The tradition of naming major operations with an inspiring name is relatively new considering the long history of warfare. Battles and conflicts before 1918 are titled after a city or territory: The Battle of this, The Siege of that, or The Third battle of this and that. In 1918, the central powers launched Operation Fist Punch and were able to capture the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine from the Russian Bolsheviks. Over the course of 11 days the Russians surrendered and highlighted the merits of naming offensive operations with a name. From this point forward commanders around the world contemplated giving operations proper names.
The World Wars made it a thing
During World War I Germany favored naming operations over radio communications to maintain secrecy. When we fast forward to World War II the naming of operations had evolved. The Nazi empire, armed with the newly forged weapon of propaganda, blazed across Europe with the intent of intimidating allied forces and inspiring support for the war in Berlin. However, the allies had their own champions such as Frank Capra, to counter the Nazi’s Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the will. While the media giants battled on the silver screen to win the hearts of the civilians at home, allied commanders debated, agreed, and named operations to maintain operational security and motivate the troops conducting them. For example, the British launched Operation Chronometer in 1941 to capture the port city of Assab on the west coast of the Red Sea. On the American front, operations follow a color code prior to 1943.
Winston Churchill is the grandfather of modern ops names
The turning point for the Pentagon on the subject of operational names came when Winston Churchill petitioned a better way of naming them. He convinced allied high command that they should change the name of Operation Soapsuds, the bombing raid of Romanian oil fields, to Operation Tidal Wave. At the time British commanders were vulnerable to committing their troops to comical names he outlined three clear guidelines:
1. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency. They ought not to be names of a frivolous character. They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections, names of living people, ministers and commanders should be avoided.
2. After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called “Bunnyhug” or “Ballyhoo.”
3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.
The U.S. adapted to use nouns and adjectives for operations consistently afterwards. With success gaining momentum in both the European and Pacific theaters, the importance of good sounding names grows as well. America did have some proper sounding names that obscured the mission such as the Manhattan Project in 1941. America had parallel thinking with Britain, it just needed a little nudge to cross over.
The U.S. is the current champion of Badass Operation Names
The allies had Operation OVERLORD for the D-Day invasion and Operation Downfall, the proposed invasion of Japan. Among the sea of operational names that sprouted from the war, it had become an American tradition to pick awe inspiring names for operations of future wars. Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom – Americans are the best at it. Our secret ingredient is a little computer system, NICKA. It that tracks the names of code words, exercises, and nicknames to ensure they are not duplicated. The task of new names falls upon commanders at the highest levels. The pentagon chooses first and second words for an operation dictated by OPNAVINST 5511.37D in three steps:
First, Permanent First Word Assignment. Major users are permanently assigned first words in enclosure (1) to avoid duplication. Applicable activities shall use these for all originating nicknames/exercise terms. Authorized Navy first words are chosen from blocks of letters assigned to Navy, listed in enclosure (1). All nicknames which are exercise terms will follow the criteria for propriety given in subparagraph 7d.
Second, Requests for first word assignments will be made in writing by the initiating activity (see paragraph 9a) to CNO (N30P), who will ensure its validity. Nicknames/exercise terms must be approved before use. CNO (N30P) is the approving authority.
Third, Second Word Assignment. The second word is used in combination with the permanently assigned first word to identify a specific nickname/exercise term. Users with first, word assignments can suggest a second word to CNO (N30P) in writing. All second words must be approved by CNO (N30P) before use. Unlike first words, second words are not restricted by alphabet. The first and second words combined must meet criteria in subparagraph 7d.
For decades the U.S. has had names that get the juices flowing. Operation Red Dawn was the prelude to the toppling of Iraq and capture of Saddam Hussein. Operation Urgent Fury served to make an example of the island nation of Grenada. It was getting too close for comfort with the Soviet Union. The millennial generation has Operation Phantom Fury, the Battle for Fallujah. There are still more blank pages in the book of history with room for future wars. Rising tensions in the South China Sea may call upon the pentagon once again to come up with a name. This time to liberate the pacific, only time will tell what it may be.