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A look at the history of the NATO phonetic alphabet - banner

A look at the history of the NATO phonetic alphabet


The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is a widely-used verbal tool to make oral radio and telecommunication easier, especially during long transmissions and bad radio signal. This internationally recognised system has enabled the military, emergency services and aviation industry to avoiding miscommunicating similar-sounding letters, saving many lives during wars. Join us as we trace the origins and uses of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet.

Origins of the NATO phonetic alphabet

Young officer holds a radio station
Young officer holds a radio station

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet, officially known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet or the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Phonetic Alphabet, is the most commonly known and widely used radiotelephone spelling alphabet in the world, but it’s by no means the first. The increasing use of radio and telephonic communication in the early 20th Century meant similar sounding letters (such as “N” and “M”, or “F” and “S”) were often confused. Combined with static and other forms of radio interference, giving map coordinates or precise instructions became increasingly difficult – and often dangerous.

The earliest phonetic alphabets only specified replacements for commonly confused letters, such as “Beer” for “B”, “Vic” for “V”, and “Pip” for “P”. Over time, these evolved into fully-fledged phonetic alphabets with replacements for all 26 letters. Early versions include the Royal Navy Alphabet and Western Front Slang (“Signalese”), both of which were used by British forces in the First World War.

The first international 26-code-word phonetic alphabet was introduced in 1927 and used by all public and security services. Before long, both the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) recognized the alphabet’s advantages and adopted it – as did the US Federal Government and global military organizations including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

After the success of using early phonetic alphabets in combat during the First World War, by the outbreak of World War II each nation had developed their own phonetic alphabet. The British implemented the Royal Air Force (RAF) Phonetic Alphabet, which was similar to the Royal Navy’s alphabet used decades earlier; while the US adopted the Joint Army/Navy Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet in 1941, known as “Able Baker” after the code words for “A” and “B”. In 1943, in a bid to coordinate their military prowess, the Allies (including the US, UK and Australian armed forces) adopted the alphabet of the Combined Communications Board (a combination of US and UK upper military command). This modified the US military's Joint Army/Navy Alphabet so that all three nations could share a common form of strengthened communication known as the US-UK Spelling Alphabet.

Following the end of World War II, the US-UK Spelling Alphabet was rolled out for international aviation use until early 1956, when after a series of revisions following research by the US and UK governments, NATO adopted the now-official ICAO Phonetic Spelling Alphabet. This final version was popularised by the ICAO on March 1, 1956, before being adopted in 1959 by the ITU, which governs all international radio communication, and international military and civilian radio operators.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

CharacterTelephonyPhonic (Pronunciation)
AAlphaAl-fah
BBravoBrah-voh
CCharlieChar-lee
DDeltaDell-Tah
EEchoEck-oh
FFoxtrotFoks-trot
GGolfGolf
HHotelHoh-tel
IIndiaIn-dee-ah
JJuliettJew-lee-ett
KKiloKey-loh
LLimaLee-mah
MMikeMike
NNovemberNo-vem-ber
OOscarOss-cah
PPapaPah-pah
QQuebecKeh-beck
RRomeoRow-me-oh
SSierraSee-air-rah
TTangoTang-go
UUniformYou-nee-form
VVictorVik-tah
WWhiskeyWiss-key
XXrayEcks-ray
YYankeeYang-key
ZZuluZoo-loo

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