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Aircraft Nomenclature (part 2): Europe

In part 1 of our Aircraft Nomenclature series we explored the conventions used in naming Russian and Chinese military aircraft—both indigenously and NATO-assigned. Here in part 2 we will address European combat aircraft conventions, consisting of indigenous terms only. NATO designations do not apply as the countries involved are indeed NATO members.

It bears mentioning up front that while standards are used by some countries, namely France and Sweden, multi-national consortiums tend to follow no particular standard. Instead, such designs typically feature a simple two-part assignment: one based on the project, the other a catchy name. Examples include the Panavia Tornado, SEPECAT Jaguar, and Eurofighter Typhoon.

This article focuses on naming conventions used by France and Sweden.

Dassault Aviation is a nearly century-old international aircraft manufacturer responsible for many military designs, such as the Rafale and Mirage series of fighters, as well as strategic bombers. Dassault assigns standard alphanumeric suffixes to denote aircraft particulars, such as E for export. Not surprisingly, however, there are exceptions to the rule. The letter A might be used for a prototype, such as with the Mirage III A and Rafale A, but the Mirage F1 A was the first operational variant and the author was unable to find any reference to a Mirage 2000 A (the prototype was listed as the 2000-01).

Table 1 lists the most commonly used Dassault aircraft model suffixes across its four most prolific fighter / attack designs.

Table 1 - Dassault Suffix Conventions

Single-letter suffixes are used in other applications, such as the Mirage III R tactical reconnaissance variant, Mirage 2000 N two-seat nuclear strike aircraft, and Rafale M single-seat model used in the maritime environment by the French Navy. Additionally, the Mirage 2000 uses numerical suffix extensions such as the 2000-5 and -9 with yet more follow-on letters and “Mk” designations.

A French Air Force Mirage 2000 during exercise Trident Juncture 2018. Photo by Jean-Luc Brunet / Armée de l’Air / Défense

Further, letter suffixes are also used for export customers, with and without the E. Greece, for example, operates the Mirage 2000 EG and two-seat Mirage 2000 BG, while Peru flies the Mirage 2000 P and DP. The Mirage F1 EE is a Spanish variant while the F1 BD was flown by Libya. Sometimes the same country will have two different letters, like India with its Mirage 2000 TH and TI. Other times the same letter is used for two different countries, such as the I which is also used for Taiwan and its Mirage 2000-5EI.

Table 2 lists export suffixes used for the various proliferated Dassault fighter / attack aircraft.

Table 2 - Dassault Export Suffix Conventions

What this boils down to is that while hardcore aviation enthusiasts understand all this intimately, the rest of us may need to dig a little deeper to fully grasp particular details about a Dassault aircraft—and who flies it—when presented with only its nomenclature.

Sweden is another nation with distinct naming conventions. Historically neutral in most conflicts, Sweden maintains strong political will and a vibrant defense industry, preferring to field its own fighter planes instead of joining consortiums or relying on designs of its larger allies. Aircraft from 80-year-old Saab AB, Sweden’s native aerospace and defense company, follow conventions more closely related to U.S. standards compared to French methodology.

A three-part alphanumeric system is used comprised of letters denoting the aircraft’s purpose, a number for its design series progression, and finally a one or two-letter suffix. Let’s start with the first part.

Like the U.S. F-14 that was primarily designed to be a fighter and A-10 that was ground attack, letters from Swedish words are used to denote an aircraft’s purpose. J from the Swedish word jakt, which translates to “hunting” in English, is used for fighters. A still works for attack; S for spaning means “reconnaissance,” etc.

Table 3 is a list of commonly used prefix letters for Swedish military aircraft.

Table 3 - Swedish Aircraft Prefix Conventions

The letter order is also consequential. In the U.S. system, an aircraft specialized for a particular mission is generally depicted with the modifying letter appearing before the core designator. For example, the SH-60 is a Seahawk helicopter specialized for anti-submarine warfare and the AC-130 is a gunship based on the Hercules cargo platform.

In Sweden, however, the letter for the core mission appears first followed by letters for amplifying capabilities. So, the JAS 39 is primarily a fighter with attack capability that also performs reconnaissance missions (and indeed, the Gripen was designed as a multirole aircraft from the beginning). The AJ 37 Viggen, on the other hand, is primarily an attack aircraft with a secondary air-to-air role. SF, SH, and SK prefixes are typically used alone.

A flight of JAS 39 Gripen aircraft taxi for takeoff. Photo by Mats Nyström/Försvarsmakten

The model number that follows reflects a logical progression and it should come as no surprise that the Gripen, as the newest fielded design, carries the highest existing model number—39. The older Viggen (37) and Draken (35) succeed models going all the way back to the World War II-era Saab 17 dive bomber. By convention, odd numbers are predominantly used for Swedish military aircraft.

The suffix following the model number is similar to U.S. conventions where A denotes the first fielded variant with follow on models earning successive letters. The Gripen matches the F/A-18 standard where A, C, and E models are single-seat; B, D, and F two-seat; and the C/D and E/F models are subsequent improvements on their predecessors. Other combinations are used on the now-obsolete Viggen and Draken.

And, of course, no discussion is complete without a look at the exceptions. While Saab aircraft maintain fairly consistent nomenclature, developmental JAS 39 variants are appearing with suffixes added not to the designation but to the name, such as the Gripen M proposed naval variant, Gripen UCAV unmanned proposal, and Gripen EW electronic attack variant pitched as an EA-18G Growler equivalent.

In conclusion, studying aircraft nomenclature remains a dubious pursuit. But to military aviation enthusiasts who enjoys digging deeper than a superficial scratch at the surface, a look at the conventions employed by France and Sweden can add further understanding and enjoyment of the aircraft fielded by these nations.

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