Current Designations of U.S. Military Aircraft (2023)

Current Designations of U.S. Military Aircraft

Copyright © 2003-2006 Andreas Parsch

1 Introduction

2 The Designation System

3 Sources

The current designation system for U.S. military aircraft was introduced by the Department of Defense in 1962.It was based on the system used by the U.S. Air Force between 1948 and 1962, and replaced the older systems usedby the U.S Navy (and Marine Corps) and the U.S. Army. Existing aircraft which used designations not compliantwith the new system (all Navy and Marine Corps, many Army, and a few Air Force aircraft) were redesignated effectivelyon 18 September 1962 (see source [1] and article on Aircraft Redesignations in 1962).The designation system has since been slightly revised and extended,and the latest version is defined by Air Force Instruction (AFI) 16-401(I) (formerly Air Force Joint Instruction 16-401)Designating and Naming Military Aerospace Vehicles (PDF file, 480 kB), dated14 March 2005. AFI 16-401(I) not only covers aircraft designations, but also thedesignations of unmanned vehicles (missiles etc.) and some of the bureaucratic red tape tobe followed for actually assigning a name or a designation to a military aerospace vehicle.

According to the rules, all aircraft operated by the U.S. military services (Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army) areto receive an official designation as defined in AFI 16-401(I). In practice, however, all services operate a fewoff-the-shelf aircraft under the manufacturers' designations. The U.S. Coast Guard also allocates militarydesignations to most of its aircraft, and the NASA uses the X-for-Experimental designation series extensivelyfor its own research aircraft.

The purpose of this article is to present an overview of theaircraft designation system together with notes explaining the details and some exceptions. The missile designationsystem is covered in the article onCurrent Designations of U.S. Unmanned Military Aerospace Vehicles, and the actualprocess of allocating a designation is explained on the page aboutAllocation of Official Aerospace Vehicle MDS Designations.

A U.S. military aerospace vehicle designation is also known as an "MDS Designation". MDS stands for"Mission-Design-Series", naming the three most important components of the designation. An MDS looks as follows(all examples are real-world designations):

Examples:F-15EEagle
EA-6BProwler
NKC-135AStratotanker
YRAH-66AComanche
MQ-9AReaper
CH-47FChinook
YF-23A
XV-6AKestrel
YV-22AOsprey *
EKA-3BSkywarrior *
(6)(3)(2)(1)(4)(5)

*Note: The last two MDS designations are not strictly conforming to the regulations, as will be shown below.

In the following section, each of the six elements is explained in detail. For all letter symbols a year range is given in bracketsto document when this particular symbol is/was valid. If one of the bounds is given as a range (e.g. 1978/86), this means that I don'tknow the respective year more exactly.

(1) Vehicle Type: All aircraft which are not "normal" aeroplanes (i.e. powered, fixed-wing, heavier-than-air, non-VTOL, manned,atmospheric aircraft), use one of the following symbols to designate the type of aerospace craft:

  • D - UAV Control Segment[2002-today] (see note 1)
  • G - Glider[1978/86-today] (see note 2)
  • H - Helicopter[1962-today]
  • Q - UAV [1997-today] (see note 3)
  • S - Spaceplane[1988/89-today] (see note 4)
  • V - VTOL/STOL[1962-today] (see note 5)
  • Z - Lighter-than-Air[1962-1965/67, 1978/86-today] (see note 6)

Notes for Vehicle Type Symbol:

  1. "D" applies to integrated ground control equipment for unmanned aerial vehicles. I.e., items designated in the "D" seriesare not aerospace vehicles!
  2. "G" includes motorgliders, which can be routinely used for unpowered flight.
  3. The "Q" series has been introduced to designate reusable unmanned aerial vehicles.The xQM missile designations (see Current Designations of U.S. Unmanned Military Aerospace Vehicles)are now only used for target drones.
  4. "S" is to designate manned aerospace planes, which can operate both within and outside the atmosphere.However, the "S" type symbol is ill-chosen, because it conflicts with the S-for-Antisubmarine mission symbol (see section(2) below). An MDS like "ES-3A", which in fact designated an electronic warfare derivative of the S-3A antisubmarine aircraft,could equally be read as the designation for an electronic warfare spaceplane. So far, this was not an issue, becausethe only spaceplane designation assigned so far is "MS-1A" (a cancelled project), while the S-for-Antisub series onlyhas the S-2 and S-3 members.
  5. The "STOL" part of the "V" definition is not very well defined, and the decision whether some aircraft with ashorter-than-usual takeoff run is designated as a STOL or a "conventional" aircraft is essentially arbitrary.
  6. "Z" was included in the original revision of the system in 1962 to cover the redesignation of some obsoleteNavy airships of the time. When these were gone for good, the "Z" symbol was dropped, only to be reintroduced later when the Navy had new plans for LTA craft.

(2) Basic Mission: The letter to the left of the dash (or the vehicle type symbol) designates the basicmission of the aircraft. Because both basic mission letter in "normal" and vehicle type letter in "special" aircraftare immediately to the left of the dash (and define in which series the MDS is numbered, see section (4) below), both groupsof letters have to be distinct to avoid ambiguities, but this rule was violated with the introduction of the S-for-Spaceplanevehicle type symbol. Designations, which include a vehicle type symbol, must also include at least one basicor modified mission (see section (3) below) symbol to designate the mission of the "special" aircraft (i.e., the designationYV-22A is not conforming to the regulation). The following basic mission symbols are defined:

  • A - Ground Attack[1962-today]
  • B - Bomber[1962-today]
  • C - Transport[1962-today]
  • E - Special Electronic Mission[1962-today]
  • F - Fighter[1962-today] (see note 1)
  • K - Tanker[1962-1977/85] (see note 2)
  • L - Laser-Equipped[1997-today] (see note 3)
  • O - Observation[1962-today]
  • P - Maritime Patrol[1962-today]
  • R - Reconnaissance[1962-today] (see note 4)
  • S - Antisubmarine Warfare[1962-today]
  • T - Trainer[1962-today]
  • U - Utility[1962-today]
  • X - Special Research[1962-today] (see note 5)

Notes for Basic Mission Symbol:

  1. "F" not only covers air-to-air fighters, but also explicitly includes ground-attack aircraft with only a secondary air-to-air capability.I.e., a combat aircraft with limited air-to-air capability is to be designated as F-for-Fighter even if it is primarily designed forair-to-ground missions. Therefore the change of F-22A to F/A-22A (which has by now been reverted) not only created an invalid designation(slashes are not allowed), but was also completely superfluous.
  2. No designations were ever assigned in the K-series (all tankers were derivatives of other aircraft), which is presumably thereason why the "K" basic mission symbol was dropped.
  3. The "L" basic mission symbol is inconsistent with the rest of the system, because it designates a type of equipment instead of a missionor role. It was only introduced to get a "special" designation for the YAL-1A "Airborne Laser" aircraft (see also article onNon-Standard DOD Aircraft Designations).
  4. No regular designations were assigned so far in the R-series. For a discussion of the non-conforming TR-1A and SR-71Adesignators, see article on Non-Standard DOD Aircraft Designations.
  5. Almost all recent designations in the X-series were allocated to unmanned aircraft, which was not the originally intended purposeof the designation system.

(3) Modified Mission: To the left of the basic mission symbol an optional modified mission letter can be used, when anaircraft is used for a different purpose than originally designed. The regulations say that not more than one modified missionletter can be used, but this rule has been violated a few times, e.g. in the EKA-3B designation. Designations, which include avehicle type symbol, can optionally omit the basic mission letter if a modified mission letter is used instead (as shown by theMQ-9A example). The modified mission symbols are in general the same as the basic mission symbols, but add a few more letters.The following modified mission symbols are defined:

  • A - Ground Attack[1962-today]
  • C - Transport[1962-today]
  • D - Drone Director[1962-today]
  • E - Special Electronic Mission[1962-today]
  • F - Fighter[1978/86-today]
  • H - Search and Rescue, Medevac[1962-today]
  • K - Tanker[1962-today]
  • L - Equipped for Cold Weather Operations[1962-today]
  • M - Missile Carrier[1962-1971/73] (see note 1)
  • M - Mine Countermeasures[1972/74-1976] (see note 1)
  • M - Multimission[1977-today]
  • O - Observation[1972/74-today]
  • P - Maritime Patrol[1972/74-today]
  • Q - Unmanned Drone[1962-today]
  • R - Reconnaissance[1962-today]
  • S - Antisubmarine Warfare[1962-today]
  • T - Trainer[1962-today]
  • U - Utility[1962-today]
  • V - Staff Transport[1962-today] (see note 2)
  • W - Weather Reconnaissance[1962-today]

Notes for Modified Mission Symbol:

  1. The original "M" (Missile Carrier) modified mission symbol was needed for the redesignations in 1962, because the U.S. Navyhad a special designation letter for missile-capable aircraft. However, it was never used after 1962 (when missile armament wasa common feature anyway) for new designations, and was therefore eventually dropped. It was briefly replaced by "Mine Countermeasures"before the final "Multimission" meaning was assigned.
  2. The "V" symbol was originally used for all staff transport aircraft, but is nowadays limited to aircraft used by the Presidentof the United States.

(4) Design Number: Each vehicle type and basic mission symbol is used to form a separate series of design numbers. E.g.,all helicopters are designated in a single numerical sequence, while "normal" aircraft are designated in separate series accordingto their basic mission. According to the instructions, the numbers in each series are to be assigned in strict numerical sequence withoutreference to manufacturers' model numbers and/or existing numbers in other MDS series. However, this rule is rather oftenviolated nowadays, e.g. by using the manufacturer's model number (e.g. KC-767A), retaining the number when a new designation in anotherseries is assigned (e.g. the production variant of the X-35 was designated F-35, although the next number in the F-series was 24),or allocating "special" numbers (e.g. X-50A, T-6A). For more informationon these and other examples, see article on Non-Standard DOD Aircraft Designations. Also, sometimesnumbers are skipped in one series because they are in use at the same time in another series (e.g. C-34 was skipped to "avoid confusion"with T-34).

(5) Series Letter: Variants of a basic aircraft type are designated by a suffix letter. The first model always receivessuffix "A" and subsequent series letters are to be assigned in strict sequence (omitting "I" and "O" to avoid confusion with numerals"1" and "0"). The series letter is actually a mandatory component of a conforming MDS, and therefore "plain" designations like"F-16" always designate the general type of aircraft and never a specific model.Of course, the sequence rule is often ignored and there are many designations with out-of-sequence suffixes (e.g.to designate a specific customer, like the "N" in F-16N designated "Navy") or even "special" suffixes as in AV-8B(R)+.It is not well defined, which kind of modifications actually mandate the assignment of a new series letter. In themore recent past, even extensive modifications to an aircraft type have sometimes not led to a different seriesdesignation, e.g. a currently produced F-16C is much different from an early production F-16C.

(6) Status Prefix: Any aircraft, which is not in normal operational service, can receive a prefix letter in its designationto reflect its current status. Because both modified mission and status prefix letters can appearto the left of the basic mission symbol, both groups of letters are distinct to avoid ambiguities.The following status prefixes are defined:

  • G - Permanently Grounded[1962-today]
  • J - Special Test, Temporary[1962-today] (see note 1)
  • N - Special Test, Permanent[1962-today] (see note 1)
  • X - Experimental[1962-today]
  • Y - Prototype[1962-today]
  • Z - Planning[1962-today] (see note 2)

Notes for Status Prefix Symbol:

  1. A "J" prefix is used if the aircraft is planned to be converted back to standard configuration after the tests have ended.The "N" prefix is used for aircraft, which are modified so extensively for special tests, that a reconversion to the originalconfiguration is neither planned nor feasible at reasonable costs.
  2. Although the "Z" status prefix is still listed in the regulations, it is nowadays rarely used. Current aerospacevehicle projects very rarely receive a designation before the actual prototype is under construction, and even if they dothe "Z" prefix is often not applied.

There are three additional elements of a military aircraft designation, which are not part of the MDS proper, but which arenevertheless often encountered. These elements can be seen in the designations:

Examples:F-15E-51-MCEagle
EA-6B-40-GRProwler
(MDS)(8)(9)(7)

(7) Popular Name: Many U.S. military aircraft have an official "popular name" assigned.This official name can't be assigned by the manufacturerand/or DOD customer at will, but has to run through an approval process in which proposed names are checked for conflictswith existing names (both military and commercial) and their "political correctness". Of course, official names tend to bedisregarded by the people actually flying or maintaining the aircraft.

(8) Block Number: Block numbers are not part of the official MDS designation, and their use is optional to the variousDOD services. In fact, block numbers are used for some production aircraft (e.g. the F-15) but not all. Block numbers wereintroduced by the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II to distinguish between minor sub-variants of a specific aircraft variant,and were originally assigned in steps of five (1, 5, 10, 15, ...), with the gaps being intended to be used for modifications afterproduction. This was also the rule for block numbers as defined in the first issue of the current designation system in 1962. The currentAFI 16-401(I), however, defines block numbers as optional and doesn't state any rules for their actual application. In fact, there areseveral aircraft types where the block numbers were assigned in strict sequence from 1 up, leaving no gaps. It also seems that the USAFdoesn't generally use the "dash-number" nomenclature any more, e.g. the latest B-2A update is generally referred toas "B-2A Block 30" and not "B-2A-30".

(9) Manufacturer Code Letters: The original designation system as defined in 1962 also mandated the use of a two-letter codesuffix to identify the manufacturing plant of an aircraft. Like the block numbers, these code letters were introduced by the USAAF duringWorld War II. However, manufacturers' codes were officially dropped from the regulations in 1976. Therefore they aredefinitely no longer mandatory, and even their optional use has apparently essentially ceased. The list of code letters as defined in1962 follows:

  • AE - Aeronca Aircraft Corp., Middletown, Ohio
  • BC - Bell Aerosystems Co., Buffalo, New York
  • BF - Bell Helicopter Corp., Forth Worth, Texas
  • BH - Beech Aircraft Corp., Wichita, Kansas
  • BN - Boeing Co., Renton, Washington
  • BO - Boeing Co., Seattle, Washington
  • BV - Boeing Co. (Vertol Division), Morton, Pennsylvania
  • BW - Boeing Co., Wichita, Kansas
  • CE - Cessna Aircraft Co., Wichita, Kansas
  • CF - Convair, Forth Worth, Texas
  • CO - Convair, San Diego, California
  • DH - DeHavilland Aircraft of Canada, Toronto, Canada
  • DL - Douglas Aircraft Co., Inc., Long Beach, California
  • DM - Doman Helicopter, Inc., Danbury, Connecticut
  • DO - Douglas Aircraft Co., Inc., Santa Monica, California
  • DT - Douglas Aircraft Co., Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • FA - Fairchild Aircraft Division, Hagerstown, Maryland
  • GO - Goodyear Aircraft Co., Akron, Ohio
  • GR - Grumman Aircraft Corp., Bethpage, New York
  • GT - Grand Central Aircraft Co., Tucson, Arizona
  • GY - Gyrodyne Co. of America, Inc., St. James, New York
  • HE - Helio Aircraft Corp., Norwood, Massachusetts
  • HI - Hiller Helicopter Corp., Palo Alto, California
  • HU - Hughes Tool Co., San Diego, California
  • KA - Kaman Helicopter Corp., Windsor Locks, Connecticut
  • LM - Lockheed Aircraft Corp., Marietta, Georgia
  • LO - Lockheed Aircraft Corp., Burbank, California
  • MA - The Martin Co., Baltimore, Maryland
  • MC - McDonnell Aircraft Corp., St. Louis, Missouri
  • MD - The Martin Co., Denver, Colorado
  • MF - The Martin Co., Orlando, Florida
  • NA - North American Aviation, Inc., Inglewood, California
  • ND - Noorduyn Aviation Co., Ltd., Montreal, Canada
  • NH - North American Aviation, Inc., Columbus, Ohio
  • NI - North American Aviation, Inc., Downey, California
  • NO - Northrop Aircraft, Inc., Hawthorne, California
  • PA - Piper Aircraft Corp., Lockhaven, Pennsylvania
  • PI - Piasecki Aircraft Corp., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • RE - Republic Aviation Corp., Farmingdale, New York
  • RY - Ryan Aeronautical Co., San Diego, California
  • SI - Sikorsky Aircraft Division, Stratford, Connecticut
  • SW - Schweizer Aircraft Corp., Elmira, New York
  • TA - Taylorcraft Aviation Corp., Alliance, Ohio
  • VO - Chance Vought Aircraft, Dallas, Texas (later changed to CV)

[1] AFR 66-11, AR 700-26, BUWEPSINST 13100.7: "Designating, Redesignating, and Naming of Military Aircraft", 1962 and 1968 editions
[2] Department of Defense: "Model Designation of Military Aircraft, Rockets and Missiles", 7/1964, 1/1965, 7/1965, 1/1970 editions
[3] Department of Defense Publication 4120.15-L: "Model Designation of Military Aerospace Vehicles",1974, 1977, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1998 and2004 editions
[4] AFI 16-401(I), AR 70-50, NAVAIRINST 13100.16: "Designating and Naming Military Aerospace Vehicles"
[5] Department of Defense Aircraft Nomenclature Records

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