US Rocket & Missile Designation System

Up until 1962, each branch of the US military adopted its own naming schemes for both aircraft and weapons. The aircraft systems are further explained in a previous question. The systems used for missiles and other guided weapons were particularly confusing and in a constant state of flux. To simplify matters, Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the services to develop a common, uniform naming convention resulting in the Tri-Service System of 1962. The conventions are described in "DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE PUBLICATION 4120.15-L" and are officially known as the MDS ("MISSION, DESIGN, AND SERIES SYSTEM"). The last update to this system was released in 1997.

The designations used for most guided missiles, unguided rockets, and other self-propelled flying vehicles follow the general format illustrated below:

US missile designation format
US missile designation format

The purpose of these letters and numbers is further described in the following tables.

Status Prefix Launch Environment Mission Vehicle Type
C Captive A Air C Transport B Booster
D Dummy B Multiple D Decoy M Guided Missile
J Special Test (temporary) C Coffin E Electronic/ Communications N Probe
N Special Test (permanent) F Individual G Surface Attack R Rocket
X Experimental G Surface I Aerial/Space Intercept S Satellite
Y Prototype H Silo Stored L Launch Detection/ Surveillance

Z Planning L Silo Launched M Scientific/ Calibration

M Mobile N Navigation

P Soft Pad Q Drone

R Ship S Space Support

S Space T Training

U Underwater U Underwater Attack

W Weather

  1. Status
    This letter indicates the overall status of the weapon type or the individual example. These designations are commonly used in early design or flight test applications, but are seldom seen in production weapons or normal operations.
  2. Letter Status Description
    C Captive Vehicle that can be carried by a launch platform but cannot be fired, such as an air-launched missile that is not fitted with a rocket motor. These are often used during flight testing, for example.
    D Dummy A dummy casing that carries no operational equipment (i.e. motor, warhead, guidance system). These may be used for training or aerodynamic flight tests.
    J Special Test (temporary) Vehicle in special test programs with a special test configuration or with equipment temporarily removed to accommodate testing.
    N Special Test (permanent) Vehicle in special test programs whose configuration changes so drastically that returning to its original operational configuration is not practical.
    X Experimental or Prototype A weapon that is still under development or evaluation and not in production.
    Y Prototype or Preserial Indicates that the weapon has moved beyond the experimental stage and is in final developmental testing and evaluation in preparation for a production run.
    Z Planned, Proposed, or Projected A weapon that is still in early planning or pre-development stages.

  3. Launch Mode or Environment
    This letter indicates the type or types of launching platforms for which the weapon is designed.
  4. Letter Environment Description
    A Air Launched from an air vehicle.
    B Multiple Capable of being launched from more than one environment.
    C Coffin or Container Ground-launched system that is stored horizontally or at an angle less than 45 in a protective enclosure.
    F Individual or Infantry A man-portable weapon that is carried and launched by combat personnel.
    G Surface Launched from the ground or a runway.
    H Silo Stored Stored vertically in a silo but not launched from underground.
    L Silo Launched Vertically stored and launched from underground.
    M Mobile Launched from a ground vehicle or moveable platform.
    P Softpad Ground-launched system that is stored in an unprotected or partially-protected state.
    R Ship Launched from a surface vessel.
    S Space Launched from a vehicle operating outside the Earth's atmosphere.
    U Underwater Launched from an underwater location or a submarine.

  5. Basic Mission
    This letter indicates the type of mission the weapon performs.
  6. Letter Mission Description
    C Transport Designed to carry personnel, cargo, command, control, and communications equipment or weapons systems.
    D Decoy Designed or modified to confuse, deceive, or divert enemy defenses by simulating an attack vehicle.
    E Electronic Warfare or
    Special Electronic Equipment
    Designed or modified with electronics equipment for communications, countermeasures, electronic radiation sounding, or other electronic recording or relay missions.
    G Surface Attack Intended to attack land or sea targets, such as ground structures and vehicles or surface ships.
    I Intercept, Aerial or Space Intended to attack aerial targets, such as aircraft or missiles, or space targets, such as missiles or satellites.
    L Launch Detection/Surveillance Performs aerospace surveillance to detect and track satellites or in-flight missiles.
    M Scientific/Calibration Designed for the collection, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of scientific and technical information.
    N Navigation Provides navigational data.
    Q Drone or Target Remotely or automatically piloted aerospace vehicle.
    S Space Support Vehicle designed to ensure maintainability of space control and support of terrestrial forces. Includes activities such as launching and deploying space vehicles, maintaining and sustaining space vehicles while in orbit and recovering space vehicles if required.
    T Training Designed or permanently modified for training purposes.
    U Underwater Attack Intended to attack sub-surface targets such as submarines.
    W Weather Observes, records, or relays data pertaining to meteorological phenomena.

  7. Vehicle Type
    This letter indicates the class of the vehicle itself.
  8. Letter Vehicle Description
    B Booster A primary or auxiliary propulsion system used as a source of thrust for a satellite, missile, or aerospace vehicle. May consist of one or more units.
    M Guided Missile or Drone An unmanned, self-propelled vehicle flying in or above the atmosphere with remote or internal trajectory guidance.
    N Probe A non-orbital instrumented vehicle used to monitor and transmit environmental information.
    R Rocket A self-propelled unguided vehicle whose flight trajectory cannot be altered after launch.
    S Satellite An orbital vehicle that collects and transmits data.

  9. Design Number
    This number indicates the sequential order of the weapon within that vehicle type.
  10. Series
    This letter indicates a major variant of the weapon, "A" being the initial production model with subsequent models being indicated by subsequent letters. "I" and "O" are typically skipped to avoid confusion with "1" and "0".
  11. Configuration Number
    This number indicates a minor subvariant of the weapon.
Some examples of this system are provided below.

  (Status)     Launch      Mission      Vehicle -   Number       Series    - Config. number  (Name)

                 R            U            R    -     5            A                         Asroc
               Ship  Underwater Attack  Rocket    5th rocket    1st variant

     C           A            T            M    -     9            M       -       8         Sidewinder
  Captive       Air        Training     Missile   9th missile  12th variant  8th subvariant

                 C            I            M    -    10            B                         Bomarc
               Coffin     Intercept     Missile  10th missile   2nd variant

                 G            Q            M    -    15            A                         Regulus II
               Runway       Drone       Missile  15th missile   1st variant

                 P            T            M    -    16            E                         Atlas
              Softpad      Training     Missile  16th missile   5th variant

                 A            D            M    -    20            B                         Quail
                Air         Decoy       Missile  20th missile   2nd variant

                 L            G            M    -    25            C                         Titan II
          Silo-launched Surface Attack  Missile  25th missile   3rd variant

     Y           U            G            M    -    27            A                         Polaris
 Prototype  Underwater  Surface Attack  Missile  27th missile   1st variant

     X           M            G            M    -    52            B                         Sea Lance
Experimental   Mobile   Surface Attack  Missile  52nd missile   2nd variant

                 B            Q            M    -    74            E                         Chukar
              Multiple      Drone       Missile  74th missile   5th variant

                 F            I            M    -    92            A                         Stinger
             Individual   Intercept     Missile  92nd missile   1st variant

                 A            I            M    -   120            C       -       7         AMRAAM
                Air       Intercept     Missile 120th missile   3rd variant  7th subvariant

     Z           A            I            M    -   132            A                         ASRAAM
  Planned       Air       Intercept     Missile 132nd missile   1st variant

                 P            W            N    -    10            B                         Super Loki Datasonde
              Softpad      Weather       Probe   10th probe     2nd variant

                              S            B    -     5            A                         Titan IV
                        Space Support   Booster   5th booster   1st variant

                              N            S    -     7            E                         Navstar GPS IIF
                         Navigation    Satellite 7th satellite  5th variant
You can test your knowledge of the Tri-Service naming conventions at Andreas Gehrs-Pahl's list of US Missiles & Rockets and Andreas Parsch's Current Designations of U.S. Unmanned Military Aerospace Vehicles.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 28 April 2002

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