UK & Canada Aircraft Designation Systems

This article builds upon a number of related subjects we have discussed previously. Military designation systems we have already discussed include the US systems for aircraft and missiles as well as the codenames given to Soviet aircraft. We have also covered the conventions applied to German and Japanese aircraft as well as that used for Russian missiles. Let us now address the aircraft desination systems used by the UK and Canada.

United Kingdom

The British aircraft designation system is similar to that used by the US except that the plane's official name is used within the designation system. The full designation consists of the name, a letter or set of letters indicating the role, and a mark number. In a few cases, the mark number is followed by a letter indicating a modification.

For example, the full designation for a variant of the Tornado IDS bomber is written as "Tornado GR.1A". Furthermore, a designation is sometimes written in the form "Tornado GR Mk 1A". Both cases describe a modification to the Tornado GR.1, a ground attack/reconnaissance version of the Tornado. The GR.1A is a specialized variant in which one of the two guns is replaced by reconnaissance gear.

For export models, the role letters are usually left out, and the mark numbers are restarted from a high number, usually 50. An example is the Sea Harrier operated by the Indian Navy and designated as Sea Harrier Mk 51.

The following table lists the role letters that have been used by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy since these codes were first adopted. Those codes marked in italics are obsolete and no longer in use today.

The British aircraft system has remained largely unchanged since it was first introduced prior to World War I. However, the system has been somewhat simplified over the years. Before World War II, mark numbers were used alone without the role letters. The mark number was also written in Roman numerals. The role letters were added during the war, and conventional numerals were also introduced for mark numbers greater than 20. The Roman numerals were finally dropped altogether after the war to create the system that exists today.


Canada uses a designation scheme that is essentially identical to that used by the US, though it is simplified. The designation consists of the letter "C" for Canada, a letter to indicate the aircraft's role, a dash, and a number. The number is also sometimes followed by a letter to indicate a modification. Common letters include "A" for a modified version and "D" for a dual-control trainer.

Canada often bases a plane's designation on that used by the country of origin. For example, the Lockheed transport known as the C-130 Hercules in US service is referred to as the CC-130 in Canada. Subvariants include the CC-130E (C-130E) and CC-130H (C-130H) transports as well as the CC-130HT (KC-130H) tanker.

Role letters used by Canada are identical to those used by the US and include the following:

One difference from the American system concerns the method by which a plane's number is assigned. In the US, each role letter is considered a separate sequence in which new planes are numbered sequentially. Canada, on the other hand, numbers all aircraft in a single sequence regardless of its role. The numbers in use today are always greater than 100. Examples of various types in Canadian service include: Note that these two methods of designating planes have resulted in several cases where the same plane can have two different numbers. For example, the American designations for the F-5 Freedom Fighter and F-18 Hornet have been unofficially adopted in Canada as the CF-5 and CF-18. However, the actual official designations for these two aircraft are the CF-116 and CF-188, respectively.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 5 December 2004

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