The aircraft designation system currently in use by all branches of the armed forces is called the “Mission Design Series” (MDS) and uses letter and number combinations to indicate certain basic facts about a given aircraft. When you first encounter “F/A-18E/F,” representing the Super Hornet, you can’t help but think this is something only for cryptanalysts—but the good news is that it is mostly logical and definitely decipherable.
The simplest way to begin is to remember this: One thing common to all aircraft designations is the dash. Whether the aircraft is a P-8A, or an EA-18G, or an F/A-18E/F, there is always a dash in the designation. If you use that as your starting point, you will have a consistent reference from which to begin cracking this code.
Type or Basic Mission
The first letter to the left of the dash tells you one of two things: either the type or the basic mission of the aircraft. If the aircraft is a special type, such as a glider or a helicopter, the first letter to the left of the dash will be one from this list:
Q Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)
V Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL)
If it is not one of these aircraft types, it will be understood that it is a regular fixed-wing airplane.
The basic mission is the primary purpose of the aircraft and is indicated by one of the following letters:
E Special Electronic Installation
Because the first letter to the left of the dash indicates either the type or the basic mission of the aircraft, and the two lists do not overlap (except in one instance), you can combine the two lists and translate them appropriately (keeping in mind that the letter used is indicating either a type or a mission). One minor problem is that the letter “S” is used and for both type (spaceplane) and mission (antisubmarine), but spaceplanes are rare and usually obvious.
A letter or letters (if there are any) preceding the type or mission is the mission modiﬁer. It designates the modified mission or multiple missions of the aircraft:
E Special Electronic Installation
H Search and Rescue/Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC)
L Cold Weather
V Staff/VIP transport
These letters can be combined with either a type or a mission indicator to tell you more about what an aircraft is used for. The SH-60B is an antisubmarine helicopter, and the EA-6B is fixed-wing attack aircraft specially configured for electronic missions. In the case of the F/A-18C/D, the two letters (“F” and “A”) are separated by a slash, which means the “F” is not a mission modifier but is considered coequal with the “A,” so this aircraft is equally capable of carrying out both fighter and attack missions.
Sometimes a mission modifier results in a change of the name as well. An example of this is the EA-6B. Originally, there was the A-6 Intruder (no longer in service). It was (as indicated by the “A” to the left of the dash) an attack aircraft. This original design was later significantly modified for electronic warfare missions, so it was redesignated the EA-6 and renamed the Prowler.
One more place (the third) to the left of the dash is sometimes (rarely) occupied by a letter called the status prefix as follows:
G Permanently Grounded
J Special Test (Temporary)
N Special Test (Permanent)
Immediately to the right of the dash is the design number. All this number means is that the aircraft is a specific design of that particular type or basic mission. While generally numbered sequentially—for example, the P-2 Neptune is a design for a patrol aircraft accepted earlier than the P-3 Orion—there are many gaps and numerous exceptions to these sequences.
A series letter appended to the design number indicates that the basic design of an aircraft has been modified in some significant way. The aircraft in its original design is considered to be “A” in the series. The first modification would be “B,” the next would be “C,” and so on. “I” and “O” are not used because they might be confused with one and zero. The F/A-18C/D is a special case because there are actually two different versions of the Hornet in service; one has only one seat and is designated the “C” version, whereas the “D” version has two seats. Because both are in service, you will often see them listed as “C/D” when referring to them generically.
NOTE: The current Tri-Service aircraft designation system has been in use only since 1962, so if you are reading about aircraft from World War II and before, for example, the designations will not be the same. Earlier designations will be covered in a forthcoming “Bluejacket’s Manual” column.