A quick guide to the nomenclature that identifies America’s military vehicles and units.

The U.S. military speaks many languages. From the markings on tanks to the classification of aircraft, the armed services use a lot of symbology and abbreviated text to quickly convey information. The Armed Forces are all about efficiency, particularly in wartime, and the ability to quickly discern a lot of information from a simple glance is useful, particularly in high-stress situations.

As an outsider, though, it can be hard to figure these things out. Here is Popular Mechanics’ guide to secret slang.

U.S. Army: Tank and Vehicle Markings

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Every operationally assigned combat, combat support, and combat service support vehicle uses hull or bumper markings to identify its parent unit. This goes for everything from Abrams main battle tanks to supply trucks.

Take the vehicle seen above as one example. This is an M1A1 Abrams assigned to Fort Stewart, Georgia. The crew is giving a tour to local Navy JROTC students.

The top row of hull markings is fairly standard. On the left hand side, it reads, “3ID 6-8CAV.” Here, “3ID” identifies the tank as belonging to the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, while “6-8CAV” signifies the 6th Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.

On the right-hand side, “D14” means that the tank belongs to D Company, 1st platoon, 4th tank. Each U.S. Army tank platoon has four tanks, with the first tank belonging to the platoon leader (a lieutenant) and the fourth tank belonging to the platoon sergeant. So in this case, the simple code “3ID 6-8CAV D14” identifies this tank, out of the 2,000 or more in the entire U.S. Army, as belonging to the platoon sergeant of First Platoon, D Company, 6th Battalion, 8th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division. Those 12 characters convey a lot.

(Further variations of the code might substitute “AD” (“Armored Division”) for ID, while “INF” (“Infantry”) or “ARM” (“Armored”) could identify the regiment.)

U.S. Air Force: Tail Markings

NE17 in full-swing

Most U.S. Air Force places have a two-letter identifier on the tail or elsewhere to signify where it is based. On fighter jets, these typically appear as big, bold, blocky letters on the vertical stabilizer.

The aircraft seen above are F-15E Strike Eagles belonging to the 335th Fighter Squadron. The 335th calls Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina home, leading to the quite logical “SJ” tail code. Other codes include ED (Edwards Air Force Base, California); HL (Hill Air Force Base, Utah); and LN (RAF Lakenheath, a U.S. Air Force base in the United Kingdom.)

Some tail codes deviate from the norm. “ZZ” is the tail code for Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, where the Air Force bases two F-15C squadrons. Why “ZZ” was chosen is a mystery, but there is probably some explanation lost to history. “AK” is the tail code F-22 Raptors fly with that operate from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (formerly Elmendorf Air Force Base) in Alaska.

SCANG deploys to 407th AEG

Other units, like the South Carolina Air National Guard, throw convention right out the window. It’s difficult to argue, though, that this tail code doesn’t convey the needed information.

U.S. Navy: Naval Squadron Designations

VMFA-115 CO Flight Preparation

The U.S. Navy operates a dozen or so types of squadrons, from strike fighter squadrons to electronic warfare and helicopter squadrons. These can get a little confusing and often can’t even be turned into pronounceable acronyms.

To start with, here is what the letters mean:

V: Fixed Wing Aviation
F: Fighter
A: Attack
M: Marine Corps (or applied to Navy helicopter units, Maritime Strike)
Q: Electronic Warfare
W: Airborne Early Warning and Control
P: Patrol
H: Helicopter (as opposed to Fixed Wing Aviation)
S: Anti-Submarine Warfare (or applied to helicopter units, Sea)
C: Combat

The F/A-18 Hornet above belongs to VMFA-115. Broken down, VMFA means “Fixed Wing Aviation, Marine Corps, Fighter, Attack”. This Marine Corps squadron can conduct both fighter and attack missions. These days the “FA” is deciphered as “strike fighter,” which basically means the same thing (but sounds cooler).

Currently the Navy’s Carrier Air Wing One operates the following squadrons:

  • HSM-72 “Proud Warriors” (Helicopter, Sea, Maritime Strike: MH-60 Seahawks)
  • HSC-11 “Dragonslayers” (Helicopter, Sea Combat: MH-60 Seahawks)
  • VFA-136 “Knighthawks,” VFA-211 “Checkmates,” VFA-11 “Red Rippers,” VFA-81 “Sunliners (Fixed Wing, Fighter Attack, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets)
  • VAQ-137 “Rooks” (Fixed Wing, Attack, Electronic Warfare: EA-18G Growlers)
  • VAW-126 “Seahawks” (Fixed Wing, Attack, Airborne Early Warning and Control: E-2D Hawkeyes)
  • U.S. Navy Conducts Flight Operations in Mediterranean

    But wait, there’s more: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft have tail codes too. Each air wing has a different two-letter code, with Atlantic Fleet–based wings starting with an “A” and Pacific Fleet wings with a “N.” The second letter in these codes uniquely identifies the Air Wing. The F/A-18E Super Hornet above is from the Atlantic Fleet, with “AJ,” otherwise known as Carrier Air Wing Eight, assigned to the USS George H.W. Bush. The fighter is from VFA-31, or Strike Fighter Squadron 31.

    Marine Corps: Military Occupational Specialties

    BLT 3/5 Urban Platoon Assault

    Marine Corps personnel are assigned Military Occupation Specialties to describe their roles in the service. Marines often use these four-digit codes to identify what often amounts to sub-tribes within the Corps, particularly the combat arms branches. For example, Marine riflemen, both active-duty and veterans, will often refer to themselves as 0311s. Here are some other examples:

  • 0313: Light Armored Vehicle Crewman
  • 0317: Scout Sniper
  • 0351: Infantry Assaultman
  • 0911: Drill Instructor
  • 1317: Combat Engineer
  • 1812: Tank Crewman
  • 2783: Hungarian Linguist
  • 5528: Musician, Bassoon
  • The Marine Corps MOS list is fairly comprehensive, as the Hungarian Linguist designation would suggest. The full list numbers in the hundreds.