The Way We Designate Military Aircraft Is All Screwed Up
Here’s a better system
by JAMES PERRY STEVENSON
Words have meaning, and as long as a common understanding exists for a given word, little is lost in transmission.
The current military aircraft designation system uses words, the definition of which are not entirely clear. Is a “fighter” an airplane designed to clear the air of other aircraft, or is it a bomber such as the F-15E Strike Eagle that can carry more bombs that the World War II-vintage B-17 could?
Or is it both?
The current designation system is internally inconsistent and distorted to the point that it provides only an intermittent basis for mutual understanding. The designations are improperly defined because they are imprecise and lack differentiation. When properly defined, they are often applied incorrectly. The designation design numbers and series are sometimes out of sequence. And designations are used that are not in the regulations.
In some case, the designations violate more than one of the rules, instructions that are described as mandatory. Fifty-three years have passed since the last overhaul of the designation system, the longest period without a correction. It is time to reset the system so that the designations provide a common basis of understanding.
Many examples are available to illustrate the lack of discipline in designating aircraft. Since 1962, when then-secretary of defense Robert McNamara combined aircraft from all military services into a single designation system, the U.S. Air Force has developed two bombers, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit.
This past year, the U.S. Air Force announced it is developing a new bomber. If the Air Force obeyed the designation instructions, which state in bold capital letters that “compliance with this publication is mandatory,” its next bomber would be the B-3.
But the Air Force ignored the mandatory instruction and designated its new bomber the B-21.
The U.S. Navy is equally guilty. In the mid-1970s, Congress told the Navy to take the winner of the Air Force’s Air Combat Fighter competition — a contest between the YF-16 and YF-17 — and “navalize” it. That is to say, make it aircraft carrier-capable.
Not only did the Navy refuse to take the winner — the YF-16 — it took the loser, the YF-17, changed its name to the F-18 and ignored the designation system when it gave F-18 an unauthorized new designation, F/A-18.
The designation system has two positions for the purpose of the aircraft, one for the primary mission, called “basic mission,” and an optional second position called “modified mission.” Vice Adm. Frederick Turner believed that the F-18 did not have a “modified” mission. Rather, he believed the F-18 was equally proficient in both the “fighter” mission and the “attack” mission.
“Your recommendation was based on conformance with existing regulations,” Turner wrote to a colleague who had proposed a more conservative designation. “My choice, F/A-18, would be based not so much on conformance with existing directives as with the necessity to designate this aircraft so that it truly reflects its multi-mission nature.”
“Certainly the designation F-18 is in consonance with the tri-service instruction,” Turner continued. “I prefer to continue [with F/A-18] even though it may be one that receives its legitimacy through use rather than directive.”
The meaning of a word or phrase has consequences, and the same logic should apply to military definitions so that in the heat of battle, where confusion usually reigns, a fuzzy definition for the mission or purpose of an airplane should not add to the chaos.
For example, an infantry officer, pinned down by enemy air forces strafing his position in, say, the late 1990s might have called for “fighters” thinking he had ordered a solution to the menace. In calling for “fighters” he could receive anything from the F-16, an airplane designed as an aerial Rottweiler, to the F-111, an airplane designed as a pure nuclear bomber.
But at least the F-111 had a gun. If the F-117 had showed up, it could not help because all it can do is drop bombs. This broad spectrum of missions, all under the designation of “fighter,” exemplifies the distortion in the current designation system, for which the services must take some responsibility.
It is fair to say that for many, the term “fighter” means what the Air Force’s dictionary says it means — an aircraft designed for “intercepting and destroying other aircraft in the air.”
Thus when Fred Zuckert, the secretary of the Air Force from 1961 to 1965, referred to the F-111 as a “fighter” in congressional testimony, he ran into a problem because the F-111 — part of the TFX program — began life as a pure nuclear bomber.
Tactical Air Command’s evolution from fighters to bombers while maintaining the “F” designation led to significant misunderstandings in hearings, as the following transcript from 1963 attests.
Sen. Henry Jackson: How does the TFX compare in overall size and weight with the B-17?
Zuckert: I wouldn’t be surprised if the TFX were not considerably heavier.
Jackson: I know, but you keep calling it a fighter. It is a multi-application weapon is what it really is. With refueling it can be a strategic bomber, to go into the heart of the Soviet Union. I just want to reemphasize this because the public continues to get the impression that we are just talking about another fighter, and it isn’t that … If you would say fighter-bomber, I would feel better about it.
Zuckert: If I say fighter-bomber … I create an illusion which doesn’t exist … that this is an airplane … more closely related to big things like the B-52.
Jackson: What is the principal Air Force mission of the TFX?
Zuckert: You drop weapons, but you will say bombs, and therefore it is a bomber, that is what you are going to say. That is what we said in this other discussion but that does not make it a bomber.
Jackson: This plane can drop in terms of destruction more than the equivalent of all of the bombs dropped in World War II, exclusive of the two missions over Japan involving Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Zuckert: Exclusive? It can drop much more.
Jackson: It is sort of a bomber, too, is it not?
Sen. Karl Mundt: It is either a fighter or it is a “fighter plus.” It is a fighter plus?
Zuckert: It is a fighter plus.
Mundt: Plus what?
Zuckert: Plus anything you want, sir.
Mundt: Oh, no. It is plus something.
Zuckert: I call it a fighter-bomber, if that will help, provided I can qualify it. It is also a fighter-interceptor, and I am sure that Sen. Jackson would agree with that. It is a reconnaissance plane … Grudgingly I will concede “fighter-bomber” but I don’t want to oversimplify. We get into trouble with labels in this business. Because you call it a bomber, you immediately say, “Well, a B-52 is a bomber and therefore TFX is like a B-52.” That I won’t buy.
Jackson: On the other hand, Mr. Secretary, by calling it just a fighter, you leave the impression that it is like the F-102 or the F-106 or … in that category … If we were in a war … and the TFX went on a mission … and came back, would the newspapers reporter write that … [the TFX] came back from a fighter mission or … from a bombing mission?
Zuckert. [I]f you want to call it a tactical fighter-bomber, I will go along with you.
The F-111 represented McNamara’s concept of efficiency, wrapping all missions for all branches into a single airplane. That didn’t work then and it’s not working now with the F-35.
Ironically, Zuckert went to a lot of trouble to avoid calling the F-111 a fighter-bomber even though the commander of the Tactical Air Command had previously testified in these same hearing that the forthcoming FX, which became the F-15, was a “fighter-fighter.”
To emphasize a word in some languages, instead of using “very” — as in “very rainy” — the language will repeat the word, as in “rain-rain.” Thus, when the commander of TAC said the forthcoming F-15 was a fighter-fighter, he was attempting to emphasize that the F-15’s pure air-to-air mission of shooting down other airplanes in the sky.
In the heat of battle, pinned down by enemy aircraft, should an Army soldier or Marine officer know the individual capabilities of the F-16, F-111 and F-117, or should he or she be able to rely on the general meaning of the designation “fighter?”
Aircraft designations such as fighter, attack or bomber evolved so that military personnel could communicate quickly. The primary combat airplanes are designated as fighter, attack and bomber and are abbreviated “F” for fighter, “A” for attack and “B” for bomber.
Not only does a warrior want to be able to communicate with these designations, sometimes he or she will want to communicate with abbreviations. “Send me some F-15s” is easier than “send me some Fighter-15s.”
When a military commander needs a combat airplane, he or she wants to receive an appropriate airplane. According to the current designation system, a “fighter” airplane is “designed to intercept and destroy other aircraft or missiles. [This] includes multi-purpose aircraft also designed for ground support missions such as interdiction and close air support.”
Whoa! This definition of a fighter makes F-designated airplanes sound like a Swiss army knife. Does the ground commander want “to intercept … and destroy … other aircraft” or is he asking for “close air support?” If he wants a machete, does he want it from an airplane that has a secondary purposes or does he want it from an airplane specifically designed for “close air support?” Currently, the designation system cannot help.
The “basic mission” of an airplane means its primary purpose. The designation of the B-52, B-1, B-2 and the evolving B-3 — inappropriately designated as the B-21 — were designed to fly deep within an enemy’s country, bomb the vital tissue of that country, with the expectation that the enemy will give up.
A bomber’s mission is to bomb enemy targets. Targets could be anything from an enemy soldier in a foxhole yards away to the ball-bearing plant deep inside the enemy’s borders. Through common doctrine, the Air Force emphasizes bombing strategic targets.
Combat airplanes that have the mission of strafing and bombing targets close to the ground are usually designated as “attack” airplanes and have a “primary role of carrying out air strikes with greater precision than bombers, and [are] prepared to encounter strong low-level air defenses while pressing the attack.” Attack airplanes are abbreviated with the letter A as in A-4 and A-10.
Fighters, or F-designated airplanes, have the primary mission of shooting down other aerial platforms such as airplanes. Few would argue with the premise that an airplane designed for a single mission, will perform that mission better than an airplane designed to do multiple missions.
The YF-17 was designed specifically as an air-to-air combat maneuvering airplane, classically referred to as a “dogfighter.” The YF-17 could accelerate straight up because its thrust in pounds exceeded its weight. Nothing designed before, except for its YF-16 competitor in the Lightweight Fighter program, could come close to it as a dogfighting platform.
A ground commander should be able to understand from the designation alone whether he is receiving a YF-17-type “fighter-fighter” or a multi-mission airplane such as the F/A-18, a fighter-attack airplane derived from the YF-17.
Let’s accept the fact that most combat airplanes — fighter, attack and bomber — could perform all combat missions but not equally well. Fighter airplanes also drop bombs, attack airplanes have shot down other airplanes in the sky and, in the case of the World War II B-17s, some bombers shot down airplanes with their gun turrets. But no one would call the B-17 a fighter.
The military, always working on the premise that it will never have the necessary budget, attempts to get as many missions out of the same airframe as possible. An example is the F-15A. It was originally created as a pure air-to-air dogfighter, but then the F-15A was modified into the F-15E, which sounds like a slight upgrade to the training-optimized F-15D, but not a major change to the plane’s basic mission.
On the contrary, the F-15E had been converted from a fighter to an attack airplane or even a bomber, since it can more tons of bomb than the B-17 could.
The F-15A, YF-16A and the A-10A were all single-mission designs — machetes of the air, not Swiss army knives. Ground commanders should be able to discern machetes from Swiss army knives from their designations. In the heat of battle, a ground commander should not have to recall the distinction between the F-15C and the F-15E. The designation alone should make the airplanes primary and/or secondary mission self-evident.
According to Richard Saul Wurman’s book Information Anxiety, info can be organized by category, alphabetical, time, continuum or location. Here are some examples applied to military airplanes. Of the five ways to classify information, category appears the most appropriate for the war-fighter.
The current airplane designations system creates confusion as a result of the fallacy of cross-ranking. “The rule that guards against confusion is this,” Nicholas Walliman wrote in his book Your Research Project: A Step-by-Step Guide for the First-time Researcher.
“In each rank the categories are to be distinguished according to only one basis of division. A classification that violates the single-basis rule commits the fallacy of cross-ranking. For example, in ‘men, women and children,’ the second category really involves two ranks lumped together.”
The method for avoiding confusion in classification, according to Walliman, is to make sure that “in each rank the categories are … distinguished according to one and only one basis of division. If you want to use more than one basis of division, use them at different ranks, one at a time.”
The figure below shows the actual language describing the basic mission and modified mission of the three combat designations. The language duplicates rather than differentiates the two missions in both fighter and attack missions. Because they duplicate each other in some parts of the definition, they commit the “fallacy of cross-ranking.”
The only difference between the fighter and the attack airplane in the figure below is that the fighter can shoot down targets in the air. Including the mission of interdiction and close air support distorts the differentiation between a fighter and an attack airplane.
In the figure below, the mission of a fighter is now distinct from an attack airplane and offers a clearer picture of what a ground commander can choose from.
If we limit our discussion to what a military combat airplane can do, combat aircraft have three functions:
- Fighter — shoot down aircraft in the air
- Attack — destroy enemy troops, vehicles, or aircraft on the ground or ships on or under the water with greater precision than bombers
- Bomber —destroy infrastructure such as buildings, runways, etc. on the ground over large areas, usually with the intent to prevent the normal operations of the state, particularly further manufacturing of weapons and the will to wage war
The three combat designations — fighter, attack and bomber — above should reside in the “basic mission” position.
The second or “modified mission” adds resolution to the basic mission, providing a more complete description of what a combat airplane is capable of. Herewith is the author’s suggestions for combat designations.
- “FF” for “air-superiority fighter” — shoot down aircraft in the air
- “A” for “attack” — destroy enemy troops, vehicles or aircraft on the ground or ships on the water with greater precision than bombers can do
- “CAS” for “close air support attack” —destroy enemy ships on the water and hostile forces on the ground when they are in close proximity to friendly forces
- “B” for “bomber” — destroy infrastructure on the ground that has an indirect effect on ongoing combat operations
- “SA” for “anti-submarine attack” — destroy submarines under the water
The reason for distinguishing a close-air-support attack airplane from other attack airplanes is that the former features added protection for the pilot.
Inevitably, people will object that, since we have fighters that perform “multi-role” missions, we need a designation for multi-role fighters such as the F/A-18, F-15E and the newest of all — the F-35.
In the case of the F-35, it is truly an aerial Swiss army knife, purporting to have the ability to shoot down other airplanes in the sky and provide close air support as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Traditional close air support requires the pilot to get down low, to distinguish friendly troops from the enemy with his or her eyes, and subject the airplane to small arms fire. The F-35 might want to avoid this procedure because it does not have self-sealing fuel tanks — and since the fuel tanks are wrapped around the engine. If an enemy soldier were to shoot the F-35 with even a .22-caliber rifle, the F-35 would most likely burn up or even blow up.
Advocates for the F-35 would argue that with precision-guided munitions, the F-35 could provide distant air support because of the accuracy of the PGMs. It’s worth noting that similar claims were also made about the Norden bomb sight during World War II.
The designation of the F-35 as a fighter is an example of a multi-role airplane being less capable in each role than three separate airplanes would be if the multiple roles were distributed among designs dedicated to each role.
In the fighter role, the F-35 may or may not be what the ground commander really wants. Thus the F-35 creates a dilemma — what to designate the plane.
Following this logic, the F-15A and F-15C could maintain the single “fighter” designation, but the F-15E should be designated the AF-15E, an attack-fighter.
The U.S. Air Force changed the designation on all of its A-designated attack airplanes after its 1947 separation from the Army to emphasize that it was in the business of bombing. Furthermore, it believed the designation “bomber” and the “B” abbreviation belongs to the Air Force alone.
Since the F-15E is a most capable bomber, able to carry more bombs than a World War II bomber, why not redesignate the F-15E as the BF-15E? The term “bomber-fighter” could be used, but it would violate the rules primarily because no definition exists in the “modified mission” position for a bomber.
If it were called a “fighter-bomber” it would cry out for an “FB” abbreviation, meaning it’s a bomber “modified to intercept and destroy other aircraft or missiles.” Not only would such a designation of modifying a bomber to act like a fighter, it would violate the rules.
In the case of an airplane designed to perform both attack-type and fighter-type missions, such as the F-35, it raises the obvious question — should the designation be the FA-35, the AF-35 or simply the F-35?
It might be best to leave the fighter designation and its “F” abbreviation as is, offering it as a warning that this designation is a catch-all designation and you are taking you chances if you don’t inquire further. In other words, if you want a machete, look for the CAS-10 for close air support or the FF-15 or FF-16 for the best air-superiority solution.