The current United States Department of Defense system for naming and designating aircraft aims to provide a unified system across all services that applies to all military aerial and space craft. There are two basic components to a craft's identity: its designation, and its common name.
A vehicle designation is sometimes referred to as a Mission Design Series (MDS), referring to the three main parts of the designation, that combine to form a unique profile for each vehicle. The first series of letters (up to four) determine the type of craft and designed mission. A series number identifies major types which are of the same type and mission, and finally a series of variant and block identifiers clarify the exact configuration of the vehicle.
The name is a matter of less specific construction, but is aimed at providing an official common name which eases identification and communication regarding the vehicle. The common name is not used in internal publications (an official internal report would refer to the "F-16" and "AIM-9" but not mention the names "Fighting Falcon" or "Sidewinder"). Pilots often have their own nicknames for their aircraft which may bear only coincidental resemblance (if that) to the official common name, although some pilot nicknames are similar or even derived from the official common name (such as "Bug" and "Super Bug" for the F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet).
The current regulations and procedures relating to employing this system are laid out in DoD and branch documents, including Air Force Joint Instruction 16-401 , and are not classified. These regulations replaced the previous regulations which were originally introduced in 1962 (See 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system).
There are 10 potential components of a system's designation, comprising the three basic parts of the designation.
Optional prefix to denote vehicles with unique status, such as non-flying or experimental.
Optional additional mission identifier which clarifies or notes modification of the basic mission.
Identifies method of launch for missiles and rockets.
The most basic component of the initial part of the designation, identifies the basic design mission of the craft.
Identifies non-standard vehicle types.
Serial number assigned to each design of the same mission type, with a dash separating the mission and number.
A letter suffix to indicate which series within a design the vehicle belongs to.
For missiles and rockets, an identifier to designate specific changes in missile configuration.
For aircraft, a defined configuration within a series or design.
Individual examples have a serial number to identify them.
Status prefix is an optional prefix not often used for vehicles in regular service. If used, it is the first letter in the MDS. Authorized current status prefixes are:
Captive. Only used for rockets and missiles, C applies to missiles designed to be carried in their launch environment but are incapable of actual launch.
Dummy. Only used for rockets and missiles which are non-flying, primarily for ground training.
Grounded. Applied to aircraft which are permanently grounded, most often used for ground training of crews and support. This is only applied as a permanent designation. Use is rare.
Temporary Special Test. Applied to craft involved with special testing of temporarily installed equipment. The J Prefix is used for aircraft that can be reasonably returned to their original configuration following tests. An example is aircraft used as testbeds for new electronics, but which will or may not retain that equipment after tests are complete.
Permanent Special Test. Applied to craft involved with special testing on a permanent basis, with modifications to their configuration that make return to original configuration impractical. Many military aircraft transferred to NASA for aeronautical research carry this designation.
Experimental. Applied to craft which are not yet accepted for service, or to prototypes for which standard configuration has not been finalized. Most prototypes of the past carried this prefix, but it should not be confused with craft given an X basic mission symbol. The X status prefix is for designs for other missions, but at an experimental stage of the design process.
Prototype. Originally applied to demonstration craft where configuration had been determined, but from the 1970s on applied to all prototypes of aircraft intended for production.
Planning. Applied to designs in the planning/pre-development phase.
Modified mission symbols
Many craft have been designed for more specific missions than their basic mission symbol would indicate, and many design series have been designed for different missions than the original design, and may or may not still maintain capability for the original mission. The modified mission symbol provides the services the ability to accurately indicate a craft's mission without losing commonality with the basic design MDS. If utilized, the modified mission symbol is placed directly in front of the basic mission symbol. Modified mission symbols are not used for rockets and missiles. Currently authorized modified mission symbols are:
Attack. Similar to the basic mission symbol, A applies to aircraft modified to attack land or sea targets. Example is the AC-130U Spectre, a transport modified for ground attack missions.
Cargo. Similar to the basic mission symbol, C applies to aircraft modified to carry cargo and passengers.
Director. Applies to aircraft modified to control unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones.
Electronics. Applies to aircraft modified with addition of extensive electronic equipment, either for enhancement of their basic mission, or as a platform for specifically electronic missions such as providing electronic countermeasures (ECM), airborne early warning (AEW), airborne command and control (ACC), or communications relay. Example is the EP-3A Orion, a patrol aircraft outfitted with special electronics to collect electronic data.
Fighter. Similar to the basic mission symbol, F applies to aircraft modified to engage in air combat. Used on many American fightercraft.
Search and Rescue. Similar to the basic mission symbol, H applies to aircraft modified to assist search and rescue (SAR) operations. Example is the HU-25 Guardian, a utility transport modified for Coast Guard search and rescue coordination.
Tanker. Applies to aircraft modified to carry and transfer aviation fuel in flight to other aircraft. Example is the KA-6D Intruder, an attack aircraft modified with tanks and hoses to provide aerial refueling.
Cold Weather. Applies to aircraft modified to operate in Arctic or Antarctic environments. Example is the LC-130, a transport modified to deliver logistics support to Antarctic stations.
Multi-Mission. Applies to aircraft modified to perform various missions, in particular special operations modifications. Also used as a catch all for missions that neither fit in any category, nor warrant their own.
Observation. Applies to aircraft modified to perform observation of enemy or potential enemy positions, and patrol borders or areas of potential infiltration. Example is the OA-10A, an attack aircraft modified to provide observation of enemy territory.
Patrol. Similar to the basic mission symbol, P applies to aircraft modified to perform maritime patrol.
Drone. Applies to craft modified to operate unmanned, under control of ground or air directors or autonomously. Example is the QF-106 Delta Dart, a fighter modified to fly under remote control as a target for missile testing.
Reconnaissance. Similar to the basic mission symbol, R applies to aircraft modified to perform air reconnaissance of enemy forces, territory, and facilities. Example is the RF-5E Tiger II, a fighter with added reconnaissance cameras and equipment for photographing enemy positions.
Anti-Submarine. Similar to the basic mission symbol, S applies to aircraft modified to search for, locate, and attack enemy submarines.
Training. Similar to the basic mission symbol, T applies to aircraft modified for use as trainers, both initial and operational. Examples are two-seat operational training versions of single-seat aircraft, such as the TA-4J and TF-102. Fully combat-capable two-seaters are usually simply assigned a new series letter.
Utility. Similar to the basic mission symbol, U applies to aircraft modified to allow use as utility and base support aircraft. Example is the UP-3 Orion, a patrol plane modified for transportation of staff, mail, and operations in support of bases and installations.
Staff/VIP. Applied to aircraft modified for transport of staff and ranking personnel with furnishment of comfortable accommodations. Example is the VC-25, a 747 modified to serve as the Presidential transport, or Air Force One.
Weather. Applied to aircraft modified for weather monitoring and air sampling. Example is the WC-135, a transport modified with special equipment for air sampling. The W designation covers air sampling to detect nuclear, biological, and chemical contamination, and for intelligence gathering on foreign nuclear testing.
Basic mission symbol
The basic mission symbol is the heart of the mission part of the designation. No designation is without it, and some designations consist of only a basic mission symbol for the mission part, such as the F-14 or C-130. The following are the officially authorized basic mission symbols:
Attack. Attack craft are designed to directly attack enemy land or sea targets, interdict enemy movements and support, and strike precision targets. Examples are the A-6Intruder and A-10Thunderbolt II.
Bomber. Bombers are designed to attack strategic and tactical targets with heavy bomb loads and missiles. They carry heavy loads of free-fall and stand-off weaponry. Examples are the B-52Stratofortress and B-2ASpirit.
Cargo. Transports are designed to carry cargo and passengers to provide tactical logistical support and strategic mobility to other forces. Examples are the C-2Greyhound and C-130Hercules.
Electronic. Electronics craft are designed explicitly to fulfill electronic specialty missions such as ECM, ACC, AEW, and communications. Examples are the E-2Hawkeye and E-3Sentry.
Fighter. Fighters are designed to intercept and engage enemy aircraft and missiles. It is also a catch-all for multi-mission aircraft, even if it is primarily designed for ground-attack purpose. Examples are the F-22Raptor and F-16Fighting Falcon.
Airborne Laser. Laser craft are those who are primarily designed to employ laser weaponry against air and ground targets. This is a very new designation, and only applies to the AL-1 ABL program.
Observation. Observation craft are designed to maintain observation over land, primarily territory either held by enemy forces or susceptible to infiltration. Unlike reconnaissance craft, they loiter over area providing observation over time. Examples are the O-1Bird Dog and OV-10Bronco.
Patrol. Patrol craft are designed for maritime reconnaissance missions, including anti-submarine warfare. Example is the P-3Orion.
Utility: Utility craft are utilized for miscellaneous missions and base support. Example, reconnaissance jet, but for disinformation named UU-2
Research: Research craft are designed for experimental and developmental research programs. Unlike the X mission modifier, the X basic mission symbol is used for craft solely designed for this purpose, with no operational mission intended or feasible. Examples are the entire series of X-planes from the Bell X-1 on.
Vehicle type symbols
For non-standard vehicle types (vehicles other than piloted, fixed-wing and self-propelled aircraft which are wholly supported by aerodynamic lift from liftoff to touchdown), a final symbol is added after the basic mission symbol to identify the vehicle type. Current applicable symbols are as follow:
Glider. A glider is a fixed-wing aircraft designed to use air currents for normal lift, although it may have an engine.
Helicopter. A helicopter is any rotary-wing aircraft.
Unmanned. An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is any aircraft without capacity for a human pilot, but not merely a missile or rocket.
Spaceplane. A spaceplane is a vehicle designed to fly beyond earth's atmosphere and return. This vehicle code was poorly chosen, as it conflicts with the mission code S (Anti-Submarine Warfare). "ES" could equally designate a spaceplane designed specifically for electronic warfare or an anti-submarine plane modified for that purpose.
Lighter than air. A lighter than air craft is designed to remain aloft through buoyancy of lighter than air gases. Such craft include blimps and balloons.
Rocket/missile launch environment
All rockets and missiles contain a symbol to indicate the launch method, be it from the air, ground, sea, etc. The following are the currently authorized symbols for launch environments. These are not used for other aerospace vehicles.
Multiple. The missile can be launched from various environments. The BGM-109 Tomahawk, for instance, can launch from a ground unit, aircraft, or ship-mounted launcher.
Coffin. Stored in an unhardened horizontal container (less than 45 degree angle) at ground level and either launched horizontally or raised vertical for launch. Coffin launchers may be either on land or at sea. For an example, see the early versions of the AtlasICBM.
Individual. The missile is launched by an individual soldier in the field, otherwise referred to as man-portable. Example is the FIM-92Stinger, a light man-portable surface-to-air missile (SAM).
Ground. The missile is launched directly from the ground surface, including runways.
Silo-Stored. The missile stored vertically in a silo but raised to ground level for launch. An example is the Atlas-F.
Silo-Launched. The missile is launched from its storage silo, buried in the ground.
Mobile. The missile is launched from a mobile ground vehicle.
Pad. Like a traditional space rocket, the missile is stored and launched from an unprotected ground facility.
Ship. The missile is launched from a ship or barge.
Space. The missile is launched from a spacecraft. This is so far used only for the upper stage of another rocket like the SSB-8 Centaur.
Underwater. The missile is launched from a submarine or underwater device.
Rocket/missile mission symbol
Rockets and missiles are assigned a single mission symbol, which usually denotes the intended target type of the missile. For most types of missile, the combination of launch environment and mission symbols form a from-to combination (surface-to-air, ship-to-submarine) that gives one a good idea of the potential uses for the missile.
Transport. Applies to vehicles designed to carry cargo and deliver it to a location. This can also be used to designate a carrier for electronics or weapons systems.
Decoy. Applies to vehicles that function as decoys for defeating enemy anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses.
Electronics. Applies to vehicles that carry out electronic missions such as communications or countermeasures.
Ground. Applies to vehicles designed to attack surface targets, including vehicles.
Intercept. Applies to vehicles designed to attack aerial targets, including both aircraft and missiles.
Launch detection. Applies to vehicles designed to detect launch of missiles and track and identify enemy aircraft and missiles. This also applies to detection and monitoring of space launches and re-entry.
Scientific. Applies to vehicles designed to collect scientific data.
Navigation. Applies to navigational assistance designs.
Drone. Applies to a vehicle designed to be remotely controlled.
Space support. Applies to vehicles designed to support space programs and activities.
Training. Applies to training designs.
Underwater. Applies to vehicles designed to attack submarines and underwater targets.
Weather. Applies to vehicles designed to obtain weather data and collect aerial samples.
Vehicle type symbol
For rockets and missiles, the vehicle type symbol identifies the basic vehicle type and will be the final symbol in the mission part of the MDS.
Booster. Boosters are primary or auxiliary propulsion units for other vehicles.
Missile. Guided missiles are unmanned vehicles flying a path controlled by a guidance system.
Probe. Probes are non-orbital unmanned vehicles designed primarily to collect data within the aerospace environment.
Rocket. Rockets are single-use unmanned vehicles without guidance after launch.
Satellite. Satellites are space vehicles which orbit the earth.
The F/A-18 Hornet uses an unofficial designation to highlight the fact that its multi-role capabilities were built in from the earliest stages (as opposed to a hypothetical AF-18: a fighter modified for the attack role), however other comparable aircraft, such as the F-16 and later F-15s do not seem to have even gained a modified mission A, instead remaining with their F designation. This is the case even with the F-15E Strike Eagle, an F-15 variant used exclusively in the attack role. It should also be noted that the system specifically forbids the use of slashes and other characters, and the Hornet is referred to in official documentation as the FA-18, which implies an attack aircraft modified for the fighter role. The F-22 Raptor was designated "F/A-22" for two years from 2003-2005 before being redesignated F-22 immediately before being transitioned to active service status. A strike version of the F-22 was mooted with the designation FB-22.
The F-117 Nighthawk has no practical air-to-air capability, and should probably be an attack aircraft or a bomber. Some sources[who?] suggest that the ex-fighter pilot-dominated Air Force could not conceive of the most advanced aircraft being anything other than a fighter, but a more plausible reason comes from the need for secrecy. The real reason, however, is that several treaties the U.S. has entered into place restrictions on the addition of new bombers into its military inventory. It is rumoured that F-112 to F-116 were Soviet aircraft 'acquired' for testing (as had previously been the case with the MiG-21 used in Project Have Doughnut which was designated the YF-110,) and it was perhaps hoped that anyone coming across an F-117 designation would assume that it was also a captured aircraft.
Although the mission letters of the AV-8 Harrier's designation are correct, the series number is not. The Ryan XV-8 ("Fleep") had already existed, so, while A-8 would have been fine, the V designation should have been AV-14.
The original designation of the SR-71 Blackbird, RS-71 was specifically allowed for in the original system, standing for Reconnaissance and Surveillance - or, it is sometimes said, Reconnaissance and Strike. Although there is an urban legend that president Lyndon Johnson made a slip of the tongue in his announcement speech, a look at the original speech he was reading from shows that this is not so. It transpires that USAF Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay simply liked the sound of SR-71 better that RS-71, and had the speech changed. The SR was explained as Strategic Reconnaissance.
The Boeing 747 has three different designations in U.S. service - E-4, (V)C-25 and AL-1 - something which violates the basic purpose of the system.
The CC-130J Hercules referred to the stretched C-130J-30 Hercules. The -30 suffix was not supportable in the system, yet another series letter (C-130L, for instance) was apparently not appropriate, so a modified mission letter had to be added. Hence, the CC-130J is, bizarrely, a cargo aircraft "modified" for the cargo role. This was later dropped. The CC-130J should not be confused with the CC-130 Hercules operated by the Canadian Airforce. The first "C" identifies the aircraft as a Canadian asset. Canada later acquired C-130Js as CC-130Js.
Many manufacturers have used non-standard modifiers for commercial purposes; for instance, the Spanish F/A-18 Hornets were 'designated' EF-18 by McDonnell Douglas (the E standing for "España"), and AH-64D Apache helicopters were designated WAH-64 by licenced manufacturerWestland. Non-standard series letters, especially ones the U.S. Air Force has no intention of progressing to, are often used to designate the intended country of use, such as I (Israel - e.g. F-15I), J (Japan), K (South Korea or United Kingdom), S (Saudi Arabia) and SG (Singapore).