Military Phonetic Alphabet

Radio-Telephone Operators (RTOs) use a Phonetic Alphabet to spell letters in place of just saying the letter itself. By using a word for each letter there is less chance that the person listening will confuse letters. For instance, letters that can easily be confused are "B" and "E". In addition to military use, the phonetic alphabet is used in radio communications around the world by ships, aircraft, and amateur radio operators.

RTO, Task Force Eagle  Stabilization Force (SFOR), Balkans, November 2003
RTO, Task Force Eagle Stabilization Force (SFOR), Balkans, November 2003.

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Why Does the Military Use a Phonetic Alphabet?

The military relies on the phonetic alphabet to clarify communications. In a military situation, a message that isn't understood correctly can have critical consequences. When an RTO is monitoring a radio transmission in a combat environment, both the quality of the signal and the surrounding noise may make it hard to hear clearly. The phonetic alphabet minimizes the possibility of confusing "C Company" with "G Company" by using the easily distinguishable "Charlie Company" and "Golf Company" instead.

History and Current Military Phonetic Alphabet

Since radio became an important tool of military operations, the US armed forces have used several different phonetic alphabets. That's why World War II movies have characters saying "Able Baker Charlie" while present-day soldiers say "Alpha Bravo Charlie" for the same ABC. Here is a chart of the alphabets used by the U.S. and NATO, along with US Navy signal flags.

Letter 1913 1927 1938 World War II 1957-Present Signal Flag
A Able Affirmative Afirm Afirm (Able) Alfa (AL FAH)   A
B Boy Baker Baker Baker Bravo (BRAH VOH)   B
C Cast Cast Cast Charlie Charlie (CHAR LEE)   C
D Dog Dog Dog Dog Delta (DELL TAH)   D
E Easy Easy Easy Easy Echo (ECK OH)   E
F Fox Fox Fox Fox Foxtrot (FOKS TROT)   F
G George George George George Golf (GOLF)   G
H Have Hypo Hypo How Hotel (HOH TELL)   H
I Item Interrogatory Int Int (Item) India (IN DEE AH)   I
J Jig Jig Jig Jig Juliett (JEW LEE ETT)   J
K King King King King Kilo (KEY LOH)   K
L Love Love Love Love Lima (LEE MAH)   L
M Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike (MIKE)   M
N Nan Negative Negat Negat (Nan) November (NOVEMBER)   N
O Oboe Option Option Option (Oboe) Oscar (OSS CAH)   O
P Pup Preparatory Prep Prep (Peter) Papa (PAH PAH)   P
Q Quack Quack Queen Queen Quebec (KEH BECK)   Q
R Rush Roger Roger Roger Romeo (ROW ME OH)   R
S Sail Sail Sail Sugar Sierra (SEE AIR RAH)   S
T Tare Tare Tare Tare Tango (TANG GO)   T
U Unit Unit Unit Uncle Uniform (YOU NEE FORM)   U
V Vice Vice Victor Victor Victor (VIK TAH)   V
W Watch William William William Whiskey (WISS KEY)   W
X X-ray X-ray X-ray X-ray X-ray (ECKS RAY)   X
Y Yoke Yoke Yoke Yoke Yankee (YANG KEY)   Y
Z Zed Zed Zed Zebra Zulu (ZOO LOO)   Z

Source: Phonetic Alphabet and Signal Flags. See also Wikipedia: NATO phonetic alphabet.

Phonetic Numbers

There is a similar military phonetic system for numbers:

Figure Pronounced
0 Zeero
1 Wun
2 Too
3 Tree or Thr-ree
4 Fower
5 Fife
6 Siks
7 Seven
8 Ate
9 Niner

If a decimal point is included in the number, say: DAY-SEE-MAL. You may be trained to say "FIGURES" before starting a string of numbers.

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