Who and how are names given to US military vehicles and weapons?

Who and how are names given to US military vehicles and weapons, now and in the past?

It depends on the branch and the time period, of course. I know for the Navy, tradition used to be that battleships were named for states, cruisers for cities, destroyers for deceased servicemembers. Aircraft carriers used to be all over the place, having a mix of names based on cruisers (the first carriers were rebuilt battlecruisers or cruisers), legacy names (USS Enterprise), or various other things (USS Langley was named for an earlier aviator, USS Wasp and Hornet were presumably named in reference to the swarms of small attackers they were designed to unleash).

There was also a “Large Cruiser” (basically a Battlecruiser) named the USS Alaska, named for a US territory at the time. Several others were planned, named for Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam.

More recently, attack submarines are named for cities, missile subs for states, aircraft carriers are named for famous/influential politicians (Ronald Reagan, John C. Stennis, George HW Bush), for carrier battles (Midway), aviation references in general (Kittyhawk), or legacy names (Enterprise). Cruisers aren’t really built anymore, and destroyers are still named the same way they always were.

Until the Los Angeles class fast attack submarines, subs were names after various fish. With the new Virginia class, looks like they’ll be named after states similar to the Ohio class ballistic missile boats.

With the boomers, ballistic missile submarines, classes preceding the Ohio class were named after famous people from US history.

Now, moving on, tanks and some other armored vehicles tend to be named for Cavalry generals (Patton, Sheridan, Bradley, Abrams, Sherman, Lee, Grant, etc.) This practice was actually started by the Brits, who do that for many of their own tanks. Early in WWII, the Brits purchased a batch of American tanks, known as the Medium Tank M3, which they dubbed the “General Grant”. An improved version with a larger turret and a radio set was called the “General Lee”, and the US Army picked up the naming theme and ran with it.

Army helicopters are generally named for Native American tribes. Chinook, Blackhawk, Apache, Kiowa, Iroquois (better known by its nickname, the “Huey”) etc. Variants will sometimes wander off and get unrelated names, like the Cobra (derivative of the Huey). Navy and Air Force derivatives will often modify part of the name into something else (the Air Force’s PaveHawk and the Navy’s SeaHawk).

Airplanes can be all over the place, and I think that’s mostly marketing. Many of Curtiss’s fighter planes were all named “Hawk” or variations of that (Warhawk, Tomahawk, Kittyhawk) and their divebombers were all dubbed “Helldiver” (including a pre-war biplane and a late-WWII monoplane bomber with an internal bomb bay). Many of Grumman’s fighters have “Cat” names (Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat, Panther, Cougar, Tiger, Panther, Tomcat), many of McDonnelll’s fighters were given supernatural names (Demon, Phantom, Banshee, etc.) Boeing likes to use themes for various types and generations of planes (B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29/B-50 Super Fortress, B-52 Stratofortress, B-47 Stratojet, KC-135 Stratotanker, etc. I half expect the new KC-46 to be dubbed the “Dreamtanker”)

The F-16 Fighting Falcon was named in reference to the USAFA’s football team, but the guys who fly the plane call it the “Viper”, in reference to the starfighter on Battlestar Galactica, which came out the same year the F-16 entered service. On a related note, the Japanese version of the plane, the Mitsubishi F-2, is called the “Viper Zero” by JASDF pilots, in reference to both the F-16 and a much older Mitsubishi fighter that achieved some degree of fame, the A6M. EDIT: On a side note, Air Force pilots who don’t fly the F-16 evidently like to call it the “Lawn Dart”.

So is it the builder (Boeing for example) who names them?

And what about the nicknames, like in movies when there’s a plane named Sally or something? Is the pilot doing that?

It’s a massive bureaucratic process, like anything else.

Basically, when a piece of equipment looks like it is or is about to be approved for production, the military project manager submits a list of names to whatever head shed is responsible for procurement / materiel. Interestingly, according to the Air Force reg below, the Public Affairs office has final approval on what they think is most appropriate (ie what sounds cool).

If you check out this reg, page 27 has a memo format for when the project manager wants to submit a list of possible names to the Materiel Command:


Yeah, the naming process can be interesting as names get kicked back and forth for various reasons. One McDonnell proposal for a twin-engine jet fighter, a replacement for the F3H Demon, went through two or three rejected names, including “Satan” and “Mithras” before it was decided to dub it the F4H Phantom II (there was a previous McDonnell jet called the “Phantom”, the FH). In Air Force service, the plane was dubbed the F-110A Spectre, before it was decided that all three branches needed to use the same designations for their common equipment, so both services renamed it to the F-4 Phantom II.

Incidentally, sometimes a rejected name will get recycled years later for some reason or another, such as the late WWII-Korean War Grumman F7F Tigercat, which was originally dubbed the “Tomcat” until it was decided that the name was too suggestive. A few decades later, and the Navy of the 1970s would find nothing wrong with the name.

Similarly, perfectly acceptable names get reused as well, particularly for hardware made by the same company. Witness the McDonnell FH Phantom and the McDonnell Douglass F-4 Phantom II, or the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Republic-Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, or the whole series of WWI to WWII fighter planes developed by Curtiss named “Hawk” (it’s a good name for a fighter, why mess with what works?)

Another reason that they kick proposed names back and forth is a simple issue of brand identity (and maybe copyright). A lot of folks wanted the F-16 to be called the “Mustang II”, except that the Mustang was made by North American, an entirely different company which General Dynamics had no relation to.

Back to the topic of ships, that can evidently get into politics. On the topic of why submarines are no longer named for fish, one Admiral reportedly snarked that unlike the populations of cities and states, “fish don’t vote”.

Like they said, the builder can propose names. A manufacturer could also come up with a piece of gear for sale and “brand” it by themselves *before *getting a contract from a US service. Then the service may decide whether or not the commercial brand name is adaptable or acceptable (see Raguleader’s comment about the possible but very unlikely “Dreamtanker”). The Aérospatiale (now Airbus) AS365 Dauphin helicopter was being sold around the world for a few years before the US Coast Guard adopted a US-made version as the “HH-65 Dolphin”, in which case the original brand name fits the USCG branding just fine.

Then there are some instances when the nickname is totally un-official, to wit the Hughes OH-6. The official nickname is the Cayuse, but everybody just calls it a Loach. (LOH = Light Observation Helicopter)

The KC-46 is a variant of the civil 767. Had it been based on the 787 instead then I’d have agreed “Dreamtanker” would have ended up at least the slang name. But it isn’t, so I doubt “dream” will be part of what it gets named officially or otherwise.

Which absolutely everyone calls the Warthog.

Are there any other unofficial names which are so widespread? The Viper/Lawn Dart dichotomy was interesting, but those aren’t in very widespread use.

When the Navy began to retire the venerable H-46 Sea Knight Helicopters and replace them with a new H-60 Seahawk variant, the old crews who were transitioning over lobbied that the new variant be named the “Knighthawk”. They were denied, so the official name is still the MH-60S Seahawk, but if you google “MH-60S Knighthawk”, you get enough hits to know that the unofficial term is still used. In about 10 years, when the old Sea Knight crews retire, it will probably fade away, but I will continue to use it.

Actually there was a reason for Tomcat

The B-52, officially Stratofortress, is affectionately and much more commonly known as the Buff (stands for Big Ugly Fat Fucker); the F-105 Thunderchief was known as the Thud, which is both a diminutive and a commentary on its flight performances.

True enough, although the Boeing Dreamlifter got in on the theme despite being a heavily modified 747 freighter. A freighter used mainly for hauling parts of the Dreamliner, natch. In any case, the official name for the KC-46 is the Pegasus, what it’ll actually get called is up in the air.

I wonder why the M1 is both a tank and a rifle?

It’s often the pilot, or if there’s an aircrew it could be by vote or discussion by the crew. If a single-seater it’s usually the pilot but there have been times the chief mechanic has given her a name and that’s the one that sticks.

When I first read your OP I was thinking of nicknames based on the official military name.

Like the GP, General Purpose vehicle became the Jeep.

Similarly, the HMMWV became the HummVee. HMMWV stands for High Mobility, Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.

Happens all the time, especially when the thing gains a reputation.

Like the F-105 Thunder Thud. (ETA: mentioned upthread by Kobal2.

iirc, army helicopters since the Cobra (the attack ones, at least) are named for native american tribes (apache, commanche).

enipla: The M designators traditionally were applied by specific weapon type. So there would be M1 Rifles and M1 Carbines, each a completely different design. OTOH other M designators were by year of adoption (M1911 Pistol). In a peculiar turn, the Browning machine guns got both types: the .30cal Browning was designated M1919, but its .50cal cousin was designated M2.

Douglas A1 Skyraider → “Spad” A play on its original AD-1 designation, and on it being a “living fossil” in the jet age, by using the name of a WW1 plane.