History

How enemy aircraft get their American nicknames

So, if you're a loyal WATM reader, you've probably noticed that, when we're talking Chinese or Russian aircraft, they've got some odd-sounding names. Fishbed, Flanker, Backfire, Bear, Badger… you may be wondering, "how the f*ck did they get that name?" Well, it's a long story – and it goes back to World War II.


This painting shows ground crews loading AS-16 Kickback air-to-surface missiles on a Tu-22M Backfire. (DOD painting)

In 1942, Captain Frank McCoy of the Army Air Force was tasked with heading the materiel section of Army Air Force intelligence for the Southwest Pacific. Early on, he realized that pilots could get confused about enemy fighters. To address this potential confusion, the Tennessee native began giving them nicknames. Fighters got male names, bombers and other planes got female names, and transports were given names that started with the letter T. Training planes were named for trees and gliders for birds.

When it first was encountered in the Pacific, the A6M3 version of the Zero was given the code name 'Hap,' drawing the ire of 'Hap' Arnold. (Japanese Navy photo)

The idea was a good one – and it began to spread across the entire Pacific. All went well until a new Japanese Navy fighter got the nickname, 'Hap.' You see, that was also the nickname of the Army Air Force Commander, General Henry "Hap" Arnold. To say Arnold wasn't happy is an understatement. McCoy was quickly called in to explain it.

This modernized MiG-21 Fishbed in service with the Indian Air Force is armed with AA-12 Adder and AA-11 Archer air-to-air missiles. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Sheeju)

When the Cold War started, and both the Soviet Union and Communist China became threats, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned to a version of McCoy's naming conventions. They adjusted the system. This time, code names for fighters started with the letter F, those for bombers started with B, transport planes start with the letter C, other planes start with M. If the name has one syllable, it's a prop plane. If it has multiple syllables, it's a jet. Helicopter names start with the letter H.

For a comprehensive list, go to designation-systems.net.

Chinese Communist planes, like the J-8 Finback — shown here flying a little too close to a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries — were also given NATO code names. (DoD photo)

The system also covered missiles: Air-to-air missiles start with the letter A, air-to-surface missiles start with the letter K, surface-to-surface missiles start with the letter S, and surface-to-air missiles start with the letter G. NATO even began to use code names for Soviet and Chinese Communist submarines and surface ships.

Code names were also assigned to ships, submarines, and missiles. This Indian Navy Osa-class missile boat is firing an SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship missile. (Indian Navy photo)

McCoy retired as a two-star general in 1968, but what he did in World War II still helps pilots and troops today. So, that's why they call a Flanker, a multisyllabic fighter jet, a Flanker.

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