Top 10 combat aircraft snow camouflage schemes

Whiteness. Unforgiving whiteness…though I’m not sure which colour could forgive – perhaps burgundy?

Winter is hard for any military, with harsh weather, freezing temperatures and impeded mobility. It can change the whole backdrop – where once lush painted greens, dark browns and dusty khakis may once have provided some level of camouflage on the battlefield, suddenly they become shining beacons against what may be a world that has become entirely white. Aircraft are no exception to this, and camouflage has traditionally been just as vital in combat in the air as on the ground, where a moment’s loss of sight in a dogfight can mean death or a few miles less spotting distance can mean you get back home alive. The ability to hide an aeroplane or helicopter against the ground or sky has proven to be vitally important over the decades. As the northern hemisphere finds itself plunged into the depths of coldness and with Jolly Saint Nick already warming himself up for the world’s longest cargo flight we thought it was time to rate those schemes that let us know that winter is indeed coming (it’s still 2018 right? That reference still flies I’m sure?). Sam Wise reports.

Vehicle camouflage was developed later than soldier’s camouflage clothing, which itself arrived later than hunter’s camouflage. One of the known earliest known adopters of hunter’s camouflage were several tribes in what is today Mali, who are believed to have used bògòlanfini or bogolan ‘mud-dyed’ fabric to colour match their backgrounds during hunts for several hundred years. Soldiers improvised camouflage in the battlefield from the at least the early 20th century, but it probably wasn’t until the 1920s that a form of disruptive military camouflage entered mass production with Italian M1929. Multi-coloured aircraft camouflage paint schemes, sometimes conceptually developed by artists and camoufleurs, saw widespread use in World War I.

By World War II there were well established conventions of aircraft camouflage, but many of these temperate schemes proved extremely conspicuous in snowy conditions. Winter often required a different scheme for warplanes, here are my top 10 winter or snow schemes.

10. Soviet World War II schemes

The Eastern Front of the Second World War was brutal for both sides. The famous steppe winter saw what the Nazi German regime had hoped – and assumed – would be a quickly-executed summer offensive bog down and take a devastating toll on the invading forces. With aerial combat on the eastern front taking place at much lower altitudes than on the other side of Europe it was even more important to ensure the aircraft didn’t stand out against the now-white ground. In many cases, rather than putting their aircraft through a whole repainting process, which would then have to be undone again once the thaw set in, both sides applied a whitewash over the aeroplane’s existing paintjob (which often began to show through again soon after as the water-soluble wash began to wear off, especially on the front parts of the plane). 

The scientifically-developed wash added weight and increased drag, but that was a trade off against survivability. It’s common to see photos of Soviet aircraft with only partial wash applied, usually around the rear portions of the airframe. This probably derives from the knowledge that at the front much of it would wear off anyway, as well as the fact that the most frequently accessed parts of the plane for maintenance were located at the front – as panels were opened and replaced, reapplying the wash every time would increase the time until the aircraft was ready again, and the applied white at the rear served the break the aircraft shape up well enough notwithstanding the bright red bort numbers, stars and (occasionally) patriotic slogans. It may have also helped limit the loss of speed from increased drag. 

9. Japan Ground Self Defence Force helicopters

Photo [March 2017]: akihiro via Twitter @dragon192

One of the main goals camouflage can aim to achieve is shape disruption – break up the shape of an aircraft so that it’s less easily identified by the human eye. Our first rotary-wing entry on this list we turn to the Japan Ground Self Defence Force. Many of the JGSDF’s helicopters are already painted in a very enjoyable two-tone camo, but for winter training exercises every JGSDF unit will apply snow camo to a small number of their aircraft, usually by, apparently, applying a whitewash over the lighter brown sections of the camo (if present).  Maybe the most exciting example of this is the service’s AH-1S Cobras, just because, you know, Cobras. Camouflaged attack helicopters are always cool, and the winter scheme gives them a real menacing look. 

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, “aviation book of the year” can be purchased here.

8. Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II

The Warthog (let’s be real, no one’s calling it the Thunderbolt II, are they?) is one of the most iconic western aeroplanes of the Cold War, and even today carries a myth and legend that has proven exciting for some and frustrating for others. It is unique in appearance, standing out on any lineup of USAF jets and built around the world-famous GAU-8 Avenger that produces the sound that shall not be written out here. Once closely associated with the central European plains on which it was originally conceived to be fighting and tank-busting and more recently the stuff of legends for its Close Air Support services in Afghanistan and the Middle East, one environment it has never really been pegged with is the snow. 

However, as early as 1982 the USAF were experimenting with winter schemes on the ‘Hawg, painting airframe 80-221 in a black and white camouflage for the…questionably-named Exercise Cool Snow Hog in Alaska. It was never adopted operationally, though, and the aircraft was repainted into its operational scheme after not too long. 

7. Junker Ju 87 ‘Stuka

Back to the eastern front again and an aircraft that has some fascinating snow schemes applied – the Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber which proved so effective in the early years of the war. Aside from the aforementioned all-over wash, variants included a broken, patchy white-on-green that serves to break the aeroplane’s shape up and imitate vegetation among the snow, spots of white over the base camo. Perhaps the most eye-catching version was one that featured painted on ‘worms’ of white all over the plane, in clear plagiarism of Jackon Pollock’s style. In addition to the winter camo, some Stukas were also fitted with skis to better adapt to the snowy conditions, which is cool because skis on planes is always pretty rad. 

6. F-16 Aggressor camouflage

One of the most defining characteristics of any modern fighter aircraft is that it’s grey. Battleship grey, light grey, dark grey, but almost interminably grey. So when an exception comes along we have to give it its dues, and one of the best sources for those exceptions is the aggressor units of the US Air Force. The scheme is based on multi-layered polygonal Russian scheme (informally referred to as a splinter) applied to Su-35s

For winter camos we look to the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska who fly F-16C/Ds. While blacks and whites aren’t technically that much of a departure from the traditional Viper scheme, they do look pretty good in both the ‘traditional’ and splinter forms, serving to act as imitation enemy aircraft among the snowy landscapes of the northernmost US state. Among the mountains and glaciers this disruptive scheme would help the blend the aircraft’s shape into the rocky picture beneath it. This scheme has been replicated elsewhere with variations on civilian aggressor A-4 Skyhawks and even, weirdly, MiG-17s…

5. MiG-21

Well, this one sort of makes it onto the list because it’s so mental, but whether or not it’s actually a snow camo is up for debate. This experimental splinter camo was developed by the Czech Air Force’s Letecký zkušební odbor (Flying Test Department – LZO) in the nineties and applied to MiG-21MF 7701 which carried the scheme even after it was passed over for operational use. This airframe made it as far as RAF Fairford (in summer) for airshows, and remains stored today at the Museum of Air and Ground Technology in Vyškov. One of the more peculiar and rare aspects of this is that the radar cone and dielectric panels of the aircraft, which are normally painted in dark green on MiG-21s regardless of the livery used, are also painted over in this scheme. Combined with the low-vis roundel this gives the jet an absolute uniformity of appearance that’s quite unusual with Soviet aircraft.

4. SEPECAT Jaguar RAF

After giving up bright red, the British military has often made excellent choices regarding camouflage. An early adopter of the effective khaki colour for ground forces, it then went for the superb DPM from the 1960s. The story of British aircraft camouflage is generally positive, with the exception of painting night fighters black. The RAF reconnaissance Spitfire’s Recce Pink was considered especially effective.

One of the Cold War’s most perceived-to-be vulnerable fronts was NATO’s northern flank on Norway’s 200km border with Russia. The fear of a Soviet invasion from the arctic, with many bases and powerful assets based on the Kola Peninsula, meant that NATO frequently exercised (and continue to do so) in northern Norway to prepare for warfare in winter conditions. The RAF in particular frequently deployed to Norwegian bases, and very often applied makeshift snow camouflage to their aircraft travelling there, including on the SEPECAT Jaguar which would deploy to northern Norway, including Bardufoss within the Arctic Circle, to perform ground attack and tactical reconnaissance missions. 

In the event of the Cold War bursting into flames, three RAF Jaguar fighter-bomber squadrons would have been dispatched to Scandinavia to bolster the defence of NATO’s vulnerable northern flank. Two squadrons would be sent to perform the ground attack mission, and the third – 41 Squadron – would deploy to the harsh climate of Bardufoss. Bardufoss, in Norway, is within the arctic circle and as well as surviving the snow and wind, RAF Jaguars would be flying the perilous tactical reconnaissance mission.

The Jaguar being relatively simple, was easier than other types to deploy at short notice, a skill in which the Jaguar force become adept. The Jaguar’s hefty undercarriage and large wheels would serve it well on the icy runways of Bardufoss, and its normal lack of thrust was less of an issue in the cold dense air.

Not only did you see whitewash applied over the greens on the Jag’s regular camo, such as with other examples on this list, but also more imaginative bespoke schemes, including some proper leopard-print affairs and a beautiful blue and white spotted scheme. The weirdest one by far would have to be a sort of conjoining rings of white applied all over the aircraft, overlapping even onto the RAF roundel.

3. Finnish Buffalo

The Brewster Buffalo was one of the Second World War’s unlikeliest successes. Obsolete in US service by the time the country entered the war and suffering heavy losses in British and Dutch hands by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s A6M Zeros, it weirdly enough proved to be a formidable opponent in Finnish hands during the Continuation War against the USSR (despite some being combat ready by the time it ended, the type never saw combat in the immediately preceding Winter War).

Technically the B-239E and known simply as the Brewster by the Finns, it proved itself more than a match for most Soviet types it faced, racking up some incredible victory ratios. Finland’s cooler weather aided the Brewster’s reliability and it earnt a popular reputation in the country. Unsurprisingly, it was applied with several different winter schemes to suit the country’s climate, including a fantastic leopard-print white application.

2. Westland Sea King 

Long Live the King! The Westland Sea King is an utterly iconic type in the UK, a proper beast of a helicopter and a helicopter still seeing service across the world – with Ukraine becoming the latest operator of the nearly 53 year old type! The Royal Navy’s famous “Junglies”, the discerning Royal Marine Commando’s transport of choice, were expected to serve in almost any environment including, of course, wintery warfare. 

To that end, a number of airframes were painted in a tiger stripe snow camouflage, perfect for frozen operations but also looking pretty great on the King as well with one airframe, ZF115, wearing the scheme right up until the type was retired. Others in the scheme also took part in the Balkans under the Implementation Force (IFOR) and Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

  1. HS/BAE Systems Harrier

Staying with the UK but returning to Norway is the RAF’s Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3s and T4s painted in wraparound black/grey and white camo, often looking a bit worn and rough as all Harriers should do. It’s a combination that just screams Cold War, especially with the early Harrier’s gigantic inflight refuelling probe stuck on the intake and the GR3’s famous porpoise nose. Although slightly less symbolic of an era, the later BAe Harriers in RAF service did also have temporary winter paint applied from time-to-time as well.

Thanks to some of the incredible imagery of Harriers flying over the Norwegian fjords and mountains that the RAF’s ever-prolific photographers blessed us with as well as the undeniable cool-factor of the Harrier in every form it took, it takes the top spot on this list. The shots of Harriers set against snowy fields and forests are just iconic and no fan of military flying can deny how good they look.

Austro-Hungarian ski patrol on Italian front in snow camouflage, 1915-1918.

Sam Wise is an opinionated aviation enthusiast who definitely doesn’t think that TSR2 was the best plane ever. His views of many different subjects can be found at @SamWise24.

The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, “aviation book of the year” can be purchased here.

Sea Hurricane, one of the few times the RN applied artic camouflage to an aircraft.

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