Sing, Missile Muse, of Gods and Heroes: America’s Most Fearsome Weapons Need Better Names
U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command may soon christen a new intercontinental ballistic missile. It is worth asking why. After all, “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” — the current description of the program expected to deliver a new intercontinental ballistic missile by 2029 — seems logical enough. And W87 warheads, by any other name, deter just as sweetly. It is, therefore, both curious and instructive that major weapon systems are expected to have something more than common descriptors or alphanumerics. Fortunately, guidance is available as to what constitutes better and worse names. To access it, one must consult the oracle of history.
In the beginning, when nuclear weapons were young, Latin grammar and the works of Homer were more common fixtures of primary and secondary education. In those times, it seemed only natural that the most fearsome weapons ever created would be named for epic figures. Thus ground-based missiles like Atlas, Titan, and Thor walked the earth. Submarine-launched missiles like Poseidon and his Trident sailed the seas. Air and missile defenses like Spartans, Aegis, and Nike herself, goddess of winged victory, guarded the sky. Homer’s Iliad began by invoking a muse to sing of the wrath of Achilles. Wrath is indeed the theme of the work. These early naming conventions for strategic forces heeded a similar muse, reflecting the character and gravity of the objects they named.
In the field of missilery, as in its spacefaring cousin, this naming pattern held for decades, more or less unbroken, until a new generation arrived. Nuclear missiles began to be named for heroic figures closer to home — archetypes and symbols from American military and constabulary history. Hence came the Minuteman of the Revolutionary War, the Tomahawk and Peacekeeper of the Wild West, and Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, legend of World War I.
But then, somewhere along the way, those charged with naming U.S. weapons lost their mojo. The fault, dear reader, lay not in our rockets, but in ourselves. Maybe it was the experience of Vietnam, or post-Cold War hopes that Pandora’s box might close. Perhaps imaginations were dulled by service life-extensions and tending to stockpiles. It surely had something to do with the reduced study of the classics and the liberal arts. Whatever the cause, tolerances grew for generic descriptions, bunching letters and numbers into clumps, and overusing hyphenated prefixes and suffixes. Any list of contemporary missiles and munitions reads like alphabet soup.
The muse, ignored, went silent. And with that silence, something was lost. What a poverty, that contemporary debates about intercontinental ballistic missiles have no better metaphors than clunker cars or sponges. Bland descriptors are good enough for some weapons, but not instruments of deterrence whose effectiveness literally derives from primeval terror. Nuclear delivery systems, the bedrock of U.S. national security, deserve something less ignoble. They deserve strong names communicating wrath, scorn, and defiance. With the return of history, it is time to return to more traditional names.
As the Air Force mulls candidate names for future nuclear-armed missiles — including the new intercontinental ballistic missile expected to remain in service through the 2070s — it should return to an American tradition lost to the early decades of the Cold War. Specifically, the service should explore names inspired by ancient pagan gods and American heroes.
What’s in a Name?
Since the 1960s, versions of Mission Design Series formulae have designated missiles and drones according to characteristics, basing mode, and purpose. AIM-9X signifies an air-launched (A) missile that intercepts its target in air (I) and is guided (M). The MQ-9A is a multi-mission (M) drone (Q). But among their friends, they go by Sidewinder and Reaper.
Then there are acronyms. The Hound Dog nuclear air-launched cruise missile was succeeded by the indecorous SRAM, or Short Range Attack Missile, and by another that has for decades served silently with no better moniker than the coughing noise, ALCM, or Air Launched Cruise Missile. The illustrious Phoenix and Sparrow air-to-air missiles were succeeded by one known only as AMRAAM, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. During the bicentennial, the surface-to-air missile formerly known as SAM-D became PATRIOT, a well-chosen backronym for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target. The ATACMS, Army Tactical Missile System, is likewise wordplay on “attack.” The persistent reliance upon acronyms and backronyms nevertheless represents a crutch, and betrays a lack of confidence. The B-52 bomber’s nickname is a special case, whereby the acronym BUFF, ostensibly for Big Ugly Fat “Fellow,” discreetly conceals obscenity.
Others, like GBSD, for Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, are technically not acronyms, but initialisms. Across the joint force, impressive strike capabilities languish under barely pronounceable utterances like PrSM (Precision Strike Missile), JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range), and OASuW (Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare). Initialism also afflicts air and missile defense. The birth of Army Air Defense Artillery out of Field Artillery was visibly manifested in its insignia, with a Nike missile atop crossed cannons. Her successors included Zeus, Hercules, and Ajax. How far removed from today’s air defense portfolio, including M-SHORAD, IFPC, and THAAD — Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense, Indirect Fire Protection Capability, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Nested initialisms are also proliferating, like PAC-3 MSE, for PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 Missile Segment Enhancement, and IBCS, for Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Battle Command System. National missile defense efforts were once called Safeguard, Sentinel, Spartan, and Sprint. Today there is Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), and its Ground-based Interceptors (GBIs). It need not be this way. What we call the S-400 air defense system, Russians call Triumph.
Whereas missiles or ballistas sometimes received meaningful names, the nuclear devices they carried did not. There are instead W-numbers for warheads, B-numbers for bombs, and the occasional Mark. Here one sees how sharply proper nouns can cut. The Bush administration might not have encountered such congressional resistance to nuclear modernization plans, if not for taglines like Reliable Replacement Warhead. To avoid the false appearance of newness, “W76/78” might have been preferable.
Designations are science. Naming is an art, bestowing identity. Department of Defense regulations state that “popular names” for aerospace vehicles should characterize their mission and capabilities. Names are restricted to two words, should not be confused with other words, and, once retired, may not be reused. Although not a codified rule, pronunciation ease seems to require fewer than three syllables.
Historical practice reveals three further considerations to guide the naming of major weapons: story, honor, and connection to the past.
Behind every good weapon stands a good story. Human beings are rational animals, but also spirited and mimetic ones, in need of narrative and imagery. Any mention of the Aegis Combat System for fleet air defense comes ready-equipped with a metaphor to the shield of Zeus. Minutemen of the American Revolution were known for their readiness or promptness, as are intercontinental ballistic missiles. Excalibur and Crusader were never fielded, but today’s Army still deploys knights (Paladins) to serve the King of Battle.
Story, mythos, is more than fiction. Ballads convey lessons dry accounts cannot. Thus the old saw, that poetry is more philosophic than history. Speeches Thucydides put into the mouths of Greek leaders are more insightful than recordings by some ancient equivalent of CSPAN, documenting the deliberations on the floor of the Athenian assembly.
A need for narrative helps explain the popularity of literary inspiration for military programs. The first nuclear submarine was named for Jules Verne’s Nautilus. When NASA invited suggestions for the Space Shuttle prototype, a write-in campaign yielded Star Trek’s Enterprise (itself an historical homage). The Air Force (and SpaceX) has had a wildly popular string of Star Wars-themed programs, like Kessel Run. A French surface-to-air missile commemorates a lieutenant of Charlemagne whose fateful rearguard action is memorialized in the Song of Roland. Russia has especially colorful naming practices for its rockets and artillery. The ubiquitous katyusha (“little Katy”), for instance, got its nickname from a Russian folk song, and the Burevestnik or “Petrel” cruise missile harkens back to a poem.
The name Spirit has imagery consistent with conventions for aircraft, but without the lore of, say, the Gremlins airmen blame for sabotage. Globemaster communicates the C-17’s transportation reach, but lacks the labor metaphor of the C-130 Hercules. Phrases like “ground-based strategic deterrent” contain an excess of science and insufficient humanity. Too much logos, not enough mythos.
Another criterion is honor. What an institution nominates for praise or blame reflects what it holds dear. The Navy honors officers with ships whose class matches their service, as with the Nimitz carrier, Rickover submarine, and Meyer Aegis destroyer. Most Virginia and Ohio-class submarines honor states. Amphibious assault ships are named for battles in which the Marines played an important part, littoral combat ships honor cities, and ten of the fifteen most recent carriers are named for presidents. Despite having no military use, the USS Constitution may never be removed from the rolls because it commemorates the document that frames the American regime.
Leading lights of Air Force history are immortalized with airbase names, like Schriever and Whiteman. The Army has used tank names to honor generals, and short-range missiles to salute their enlisted ranks, from Private to Sergeant.
Army rotary aviation is an especially instructive case. Since 1947, helicopters have been named for Native American tribes, beginning with the Sioux, fearsome onetime adversary of the Cavalry, and continuing with the Lakota as recently as 2012. A 1969 regulation codifying the tradition directed that name selection should appeal to the imagination, respect dignity, suggest aggressive spirit and confidence in the platform, and reflect its tactical characteristics. Such criteria should be applied more broadly.
A third consideration is the link to antiquity. There’s something about nuclear weapons that conjures up thoughts about beginnings, and how a post-atomic world might emerge from seeming chaos. Introducing Strategy in the Missile Age (1959), Bernard Brodie spent the first two pages meditating on Milton’s origin story in Paradise Lost. Awed by the Trinity blast, Robert Oppenheimer reached for something ancient and religious: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Whether or not he said it on the spot is irrelevant. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Consistency is one way to honor the past, with certain types of names paired to a certain class. Obedience to tradition instills pride in one generation even while bowing to another. Another method is by reusing names, as with the Lightning II fighter aircraft’s tribute to the P-38 of World War II. Three generations of missiles with shared characteristics have been called Minuteman. Even if retired aerospace names cannot be revived, ship names live on, unless defeated in battle. The Navy has recently reinvigorated tradition by resurrecting some of the nation’s first six ship names for frigates, fish-named submarines, and Enterprise as a Ford-class carrier.
The desire for the old is so natural and omnipresent that it’s sometimes tuned out. Witness the widespread use of Latinate mottos, including two Virgil phrases on the back of the dollar, those of over half the fifty states, those of almost every U.S. military service, as well as internal military branches and units, such as missile wings. Air Force Global Strike Command itself has a powerful, classically inspired injunction: certare vel mori (“fight or die”).
In the golden age of nomenclature, marquee gods were assigned to premier strategic forces. Even after the likes of Titan and Apollo disappeared, however, there remained a persistent, if quieted, wish to walk with giants. When old Minuteman missile stages were repurposed as sounding rockets, they were relabeled Aries. In the 1980s, the ground-launched cruise missile deployed in Europe was known as Gryphon. Styx and Satan made it into NATO designations for Soviet missiles — indeed, Satan II has returned for Russia’s newest heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles. Even testing grounds (and targets) are suffused by myth: the highest point on Kwajalein Atoll — an island chain where the United States conducts missile tests — is called Mount Olympus.
Whatever the source of the impulse to connect with classical or mythical figures, it is everywhere, hidden in plain sight. For close-in-air-defenses, the Navy has Phalanx and the Army had Vulcans. A half dozen Navy hulls have been named for Greek gods, and their first cruise missile was called Regulus. Long before Vladimir Putin’s nuclear-powered cruise missile Burevestnik (named for a bird), America had Project Pluto. Even a few defense companies invoke the classics, like Kratos, god of strength, speedy Hermeus, and Raytheon, “ray of the gods.” The latter’s post-merger name, Raytheon Technologies, recalls Prometheus, who was chained to a rock for the crime of sharing divine techne with mankind.
The connection to ancient deities and cultural symbols is indeed a global phenomenon. France chose well for its ballistic missiles with Hadès and Pluton, gods of the underworld. The United Kingdom had a Vulcan bomber. Israel names strategic missiles for Jericho, conquest of their ancient Hebrew forebears. Iran has several missiles named for passages in the Qur’an: Shahab (meteor), Fateh (conqueror), and Sejjil (baked clay). India has Prithvi (Earth) and Dhanush (bow), but Agni, divinity of the fire, is reserved for their longer-ranged missiles. Alexander the Great, deified after his death, still rides in conquest today aboard Russia’s Iskander. North Korea’s Hwasong family roughly translates as Mars. Zhurong, the ancient Chinese fire god, just landed there.
Hope for a renaissance is recently exemplified by such excellent picks as Valkyrie and the Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, or NMESIS. Forgive the acronym: even Homer nods. NASA, too, could not have more elegantly named their new lunar module than with Artemis, sister of Apollo.
The muse still speaks to those who listen.
The second category of note is that of American heroes. Honorees include revolutionary Minutemen, and Pershing, the only “General of the Armies” save George Washington. Some Tomahawks were originally nuclear-armed, as Navaho was intended to be. While the use of Native American names for U.S. missiles may no longer be appropriate, the Tomahawk remains quite popular among sailors, and has a less formal nickname, Hallmark, as in, when you care enough to send the very best. (For its part, Russia sends Carnatians.) Peacekeeper was reportedly picked by President Ronald Reagan himself, over Peacemaker, Guardian, and Themis. Other unused names appear in the files. In the late 1960s, the Air Force was considering four possible successors to Minuteman I, including Ranger, Nemesis, Vulcan, and Janus.
Excluding Davy Crockett, namesake of an Army gun that fired a sub-kiloton nuclear device, Pershing appears to be the only American whose name has been attached to a nuclear missile. Maybe this is for the best. Notwithstanding their fiery reputations, Curtis Lemay strongly favored bombers over ballistic missiles, and naming a missile for William Tecumseh Sherman could be misinterpreted as intent to bomb Georgia, again. To the democratic ear, names for classes or groups seem to transfer more easily than individuals to instruments of doom. The Army’s Honest John apparently (perhaps apocryphally) got its name for a Texan prone to telling tall tales.
These two categories, gods and heroes, are more similar than meets the eye. “Hero” once meant the offspring of god and mortal. Political founders were said to be descended from gods — a convenient, near-universal fiction to attach divine obligation to civic law. Modern heroism has since been brought to earth to credit doers of great deeds.
Even this rational, republican age has need of demigods, ceremony, and myth. Naming aircraft carriers for presidents is the equivalent to the late-Roman habit of deifying emperors. Look down the National Mall, the American forum, and see a majestic obelisk, followed by gleaming Doric columns lining the temple to Lincoln. With each new marble emplacement, another saint enters the American pantheon, flanked by arches of triumph and tragedy. Stand in the Capitol rotunda, look up, and behold the apotheosis of Washington.
Like symbols of civic architecture, names for strategic weapons are a means of storytelling, granting honor, stretching aspirations to larger-than-life proportions, and connecting with the past.
America’s most fearsome weapons need better names. The next intercontinental ballistic missile will be fielded into the mid-2070s or beyond. It deserves a name that will inspire future missileers whose parents may yet be unborn. Strong, colorful nomenclature for major weapon systems does not glorify war or minimize decisions about conflict, but it does inspire a just pride in their operators while candidly and illustratively identifying what they are to everyone else. Lest suitable options seem hard to conjure, cheat sheets are available.
Atop the list of worthies stands Nemesis, goddess of rightful retribution — a fine metaphor for deterrence. Next is Zephyr, god of the West Wind, a sublime answer to China’s Dong-Feng (“East Wind”) series. Vulcan, Thanatos, and Eris, gods of fire, death, and strife, speak for themselves. Cyclopes communicates a policy of single warhead missiles, while many-headed Hydra hints at upload potential. There remains a strong case for something like the lawmen who tamed the West, which still occupies a special place in the American soul. Perhaps the time has come for Ranger, or something like Defiance.
Ulysses, the wanderer, would suit a cruise missile designed for loitering, clever evasion techniques, and re-targetability to new adventures — perhaps the Long-Range Standoff Weapon due later this decade. With the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Gryphon II has historical value for ground-based, intermediate-range missiles. Something in the Air Force quiver should be called Taurus, if only so those kept at Minot might be dubbed Minotaurs.
Yea verily, the United States could do worse than an intercontinental ballistic missile named Peacekeeper II or Minuteman IV. It could also do better.
Sing, muse, of the wrath of Air Force Global Strike Command. Draw memory back to earlier days. Heed not the siren call of impersonal, unstoried euphemisms, and instead bring forth antique names worthy of Promethean fire. Sing, missile muse, of ancient pagan gods and American heroes.
Tom Karako is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.