When it comes to disasters and emergencies, communication can be key to survival. One miscommunication, misunderstood word, or misspoken letter can cause the situation to spiral out of control. Words and letters that sound the same can easily be mixed up in loud, chaotic, or stressful situations. We have all been frustrated trying to talk in a loud environment- just imagine this frustration if you now that life is on the line. A single misunderstanding can be life altering or worse- fatal. Knowing, understanding, and using the military and NATO adopted phonetic alphabet can prevent these misunderstandings.
The military, along with law enforcement and first responders all use the phonetic alphabet to convey information in loud, chaotic settings or over radio communications. Knowing these can help you stay informed or even add important information to the conversation. The military phonetic alphabet can even be helpful in conveying every day information- just so you don’t have to repeat yourself. We will first run through the military phonetic alphabet below, and then take a look at why those words are used, and when to use them.
The Military Phonetic Alphabet
Why These Words Are Used
These words were selected because they are not extremely common words and because they sound unique over a radio. It is hard to confuse the words for each other, even through static and muddled communication. NATO agreed on using these words for these reasons. During World War II, the US actually used a different phonetic alphabet, called the Able Baker alphabet:
Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra
You probably recognize many of these as company names from the greatest generation’s war. Some of the words did not change, but most of them did when the US collaborated with Britain on the current phonetic alphabet at the end of the war. They carried this phonetic alphabet over when they established NATO.
Common Uses of the Military Phonetic Alphabet
Several combinations and uses have become common after frequent use over the years. A few of the more notable combos or uses include:
- Alpha – Delta – Used as FPCON (Force Protection Condition) threat levels. Normal is also a level.
- Bravo Sierra – Bullshit
- Bravo Zulu – Well Done
- Charlie Foxtrot – Cluster F&*$
- Lima Charlie – Loud and Clear
- November Golf – No Go
- Oscar Mike – On the Move
- Sierra Hotel – Shit Hot (or Hotel Sierra = Hot Shit)
- Victor Charlie or Charlie – Viet Cong
- Zulu Time – Greenwich Mean Time or Universal Time
Some of these even add syllables, which make them take longer to say. But for those that know the alphabet and these common phrases, they are hard to miss over radios.
Of course, the military phonetic alphabet is also used for map grid coordinates and land navigation.
How the Phonetic Alphabet Sounds
The words of the military phonetic alphabet are pronounced just as they are spelled. They were carefully picked so that they do not sound close to words that they could be confused with. This quick video shows the pronunciation of each word in the alphabet:
Military Phonetic Numbers
The alphabet wasn’t the only thing that needed the phonetic treatment to be more readily understood. ICAO gives the following pronunciation guide for numbers:
The last one is the most drastic pronunciation change. Adding the “r” to the end of “nine” allows it to be less confused with plenty of other words.
The Final Word
The importance of communication has been known since the dawn of man. Hand signals, facial expressions, and spoken language are all tools that have helped us to survive through the trials we have faced. Misunderstanding or communicating the wrong message could have disastrous consequences in a survival situation. Let us know in the comments any stories you may have where communication cost you big. Survival is a deadly game of inches, and being informed gives us the edge we need. Keep exploring, stay prepared, and be safe.