Friday, May 15, 2009

Decoding Codenames


Western intelligence organizations began applying codenames to Soviet military equipment shortly after the Second World War. Codenames were a convenient way to describe military equipment when the native designators were often unknown. Eventually, two naming systems became the standard for Western military use. The US DoD assigned a series of alphanumeric designators to missile systems, and the five-nation Air Standards Coordinating Committee (ASCC, ASIC as of 2005) assigned a codename to various military systems and weapons.


The DoD system assigns identifiers to missiles using an alphanumeric format. The two-letter prefix denotes the missile type, and the numeral following denotes the specific system in that prefix series. For example, AA-8 is the 8th air-to-air missile assigned a designator. Missiles are categorized using the following prefixes:

AA-air to air missile
AS-air to surface missile
AT-anti tank missile
SA-surface to air missile system
SL-space launch vehicle
SS-surface to surface missile
SSC-surface to surface missile for coastal defense (an anti-ship weapon)

Other identifiers have been employed, but those listed above are the most common.

Using the information above, a lot of information can be inferred by examining an identifier. It can be inferred, for example, that the SA-20 is likely a newer system than the SA-10.

Two additional letters can be used before the numerical identifier to describe a system. These are N, denoting a naval system, and X, denoting an experimental system. In the case of the former, these are assigned separate categories. SA-N- and SS-N- prefixes denote naval SAMs and SSMs, respectively. These series are separate from the SA- and SS- series. In other words, the SA-N-4 does not represent a naval variant of the SA-4. In fact, until recently naval SAMs were assigned different numerical designators than land-based counterparts. The naval SA-10 was the SA-N-6. This is because designators are believed ot be assigned chronologically. The first naval SAM system, therefore, was the SA-N-1, even though it was a navalized SA-3. The X designator can be used with naval systems, and in this case it is employed as follows: SA-NX-20. This denotes an experimental naval SAM system, being the 20th naval SAM system identified.

Missiles which are for test purposes are not assigned designators. Only weapon systems believed to be undergoing trials for service are given designators, and they typically possess the X prefix denoting their experimental status. When the weapon enters service, the X is no longer used with that system.

Suffixes applied after the numeric designator are used to denote different variants of that system. For example, there are six in-service variants of the AA-10, and these are referred to as AA-10A through AA-10F.


The ASCC system assignes codenames to various pieces of military hardware. They are usually categorized by the first letter of their codename. Various suffixes are employed to denote different modifications or versions of the system. Systems are categorized into groupings using the following first letters:

A-air to air missile
C-cargo aircraft or airliner
F-fighter aircraft
G-surface to air missile/ABM
K-air to surface missile
M-miscellaneous aircraft (trainers, AEW&C, tankers, etc)
S-surface to surface missile

It is important to note that in the case of missiles, the codename refers to the missile itself, not the entire system. This becomes important when combining DoD and ASCC/ASIC designators to describe a system.

When dealing with aircraft, single syllable words denote propeller driven aircraft, while jet powered aircraft have two syllable codenames. For example, the Tu-95 has the codename BEAR, while the Tu-160 has the codename BLACKJACK.

Suffixes do not appear to follow a specific rule, but rather a set of loose rules. Firstly, the letters I and O are not used, to avoid confusion with the numbers 1 and 0. Modified variants can be denoted using the suffix Mod., followed by a numeral indicating which modification is being identified. This is commonly used for SAMs and SSMs. For example, GRUMBLE mod 1 refers to the 5V55R missile, while GRUMBLE mod 0 is the earlier 5V55K. Aircraft typically employ an alphabetical suffix to denote which variant of the airfract is being referred to. The Su-27 series is an excellent example. FLANKER-A refers to the original T-10 prototype series, while FLANKER-B refers to the T-10S series production model. Further examples include FLANKER-G for the Su-30MKK series, or FLANKER-H for the Su-30MKI series. Different variations of a subvariant are denoted by adding Variant to the codename, followed by a sequential numerical designator to note the variation. The FLANKER provides another example here, in the form of the Su-27M and Su-37. The former was designated FLANKER-E Variant 1, while the latter was designated FLANKER-E Variant 2.

The ASCC/ASIC system is different from the DoD system insofar as it often assigns codenames to anything identified regardless of whether or not it is predicted to be used operationally. For example, both the MiG-AT and Yak-130 received codenames, even though it was widely assumed that only one would be purchased for the Russian Air Force.

The ASCC/ASIC system also assignes two-word codenames to radar systems (airborne, ground-based, and naval), such as TOMB STONE, although these do not appear to follow any sort of naming convention. In some cases, such as SPOON REST or CLAM SHELL, the codenames are an amusing play on the visual appearance of the radar array.


As mentioned previously, US DoD and ASCC/ASIC designators can be combined to describe a given system. Consider the example of the S-300P series. Being a SAM system, it has a DoD designator prefixed with SA and an ASCC/ASIC codename starting with G: SA-10 GRUMBLE. Employing the proper suffixes can provide a detailed description of the system. A SAM battery described as employing SA-10B GRUMBLE Mod 0 systems can therefore be known to possess mobile components (SA-10B refers to the S-300PS or S-300PMU) equipped with the 5V55K missile. Ergo, the system is not operating to the limit of its capability, as the 5V55K is shorter-ranged and uses a simpler guidance method than the 5V55R or 5V55RD.


There are numerous errors in the way that these designators are referred and employed by analysts, journalists, and authors. First and foremost, ASCC and DoD codemanes are often used by NATO forces, and have erroneously been referred to as "NATO names". This is not the case; NATO did not devise these designators, the US DoD and/or the ASCC/ASIC did. Secondly, codenames are often not properly formatted. Codenames should be written in all capitals. Returning to the Su-27, the commonly seen printed name is Flanker rather than the correct FLANKER. Thirdly, correct codenames are often misused. Many sources refer to the 64N6 as TOMB STONE, when this is in fact BIG BIRD, for example. Other sources confuse the same issue altogether, referring to the guidance radar as "64N6 Tomb Stone". Correct codename, wrong radar system, and improperly formatted.


This is not intended as an all-inclusive lesson on Western codenames, but rather an introduction to how they are devised and employed. Understanding the systems in place aids an analyst who is not fully versed on Soviet/Russian system names (many Chinese or Warsaw Pact systems such as the JH-7 and L-29 have also been named using these systems as well), and also will aid in properly employing them.


For a comprehensive listing of known codenames and further explanation of other DoD and ASCC/ASIC sequences, Andreas Parsch has done a very good job here.


Allen Thomson said...

There's an additional set of designators for systems in R&D based on the test range where they're observed. See

Sean O'Connor said...

Very true, the website I link to covers all of them. I stayed away from a lot of the extra stuff because I wanted to focus on the main two, the DoD and ASCC/ASIC systems.

And I saw no real use in basically rewriting Andreas's article to suit my purposes when he did a great job in the first place!

Raul said...

Is there a similiar codename system that the russian armed forces use to designate the Western military hardware?

Sean O'Connor said...

I don't think so, they wouldn't have needed one anyway. We published all of the names of our kit in the open press, while the Soviets were very secretive about a lot of their designators and whatnot, to the point where we would almost have had to develop a codename system regardless.