It can be difficult to keep track of all the places American troops are fighting, snooping for terrorists, or training and advising US allies around the world.
One good clue to spotting these operations, especially secretive commando deployments, is keeping an eye on the US Air Force's fleet of civilian-styled aircraft nearby.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and free online tools, even a novice can get started looking for these inconspicuous planes.
Since at least the 1990s, some of the Pentagon's most specialized units have flown commercial-type planes and helicopters sporting civilian-style paint jobs. The very existence of the Air Force's 427th Special Operations Squadron remains a closely guarded secret.
After 9/11, America's elite troops suddenly found themselves combing the globe for terrorists and militants, while working with local forces in extreme and remote locations. The Air Force in particular scrambled to put together a more readily available fleet of discreet planes for a wider array of missions.
Formally dubbed "non-standard aviation," by 2013, the program included three types of planes: the C-145 Combat Coyote, the C-146 Wolfhound, and the Pilatus PC-12/47. The twin-engine C-145s and C-146s could lug cargo and supplies into combat zones and training areas, while the single-engine PC-12s could ferry commandos and smaller loads around as necessary.
Right now, you can go use any number of free online services like FlightRadar24 and possibly find one these planes flying about. Here's how.
As of June 2013, Air Force commandos had 10 C-145 Combat Coyotes, 14 C-146 Wolfhounds, and eight Pilatus PC-12/47s scattered at bases in the United States, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, including the Middle East, according to a table War Is Boring obtained via FOIA request.
The lists included another important detail: the planes' so-called "N-numbers."
The 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation requires that private individuals and firms register their aircraft with a national agency. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration assigns alpha-numeric codes all beginning with the letter "N."
The Pentagon doesn't have to register its planes and choppers with the FAA. However, commandos can try and keep a lower profile in turbulent regions by flying aircraft with a civilian-style paint and civil registration codes. When the N numbers aren't necessary, the Air Force planes simply display their military serial numbers.
And with that data, you can easily track these aircraft on the web. When not on a mission, the commandos fly with their transponders active for safety reasons.
Many countries require that even military warplanes switch this gear on to prevent both mid-air accidents and other dangerous incidents. A bomber speeding toward a country without putting out this signal might look like the beginning of an attack.
On a site like FlightRadar24, you can look up aircraft by these codes.
I found one C-145—N336MJ—had taken off from Tampa, Florida, for an unknown destination on January 10, 2017. A C-146—N385EF—had lifted off farther south from Miami International Airport on January 11, 2017. Tampa is home to US Special Operations Command and US Central Command.
You can find the small planes much farther afield. Spotters caught a C-146—N941EF—off the coast of Yemen on December 19, 2016. Another one of the twin-engine planes—N953EF—made its way from Mongolia into the Yellow Sea on January 5, 2017.
It is important to note that the 2013 list is no longer comprehensive. The Air Force eventually bought additional C-145s and C-146s to expand the fleets and replace a Combat Coyote that crashed in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the service's top commando headquarters had already started converting the remaining PC-12s into small U-28 spy planes. By the end of 2016, the Air Force had shifted all of the C-145s into the advisory role.
Teams bring the planes to foreign countries to train and otherwise work with local air crews and ground troops. As of 2017, the C-146s remain a primary transport for elite troops moving in and around on their secretive missions, as well as for practice sessions and other specialized tasks.
But the table is still a good starting place for anyone looking to take a sneaky peek into some of the Pentagon's less well-publicized missions.