Code Names for U.S. Military Projects and Operations

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Sections 1 "Names — Another Form of Designation" (except section 1.5) Copyright © 2003 Andreas Gehrs-Pahl

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1 Names — Another Form of Designation

2 List of Names

1 Names — Another Form of Designation (by Andreas Gehrs-Pahl)

Project Names and Code Words were used by military and intelligence organizations around the world for many years. They came into their own during World War I, and were virtually everywhere in World War II. The Cold War left a legacy of secrecy and a huge bureaucracy, that contributed a lot to the prevalence of Code Words and classifications, a bureaucracy which continues to dominate the US intelligence community and military to this day. There is probably only one other thing that this bureaucracy likes more than codes and classifications, and that is using abbreviations and acronyms :-). The rest of this article will deal specifically with US DoD and related Code Words, Nicknames, etc., and not with Names and Codes of any other country.

There are several different types of Names used in the US military, mostly for the purpose of designation but some simply for concealment. Most of those Names are public but deal with or describe secret things, but some Names or Code Words are actually secret by themselves.

Some of the different kinds of "Names" used are:

  1. Code Words
  2. Nicknames
  3. Exercise Terms
  4. Call Signs
  5. NATO ASCC Reporting Names
  6. Popular Names
  7. Unit and Base Names
  8. Vehicle Names

Of those, "Code Words" are classified, but only while they are "Active" or "Cancelled". "NATO Reporting Names" and "Call Signs" are sometimes also classified, but not always. All others, like "Nicknames", "Exercise Terms", and "Popular Names" are usually unclassified, as are "Available" (or unassigned) Code Words.

A list of all US DoD "Code Words", "Nicknames", and "Exercise Terms", as well as US and Allied "Call Signs", their meaning, and rules and regulations on how to assign and use them, can be found in the following documents. Most of those documents are classified and are prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) or other agencies on a regular basis. For additional details see also "CJCSM 3150.01A", which is available at

  1. Document Name: "CJCSM 3150.29B"
    Document Type: "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual (CJCSM)"
    CJCSM Title: "Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term (NICKA) System"
    Short Name: "NICKA"
    Available at: (old edition CJCSM 3150.29A; access to current edition (3150.29B) is restricted)
  2. Document Name: "CJCSM 3150.06"
    Document Type: "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual (CJCSM)"
    CJCSM Title: "JRS, Reconnaissance"
    Short Name: "RECON" (was "RECON 1")
  3. Document Name: "JANAP-119"
    Document Type: "Joint Army-Navy-Air Force Publication (JANAP)"
    Full Name: "Joint Voice Call Sign Book"
  4. Document Name: "JANAP-299"
    Document Type: "Joint Army-Navy-Air Force Publication (JANAP)"
    Full Name: "U.S. Joint Code Work Index"
  5. Document Name: "ACP-100"
    Document Type: "Allied Communications Publications (ACP)"
    Full Name: "U.S. Call Sign and Address Group System-Instructions and Assignment"
  6. Document Name: "DoD 5200.1-R"
    Document Type: "Department of Defense Regulation"
    Full Name: "DoD Information Security Program"
    Available at:

Those documents describe how Nicknames and Code Words are assigned, and which Code Words, Nicknames, Call Signs, Exercise Terms, and alphabetical blocks for Nicknames, have been assigned to which agency. Nicknames and Code Words are usually assigned in blocks, by the Director of Operations, Joint Staff (JCS-J3), and assigned to specific DoD components.

1.1 Code Words

Code Words are always classified (CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, or higher) and always consist of a single word. The assignment of TOP SECRET Code Words requires Director, Special Programs, ODTUSD(P), approval. Code Words or blocks of Code Words are assigned to DoD components by the Joint Staff (JS). If a Code Word has been assigned, it is considered ACTIVE. Active Code Words always need to be shown with their classification, like (S) for SECRET or (TS) for TOP SECRET, and can not be discussed on unclassified networks or lines. Normally, Code Words are printed using all capital letters. [Note: In this document, Code Words are written in Small Caps to enhance readability.]

If a Code Word becomes compromised (or is suspected of being compromised), a new Code Word is assigned and the old Code Word is CANCELLED. Code Words are also cancelled, if the project, program, operation, or mission they were assigned to, was either completed or disbanded. All cancelled Code Words are still classified (at least) CONFIDENTIAL for (at least) another two years, before they become AVAILABLE (and Unclassified) again. Available Code Words can be re-used and assigned again for a different purpose. Because of this, the only Code Words that we (the general public) know about and that we discuss here, are usually Code Words that have been cancelled at one time or another. It is highly unlikely that such well-known and publicized Code Words as Oxcart or Tagboard are ever re-used, but it is possible. It may even be beneficial to re-use previously cancelled Code Words for the very same reason, as this "game" is all about deception.

Code Words should not describe or suggest the nature of what is classified. Follow-on projects or phases of a program must receive different Code Words. For example, follow-on phases of Project "Gusto" can't be assigned Code Words like "Gusto II" or "Gusto III".

Code Words can be assigned to virtually everything that might be classified, including Programs, Projects, Geographical Areas or Locations, Operations, Objectives, Missions, Plans, Tasks, Information types, etc. So called "Special Access (required) Programs" (SAP), also known as "black" programs, may have a classified Code Word assigned to them, but this is optional. Code Words are usually not assigned to Tests, Drills, Exercises, or Budget Identifiers, but many Special (Nuclear) Weapons Tests have received Code Words. Those Code Words might have originated from the DoE rather than the DoD, though.

The DoD only assigns single-word Code Words, but also sometimes uses Code Words that originate from other agencies (CIA, DoE, etc.), commercial companies, or foreign countries, which might not follow DoD directives for assignments of Code Words. Any and all Code Words that are used must be registered, to prevent double assignments or confusion. All Code Words and Nicknames are stored in the "Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System" database, also known as NICKA, which was available through the military's Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS) network, but is now only available through the JS LAN (Joint Staff Local Area Network).

Code Words are not really used to conceal the classified object itself, as the Code Words themselves are classified, too, but are used instead to implement a Need-To-Know system for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), which is designed to keep individuals or groups from knowing too much about a specific system or topic, and to limit their access to only the information needed to do their specific job. There are several different SCI categories used in the DoD, and Code Words are assigned within those categories. For example, photos or tapes created by SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) or PHOTINT (Photographic Intelligence) can be viewed and analyzed by interpreters that have Special Intelligence (SI) and/or Talent-Keyhole (TK) clearances. SI covers all sorts of signals and overhead reconnaissance data, while TK covers overhead reconnaissance (both, aerial and satellite). The collecting systems (or Assets) of the NRO are covered under Byeman clearances, and receive separate Code Words. Even the individual systems and missions, like a particular satellite or launch, or a particular reconnaissance mission or flight, receive one or more numerical Codes. Those numerical codes are not covered in this article, though.

Specific types of information may also receive specific Code Words, for example Umbra, which covers particularly sensitive communications intelligence (COMINT) or Ruff, which covers specific intelligence based on satellite imagery. Some of those Code Words (like Cosmic, Gamma, Umbra, Byeman, Talent, and Keyhole) are still used, even though they are publicly known for a long time.

1.2 Nicknames

Nicknames are always unclassified, and (usually) consist of two separate words. The first word must start with two letters selected from a range of alphabetical blocks that are assigned to different agencies by the Joint Staff (JS) (see section 1.4). Often, specific First Words from those alphabetical blocks are reserved for specific types of users, projects, or operations (see section 1.5). This practice exists since at least the early 1970s, but I don't know how any earlier Nicknames were assigned, and if similar rules were followed.

Nicknames should not contain the words "Project", "Operation", "Exercise", or consist of two separate words that also exist as a single word, like "Moon Light". Sometimes, three words are used, and the first or second word is sometimes an acronym. Follow-on projects or additional phases of a program often receive Roman Numeral suffixes, like "Peace Vector II" and "Peace Vector III", etc. In case of such multi-phase programs, the first, original project often receives a Roman Numerical "I" suffix, even if it originally did not have that extra "I" assigned to it. In the above example, "Peace Vector" and "Peace Vector I" would be equivalent and would address the same program. Nicknames are most often printed using all capital letters, but this does not seem to be a fixed rule. [Note: In this document, nicknames are written in Small Caps to enhance readability.] Nicknames should not be "exotic words, trite expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks". They should also "not express a bias inconsistent with traditional American ideals or foreign policy. Convey connotations offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed, or convey connotations offensive to our allies or other nations."

All departments and agencies usually place additional restrictions on the assignment of Nicknames, such as that they should not contain words that are "close in spelling or pronunciation to a code word" or "any two-word combination voice call sign found in either JANAP-119 or ACP-119." In addition, sometimes First Words are assigned to specific departments, units, or project types.

Nicknames can be assigned to virtually the same things as Code Words, like Programs, Projects, Events, Geographical Areas and Locations, Operations, Objectives, Missions, Plans, Tasks, and Tests, etc. So called "Special Access Programs" (SAP), also known as "black" programs, must have an unclassified Nickname assigned to them. Even though Nicknames are always unclassified, they should not be discussed or mentioned on unclassified networks or telephone lines, unless all aspects, including organizational associations, are completely unclassified. SAPs usually also receive a trigraph or digraph (three or two-letter codes), which in case of digraphs, are usually the first two letters of the two unclassified words of the Nickname, like "TK" for "Talent-Keyhole" -- even though "Talent" and "Keyhole" are two separate Code Words, rather than a Nickname, in this example. An example for a trigraph might be "ONW" for "Operation Northern Watch" (even though ONW is not a SAP, of course).

Sometimes, whole groups of projects or programs are grouped under a single Nickname, like the NRO Nicknames Senior Keyhole or Senior Year, which (apparently) cover all overhead (photo) reconnaissance satellites and all overhead (photo) reconnaissance aircraft, respectively.

Many projects also receive a Project Number for logistical purposes. This "Number" actually consists of a three-character alphanumeric code. Where known, this code is also given in the accompanying list of Nicknames.

1.3 Exercise Terms

Exercise Terms should be considered a special form of Nickname, as they are always unclassified and for public use, and because they often consist of two words, and because they should be based on the same alphabetical blocks of possible words. Because exercises are often repeated on a regular basis, either quarterly, annually or bi-annually, specific exercises are often indicated by added numerical postfixes, like "Roving Sands '99", or "Red Flag 2/03", or "Balikatan 2000".

There is also usually no constraint on the meaning of Exercise Terms, and it is perfectly fine if the name used describes the exercise or any aspect of it. Some DoD components assign specific meanings to either the first or both words. As an example, all NORAD exercise terms use the first word to describe the organization or agency responsible, while the second word describes the type of exercise, test, or experiment that will be conducted.

1.4 Alphabetical Blocks for Nicknames and Exercise Terms

The following alphabetical blocks are assigned to the listed DoD components, agencies, and unified or specified commands, of which 24 different ones exist, as far as I know. Except for 'X', all initial letters are divided into four blocks, resulting in a total of 101 blocks (numbered alphabetically except for 'X', which appears to be regarded as a "special" letter). A few blocks are still unassigned. The table is from CJCSM 3150.29A, but it is not known if edition 3150.29B has changed any block assignments.

1) DCA (Defense Communications Agency) has been renamed as DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency)
2) DMA (Defense Mapping Agency) has been incorporated into NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency), now named NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency)
3) DIS (Defense Investigative Service) has been renamed as DSS (Defense Security Service)
4) DLA (Defense Logistics Agency) is listed without any assigned blocks

Those assignments could very well change over time, especially when new organizations and commands are created or deactivated.

Recently, many of the US-led Operations and Exercises received more often Nicknames that are not in line with the assigned blocks, but instead are supposed to sound "patriotic" or maybe "inspiring". For some insight on how some of the more popular operations' names were assigned, see the following interesting article at

1.5 Permanently Assigned First Words for Two-Word Nicknames

The following words were at one time or another permanently assigned to a specific department or user for use as first word in two-word nicknames. It includes only those words explicitly listed as "permanently assigned first words" in one of our primary sources, and is certainly incomplete. If a using agency no longer exists, the name assignment may have been cancelled, inherited by its successor, or reassigned to another user. Also, nicknames older than the permanent assignment may start with the word although they did not originate from the listed user.

So far, primarily U.S. Air Force names are listed. Source [7] includes also many non-USAF first words, which will be added to the list as well.

1.6 Sources

[1] Department of Defense Regulation DoD 5200.1-R "DoD Information Security Program"
[2] HQ NORAD Regulation 11-3 "Administrative Practices - Code Words, Nicknames, and Exercise Terms"
[3] OPNAV Instruction OPNAVINST 5511.37C "Nicknames, Exercise Terms and Code Words"
[4] Marine Corps Order MCO 5030.2C "Policies and Procedures Concerning the Use of Code Words, Nicknames, and Exercise Terms"
[5] Air Force Manual AFMAN 23-110, Volume 1, Part 4 "Standard Supply Codes"
[6] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual CJCSM 3150.29A "Codename, Nichname, and Exercise Term Report (NICKA)"
[7] William M. Arkin: "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs And Operations In The 9/11 World", Random House, 2005

2 List of Names

The listing includes mainly two-word nicknames for U.S. military aviation-related projects, operations, exercises and foreign aid programs from around the 1960s and later. A few names (e.g. single-word CIA codes), which would fall outside that scope are included nevertheless, when one of our authors happened to come across it ;-).

Sources and Notes

(1) The initial name list was provided by Andreas Gehrs-Pahl, who collected the information over a long time from numerous public sources.

(2) A large number of names was grabbed from the "Code Names Handbook", published by Defense Marketing Services (D.M.S.) in 1983. The two-word names from the D.M.S. listing can be downloaded as a ZIP'ed PDF file (323 KB). Many thanks go to Per Nyström, who has done a fantastic job in scanning and OCR'ing the printed publication!

Notes: All names in our tables, whose entries were copied verbatim from the D.M.S. handbook are shown in blue. This indicates that the information is taken directly from a 1983 publication, and may therefore be completely outdated. A few entries, which were definitely incorrect, have not been ported from the D.M.S. handbook. Also, the term "cancelled" in a D.M.S. description apparently does not mean that the program never actually started. It probably can also indicate that the program had already been terminated at the time when D.M.S. compiled their handbook.

Copyright Note: The D.M.S. data is made available with the permission of Forecast International Inc. ( Forecast International is the current owner of all former D.M.S. assets, and holds the copyright to all D.M.S. publications. Regarding the publication of parts of the 1983 "Code Name Handbook" on the Designation-Systems.Net website, Forecast International issues the following disclaimer:

This data is circa 1983 and is not reflective of current and/or active codenames. Forecast International Inc. accepts no responsibility for any actions which may arise due to data inaccuracies.

(3) William M. Arkin: "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs And Operations In The 9/11 World", Random House, 2005

This source lists several thousand code names and nicknames for post-Cold War projects, programs, exercises, etc.. A subset of these names has been added to the tables on this web site.

The copying of names from the book to the tables has not yet been started.

Name Tables

Entries, which only have "[...]" in the description column, are preliminary and will eventually be either edited or removed.

A - Able Mable ... Autumn Forge
B - Babylift ... Buzz Spring
C - Cache Marker ... Cutty Sark
D - Daguet ... Dust Hardness
E - Eagle Eye ... Exotic Dancer
F - Face Lift ... Fresh News
G - Gallant Hand ... Gypsy Danger
H - Halcon Vista ... Hybla Gold
I - Idealist ... Ivy Owl
J - Jack Frost I ... Just Cause
K - Kee Bird ... King Fish
L - La Faire Vite ... Lucky Dragon
M - Mad Bomber ... Mystic Star
N - Nancy Rae ... Nymph Voice
O - Ocean Wave ... Oxeye Daisy
P - Pacer Ace ... Ptarmigan Track
Q - Quick Bolt ... Quiet Force
R - Ranch Hand ... Rusty Bolt
S - Saber Acquire ... Swiftlift
T - Tacit Blue ... Tuba Groom
U - Union Flash ... Urgent Fury
V - Varsity Spirit ... Vortex
W - Walking Shield ... Woodland Cougar
X - (none)
Y - Yankee Team ... Young Tiger
Z - (none)

Comments and corrections to: Andreas Parsch

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Last Updated: 29 June 2005