How U.S. Military Aircraft Are Named?

How U.S. Military Aircraft Are Named
A formation of 4th generation fighter jets from the 40th Flight Test Squadron flies near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla, Jan. 31, 2022. The 40th FLTS executes developmental flight tests for fourth-generation fighter aircraft including the A-10, F-15, and F-16. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Raven)

Have you ever wondered how U.S. military aircraft are named?  The United States Military employs a formal naming system known as the Mission Design Series for all of its aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and spacecraft.

The naming system was first introduced in the 1960s to replace separate systems used by different parts of the US military. It’s important to note that this designation is assigned regardless of the manufacturer and also applies to commercial aircraft repurposed for military use.

The name consists of two parts, always connected by a dash. The first part (to the left of the dash) indicates the aircraft’s type or mission. Commonly used designators include the following:

  • A for attack aircraft
  • B for bomber aircraft
  • C for cargo aircraft
  • E for special electronic installation aircraft (such as AEW)
  • F for fighter aircraft
  • H for helicopters
  • K for Tanker
  • O for observation aircraft
  • P for patrol aircraft
  • R for reconnaissance aircraft
  • S for Antisubmarine
  • T for training aircraft
  • U for Utility
  • V for VTOL & STOL
  • X for Research
How U.S. Military Aircraft Are Named
Military Analysis Network. man.fas.org

For instance, two letters to the left of the hyphen represent a distinct meaning. If they are divided by ‘/’ as in F/A-18, this signifies dual use, with the aircraft being equally suitable for both roles.

If the two letters are combined, it signifies a modified mission. In such instances, the first letter signifies the modified mission, and the second letter represents the standard mission. For example, the VC-137 designation indicates that the basic mission or type is “C” for cargo/transport. The “V” prefix signifies the modified mission of transporting staff personnel. If the designation were YVC-137, the additional “Y” prefix would indicate prototype status.

Suffixes are also utilized to denote different models of the basic aircraft. For instance, the C-137B would be a newer version of the C-137A. These prefixes have been used for many years, although not all apply to USAF aircraft.

Many fighter jets bear names of predatory birds, like the F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor, although several other names are also utilized.

In a missile system example, one model of the Minuteman ICBM is the LGM-30G, where the vehicle type is “M” for guided missiles. The letter “G” indicates the mission and surface attack, while the additional prefix “L” specifies the launch environment as silo-launched. If the LGM designation were to be prefixed with an “X,” it would indicate that the missile system’s status was experimental.

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