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How are Names for Military Operations Chosen?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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There is a method behind generating names for military operations, although the actual methodology has changed since World War II. During that war, top military and civilian commanders often chose random one- or two-word names that had little connection to the actual nature of the operation's goals. The major military operation to invade German-held France, for example, was known as Operation Overlord for reasons known only to Great Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Other World War II operations had names such as Apache, Manhattan, and Crossbow.

The British military still gives its military operations simple one word names, such as TELIC, as a form of shorthand, but the United State's military often uses two-word adjective/noun combinations to give the military operation a more inspiring or patriotic title. Operation names such as Desert Shield, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom are often created by mid-level military or civilian personnel with backgrounds in public relations and advertising.

Ostensibly, names for military operations during the Vietnam war era were generated at random according to the initials assigned to each military branch. If the Army's next military codename initials were ND, for example, the name of the actual military operation could have been Operation Neutral Duck, for example. The names used during the 1970s and 1980s were generally chosen at random by a computer program known as the "Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System," somewhat oddly abbreviated to the acronym NICKA.

The NICKA system randomly assigned an adjective and noun to the initials of the next approved military operation, which often led to some less-than-inspirational code names for military ops. The plan to invade Panama in 1989, for example, was assigned the mundane codename Operation Blue Spoon by the NICKA computer. Human military officials decided to give the military operation a more inspirational name, Operation Just Cause. This is generally considered the first example of generating an operation name with an eye towards public relations and a stronger sense of purpose for the mission.

This new concept of assigning names based on public perception or sense of purpose has led to operation codenames such as Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. The original choice for the military invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been "Operation Desert Freedom," but it was eventually replaced with the more focused "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in order to avoid comparisons to the earlier military operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Although the NICKA system for generating names for military operations has not be completely abandoned, many military and civilian commanders now prefer to assign more focused and inspirational names which help to define, and some might argue justify, the mission for the American public.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1004366 — On Jan 24, 2021

Of course if the US ever ends up in a war against a roughly equal opponent, the PR people will quickly be shown why the Allies started giving random names to their operations, a) for encryption purposes, patterns are harder to spot when there's no overall pattern and b) random names don't contain intelligence about the operation that the enemy can use to prepare for it.

By afterall — On Apr 05, 2011

@anon40624, I have never heard that, though I would believe it, even if there is not proof. I have heard similar things in the past, and my guess is that in general military names end up having more to do with following political correctness policy than anything else. Unfortunately, I think most of us thought Iraqi Freedom was no more fitting for what has really been going on than Flaming Sword would have been.

By watson42 — On Apr 03, 2011

I wonder why governments think that these military operations' names actually have some sort of impact on most of us. I am personally opposed to the current war in Iraq, and I never really believed it was entirely about Iraqi freedom. The name of the operation, to me, just made it sound even more contrived.

I also wonder why the names of operations don't change anymore, if this is so important- the goals of the war have clearly changed greatly since it began.

By anon40624 — On Aug 10, 2009

The original name for Operation Iraqi Freedom was actually Operation Flaming Sword, but changed to avoid the obvious Crusade implications, which it was originally intended to be. Try to find that on the Internet. You can't.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Historical Index, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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