This unclassified article was originally penned in 2015 for inclusion into a classified Navy tactics periodical.
Juliet was wrong.
…Well, okay, she was partly wrong. While a rose by any other name may indeed smell as sweet, when it comes to military equipment, what’s in a name in fact does matter. That’s because foreign military aircraft designations, particularly those of Russia and China, convey specific information about the hardware—from the design bureau that created it, to its intended purpose, to follow-on variants.
Threat aircraft designations are comprised of two sections separated by a forward slash, such as MiG-29SMT / FULCRUM F or J-8F / FINBACK C. The first part is the indigenous designator, or designation assigned in Russia or China. The second part is the NATO codename and variant identifier assigned by the Air and Space Interoperability Council (ASIC).
Let’s begin with the first part.
Indigenous designations are typically a combination of letters and numbers separated by a dash. For Russian aircraft, the initial letters reflect the agency that designed the aircraft, such as the Sukhoi Aviation Corporation or the former Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau, now Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG; both bureaus are well known for their fighter aircraft.
Most existing design bureaus were created during the Soviet Union era when central planning directed bureaus to design certain aircraft types, thus firms are typically known for only one or maybe two types of aircraft. Hence, lacking any other information, we can already distinguish something about a Russian aircraft just from the given name. For example, we can be fairly certain the Ka-52 is some sort of helicopter if we know the Kamov Design Bureau creates exclusively rotary-wing aircraft. Table 1 depicts the most common Russian design bureaus, their two- or three-letter identifiers, and their most familiar aircraft design types today and historically, if it differed.
Russian Designer Bureaus
|Design Bureau||Identifier||Typical Aircraft Designs|
|Antonov State Company||An||Transports|
|Ilyushin Aviation Complex||Il||Ground attack and bombers during the 1940s and 50s, transports and passenger aircraft today|
|Kamov Design Bureau||Ka||Ground support, transport, and ASW helicopters|
|Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant||Mi||Attack and transport helicopters|
|Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (1)||MiG||Fighters|
|Sukhoi Aviation Corporation||Su||Fighters, fighter-bombers, and ground attack|
|Tupolev||Tu||Bombers, transports, and passenger aircraft|
|Yak Aircraft Corporation(2)||Yak||Fighters and bombers during WWII, transports and trainers today|
(2) Formerly Yakovlev Design Bureau JSC
Instead of design bureaus, Chinese aircraft designations begin with one or two letters based on the aircraft’s intended purpose, such as ‘J’ for fighter or ‘H’ for bomber. Table 2 depicts the most commonly used Chinese military aircraft letter designations, the Chinese word they represent, and their associated meanings. Combinations of letters are used in some instances, such as the JL-9, a fighter-trainer.
Chinese Aircraft Nomenclature
The numbering that follows is somewhat inconsequential other than that it generally reflects chronologic prototype development, similar to U.S. practices. Russian and Chinese fighters and fixed-wing ground attack aircraft tend to be odd-numbered (e.g. MiG-19, J-11, Su-25) while bombers, helicopters, and all others are even-numbered (H-6, Mi-24, Il-76). This is not a strict convention, however; numerous exceptions—such as the Su-30, J-10, and Tu-95—buck the even/odd trend.
More letters follow the numbers. For Chinese aircraft, the letter suffix reflects subsequent variants of a particular model with ‘A’ being the first modification, or second aircraft variant. So the J-11B, for example, is the third indigenous FLANKER variant China produced—the first was the original J-11 and the second the J-11A.
Russian aircraft, on the other hand, feature letters to indicate an aircraft’s specific purpose, or how it has been subsequently modified, with letter assignments being made based on a corresponding Russian word. The letter ‘P’, for example, is taken from the word perekhvatchik, meaning ‘interceptor’, and identifies aircraft such as the obsolete MiG-25P.
In fact, the FOXBAT series provides a useful illustration for this discussion as many other variants of the aircraft exist, such as the MiG-25R, MiG-25RBV, and MiG-25RBT reconnaissance models; the MiG-25PU two-seat trainer; the revised MiG-25PD, MiG-25PDS A/A interceptors; and so on. As can be seen, many letter suffix possibilities exist in the FOXBAT series alone, each with a distinct meaning. Table 3 provides a partial list of the many possible letter suffixes for Russian fighter aircraft, the corresponding Russian words, and the English translations. Note that some letters have more than one meaning.
Russian Aircraft Naming Suffixes
|BM||Bolyshaya Modernizaciya||Large modernization|
|F||Forsirovannyy||Up-rated or enhanced engine|
|I||Imitator||Simulator (used for test)|
|K||Kommercheskiy||Commercial or export|
|Korabelnogo Bazirovaniya||Deck-based (carrier variant)|
|M||Modernizovannyy or Modifiziert||Modernized|
|N||Nositel||Nuclear weapon carrier|
|PD||Podyomniye Dvigateli||Lifting engines|
|R||Razvedchik or Razuznavatelen||Reconnaissance|
|S||Seriynyy||Production or serial|
|Shompol||Side-looking airborne radar|
|SPS||Sduv Pogranichnovo Sloya||Boundary layer blowing|
|V||SRS Vraz||ELINT equipment|
Letter suffixes are also used to designate export variants customized for another country. The Su-30MKI, for example, is a FLANKER modified (‘M’) for export (‘K’) to India (‘I’). Table 4 lists the letters and corresponding export countries for recent Russian aircraft proliferation. The letters are derived from the export country spelling in Russian, not English, and thus may not coincide.
Russian Aircraft Naming Country Modifiers
|Letter||Export Country (English Spelling)|
Finally, in some instances numbers are used with or in lieu of letter suffixes to identify follow-on modifications, such as the Su-27SM3 / FLANKER J mod.
What this all boils down to is indigenous aircraft designators are helpful to understand variants of aircraft but somewhat limited in usefulness due to the complexity. Fortunately, the second part—the NATO codename and variant identifier—is a little more user-friendly, as we will see next.
The Air Standardization Coordination Committee was formed after World War II in part to provide unambiguous, easily understood English codenames for Eastern Bloc and Chinese military equipment so that Western forces could use those simple words in place of the oftentimes-cumbersome indigenous names. To reduce confusion, committee members selected unusual or made-up names with the idea that such names would be easier to memorize and less likely to occur in normal everyday conversation. Today, ASIC retains the important responsibility of assigning NATO codenames.
Fortunately for us, early committee members diligently selected a logical threat naming convention that persists to this day. Bombers are assigned a code word beginning with the letter ‘B’, cargo planes ‘C’, fighters ‘F’, and so on. Table 5 lists the most commonly used letters, their meanings, and a real-world example.
NATO Codename Conventions
Propeller-driven, fixed-wing aircraft are assigned single-syllable codenames (e.g. BEAR, MAY), while jet-powered aircraft are given two-syllable names (CONDOR, FULLBACK, etc.). This tidbit can be particularly useful during recognition training.
With this understanding, for example, an observer provided with the accompanying photograph is more likely to correctly identify the aircraft as the Tu-142M / BEAR F then, say, a Tu-22M / BACKFIRE A or Tu-16P / BADGER L based on the propeller engines clearly evident under its wings. The BACKFIRE and BADGER must both be jet-powered because of their two-syllable names.
The letter following the NATO codename reflects the chronological assignment of subsequent variants within that codename family. ASIC however, assigns a new letter only when a significant airframe modification or increase in capability is observed over the previous variant.
Our FOXBAT example from earlier provides a useful illustration: the MiG-25P was the first operational model noted and thus earned the codename FOXBAT A. When the MiG-25R reconnaissance variant was first observed, it was assigned FOXBAT B. Even though the MiG-25RB, MiG-25RBV, MiG-25RBT subsequently debuted with incrementally better reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gear, because of their commonality ASIC assigned them all FOXBAT B designations. The two-seat MiG-25PU trainer, however, was sufficiently different to earn FOXBAT C. Later improved reconnaissance variants were assigned FOXBAT D, and so on.
Finally, numeric variant identifiers are occasionally used within the intelligence community to distinguish aircraft when multiple variants are assigned the same NATO codename and letter identifier. For example, the Su-30MKK, Su-30MK2, and Su-27UBK and are all assigned the codename FLANKER G. To distinguish between the three aircraft, some documents refer to the Su-27MKK as the FLANKER G v1, the Su-27MK2 as FLANKER G v2, and the Su-27UBK as FLANKER G v3.
In conclusion, neither quoting Shakespeare nor being able to articulate the nuances of threat aircraft naming conventions is going to make you the life of the party. Trust me. But if knowledge truly is power, then awareness of the logic that goes into threat equipment designations can be one more useful tool in a pilot’s tool kit.