There's also the NATO system for naming Warsaw Pact and other enemy military hardware. Typically a system is known both by its manufacturer (or for Soviet Union hardware, its design bureau), part number, and a NATO designation that tells you what it does in a backhanded sort of way. In intelligence literature, the NATO designation is usually in all capital letters.

For aircraft, the name has several important keys. The number of syllables tells you the propulsion type--one for propeller, two for jet--and the first letter tells you the main mission. If you're familiar with the names of the various design bureaux, you can usually name the maker, but that's only good for brownie points. Some airframes can have more than one name--the Il-76 is known as the CANDID, but in its air-refueling configuration, it's known as the MIDAS. With additional antennae, it's known as the MAINSTAY! The NATO designation lets you know what mission that particular bird was built for. Here are the roles and the letters associated with them. To keep it simple, they closely follow the 1962 tri-service system. In addition, NATO uses the following first-letter designations to refer to other airborne hardware:
  • A - Air to air missile; named AA-# {name}. E.g. AA-8 APHID.
  • S - Surface to surface missile - If these are strategic ballistic missiles, these are named with SS and a number, as well as X or N denoting eXperimental or Naval variants. Anti-tank rockets, which are also technically surface-to-surface, get the name AT-#. The AT-8 SONGSTER is anti-tank. The SS-21 SCARAB is an SRBM.
  • G - Surface to air missile, or SAM. Think "God-damn-that-was-close." These are named SA-#, as in SA-6 GAINFUL.
  • K - Air to surface missile (think "tanK Killer"). AS-#, as in AS-15 KENT.

Thanks to Kaleja and karmaflux for the editorial help.
NATO uses a set of codenames for designating enemy aircraft. The first letter of the codename describes the type of aircraft
A : Air-to-air missile
F : Fighters
B : Bombers
H : Helicopters

Archer : ...
Atoll : ...

Fishbed: Mig-21
Flanker: Su-27

Bear: Tu-160

Havoc: Mil-28
Hokum: Ka-52

Grison: SA-19
(Redundant material deleted after the Great NATO Codename Merge of 2001.)

By the way, Tu-160 is Blackjack, not Bear (Tu-95 or Tu-142). Archer is AA-11, and Atoll is AA-2.

Most NATO codenames for Russian submarine types are based on the military radio phonetic alphabet; thus Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot are all Russian submarine classes. These seem to have been assigned randomly; both the Zulu and Foxtrot classes date to the 1950s, for example, while Alfa and Hotel date from the 1970s, so they aren't chronologically assigned.

After running out of phonetic alphabet entries in 1985, NATO switched to another alphabetical sequence, this time being allocated in order, and based on Russian-fish themes: Akula and Beluga being the first two assigned. There are a few exceptions to this scheme; for example, the Typhoon class ballistic missile sub was named after Leonid Brezhnev referred to it as 'Tayfun' in a speech; that name appears to have been dropped on their end, but stuck in NATO usage. To add to the confusion, the Typhoon is known to Russia as the Akula class, but is a different type from what NATO calls Akula.

NATO started out using Russian words beginning with 'K' to designate classes of surface ships, but has generally switched to naming the class after the first ship of the class built, for example, the Slava class guided missile cruiser. Again, this can be confusing; many types started out with a temporary reporting name (Slava's was originally "Black-Com-1" for Black Sea, Combatant, Type 1), then were assigned a K-series reporting name (Slava's being "Krasina"), then were later referred to by their real class name (which in more than one case coincidentally started with a 'K', such as the type codenamed Kurile, which turned out to be the Kiev class!).

Probably the worst naming confusion in the Russian surface fleet surrounds their full-deck carrier, the first example of which was renamed by the Russians at least once during construction. This class is variously known as Black-Com-2, Kremlin, Tbilisi, Brezhnev, and Admiral Kuznetsov.

Despite the intelligence community convention of putting reporting names in all caps, I'll be using mixed-case names in my writeups to avoid the implication that they might be acronyms. Like many geeks, when faced with a series of capital letters, I tend to start a computationally-intensive acronym-expansion background process to figure out what's being talked about.
The previous writeup I had here was severely wrong. I'm indebted to Andreas Gehrs-Pahl's excellent military technology site at for more accurate information.

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