August 7, 2014:
The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest organization in the world, at least in terms of personnel. Like all large organizations much time and effort is spent trying to avoid duplication and other sources of waste and confusion. This process is applied to the most mundane matters. Take, for example, the task of approving names for aircraft. Americans picked this custom up from the British during World War II. While the formal designations for American warplanes back then were purely functional (like B-17 for a heavy bomber) the British had established the practice of using both what the Americans would call a “nickname” (like “warthog” for the A-10 ground attack aircraft) and sequential version designation (like Spitfire VI for the sixth version of the Spitfire fighter).
After World War II began in 1939 Britain went looking to buy American warplanes (because even with British factories going round the clock, the Brits needed more). Thus when Britain went to buy some of the new American P-51 fighters they gave it a name (“Mustang”). They also bought some A-29s, which they called ”Hudson” and some U.S. Navy PBY patrol aircraft which they called “Catalina”, and lots of C-47 transports that they called “Dakota” and so on. The Americans were so taken by this practice that they adopted it, as an addition to their current purely functional designations. Thus the “C-47” became the “C-47 Dakota” and American personnel would refer to these aircraft by either designation. The C-47 is also called the DC-3, a commercial transport developed in the 1930s and quickly adapted to military use.
After World War II the Americans continued the new practice, although there were occasional problems with two services selecting the same name for one of their new aircraft. By the 1990s the Department of Defense decided to eliminate these problems by having all new aircraft names go through an air force office for approval. This was accomplished by the military service developing a new aircraft coming up with a new name and then sending it to the U.S. Air Force Asset Identification Branch (which is part of the Air Force Material Command, Logistics Division) which did research to determine if the proposed name was a duplication or had spelling or political correctness issues and either rejected the proposed name and sent it back so the service could try again or, if all was in order, forward the approved name to a Pentagon office (Directorate of Programs, Program Integration Division) for one last check and if all was still well the service was notified that its proposed name was now official. Earlier this year the air force simplified the process a bit by eliminating the need to send the proposed name to the Air Force Asset Identification Branch and instead send it directly to Directorate of Programs, Program Integration Division where the initial and final checks are now combined. This was done largely because a long-time employee of the Asset Identification Branch, who had considerable knowledge of naming issues, retired and there was no one qualified to replace him.
The 1990s decision to let the air force coordinate aircraft naming has largely gone over well. Sometime names are not approved for reasons that baffle the service making the request, but the air force decision is always accepted because it is the air force that has, in effect, agreed to take the heat if a new name strikes the wrong note with the media or some special interest group.
But sometimes names are disapproved (or modified) for arcane reasons. The prime example of this is the new (since 2010) U.S. Army UAV; the MQ-1C. The army wanted to call this armed UAV (a slightly larger model of the air force MQ-1A Predator) the Grey Eagle, after a notable Indian (“Native American”) war chief of the Sioux tribe (and brother-in-law of chief Sitting Bull, who he joined at the battle of Little Big Horn). Chief Grey Eagle became widely known in the late 19th century and back then most Americans spelled gray (the current accepted American form) using the British version (grey). The air force told the army they had to use the proper current spelling of gray. The army was not amused, but rather than start a bureaucratic battle with the air force, they “accepted” the air force decision and then ignored it, allowing the MQ-1C to be called Grey Eagle or Gray Eagle as they pleased. When the air force complained, the army said it would be taken care of and again ignored the air force. Some traditions are hard to change.