One role.
The C-32B fleet is a completely different matter, which is what prompted The War Zone to reach out to the Air Force when those aircraft started appearing without serial numbers last month. Though the C-32A and C-32B are both based on the Boeing 757 airliner and ostensibly operate primarily as passenger transport aircraft, the Air Force is much more tight-lipped about the roles and missions of the latter type, or even how many it has in service.
The Air Force's C-32B fleet consists of as many as five aircraft. At least one of those is currently assigned to the 150th Special Operations Squadron, part of the New Jersey Air National Guard's 108th Wing at McGuire Air Force Base. McGuire is currently technically part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The 150th's mission is to "provide dedicated rapid response airlift to the Department of Defense in support of United States Government crisis response events domestic and abroad," according to the 108th Wing's website.
Another unit reportedly associated with C-32B operations is the 486th Flight Test Squadron – which may be a cover designation – at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
The C-32Bs are known to have robust secure communications suites and other specialized features. They are capable of aerial refueling, something the C-32A is not. Aircraft belonging to the 150th Special Operations Squadron and 486th Flight Test Squadron have been linked to the activities of the U.S. government's interagency crisis response Foreign Emergency Support Teams (FEST), U.S. Special Operations Command, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the past.
As such, the Air Force's C-32B aircraft have already long operated with very discreet overall-white paint schemes with very limited markings. There are indications that their serial numbers have been changed or otherwise swapped out over the years, and that the 486th's aircraft have flown with U.S. civil registration codes, all in line with their secretive operations.
It's also worth noting that some Air Force C-40 Clipper personnel transport planes, another fleet that AMC oversees, have also been seen shedding their serial numbers more recently. These aircraft are also often used to move high-ranking U.S. government officials and members of Congress around. A C-40C notably brought Nancy Pelosi, then a Democratic Party Representative from California and Speaker of the House, to Taiwan last year, a trip that prompted a major Chinese military reaction.
Stripping the serial numbers from C-32As and Bs, and to a somewhat lesser extent C-40s, can only prompt new questions about the value of the Air Force's new operations security policy regarding markings.
"We have concerns about the operational security impacts to these missions in the modern era of on-demand, real-time information," AMC told Aviation Week in a statement explaining the policy back in March. "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."
However, the activities of the Air Force's C-32As remain very visible and those aircraft otherwise retain their distinctive blue-and-white paint schemes and large "United States of America" titles. On the other side, C-32Bs operations, as already noted, have already been deliberately obscured in many ways for years now.
“There is zero historic precedent for the removal of markings on tankers and transports in wartime,” Robert Hopkins, an Air Force veteran who flew C-135 types, who is now an author, and past contributor to The War Zone, told The War Zone in March while speaking about the utility of this policy more generally. “During the Vietnam war, tankers were silver with full-color markings, C-130 transports eventually acquired tan/green camo but with white tail codes, full-color national insignia, etc. C-141s were silver or white/grey … AMC has had a grey scheme on all its transports since 1992.”
All around, the complete removal of serial numbers and other markings that identify individual aircraft might create impediments for observers to quickly track and tally flight activities at a certain location. At the same time, publicly available Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponder data and reports from spotters on the ground are likely to provide much of the same information as was available before, at least for the foreseeable future.
As noted, spotters in Japan were still able to readily determine the likely serial number of the C-32A that landed at Yokota last week without it being painted on the tail. More trouble has been had with the C-32B aircraft, but in large part because their individual identities have been selectively obfuscated in many instances already.
All told, it remains to be seen just how many aircraft and of what types ultimately lose their serial numbers and other individually identifying markings, and what the Air Force may disclose about the results of the initiative going forward. What is clear is that the service is pushing ahead with these plans and that more and more aircraft types, including C-32As and Bs, are now emerging with very limited markings.
After this story was published, Twitter user @thenewarea51 alerted us to a sighting of 98-0002 without serial numbers painted on its tail on July 6. A U.S. Air Force C-37 VIP jet carrying Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the service's Chief of Staff and the nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also appeared at the Royal International Air Tattoo in the United Kingdom.
Twitter user @KSOSINT also brought to our attention sightings of C-32Bs without marked serial numbers dating back to April of this year.
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