Capstones: Speaking in Code

December 2021

Some of them are part of our national vocabulary—Manhattan Project, Rolling Thunder, Desert Storm. Others are a bit more obscure—Chromite, Noble Eagle, Tomodachi. Still others seem scrubbed of meaning (Inherent Resolve) or strange (Blue Spoon) or downright dull (Productive Effort). What all these phrases have in common is that each is a codename for an American military operation or national-security initiative—and each tells part of America’s story.


“Naming operations seems to have originated with the German General Staff during the last two years of World War I,” Army intelligence officer Gregory Sieminski explains. Among the codenames used by Imperial Germany: Archangel, Mars and Achilles.

For the U.S. military, the use of codenames took hold during World War II. “In early 1942,” Sieminski writes, “the War Plans Division culled words from an unabridged dictionary to come up with a list of 10,000 common nouns and adjectives that were not suggestive of operational activities or locations.” The War Department was likely inspired by Winston Churchill, who “was fascinated with codenames and personally selected them for all major operations.”

Codenames were so important to Churchill that he included a list of them in his World War II memoir. The list contains well-known codenames such as Overlord (France) and Torch (North Africa), along with more obscure ones such as Admiral Q (codename for President Roosevelt), Dynamo (Dunkirk evacuation) and Tube Alloys (atomic-bomb research).

Churchill was interested in codenames for the sake of secrecy as well as public perception. Thus, he rejected some as “unsuitable,” as he noted in a wartime memo. Never should a mother “say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo,’” he directed. “Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by codewords which imply a boastful and overconfident sentiment, such as ‘Triumphant,’ or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as…‘Massacre,’ ‘Jumble,’ ‘Trouble,’ ‘Fidget.’” Instead, he recommended “heroes from antiquity…Greek and Roman mythology…constellations and stars…British and American war heroes.”

The war produced countless codenames. Hitler lit the fuse with Case White (invasion of Poland), turned Stalin into an enemy with Barbarossa (invasion of the USSR), and made his last-gasp push with Autumn Mist (Battle of the Bulge/Ardennes). Hitler planned on Sea Lion (invasion of Britain), but the RAF prevented that.

Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack was Operation Z. The U.S. shootdown of the plane carrying Yamamoto, who planned Pearl Harbor, was aptly called Operation Vengeance. The liberation of Guam was Operation Forager.

Downfall was “the grand plan for the invasion of Japan,” an Army history recounts. Downfall “contemplated a gargantuan blow” so large and complex that it enfolded two other codenamed operations: Olympic (targeting Kyushu in December 1945) and Coronet (targeting Honshu in March 1946). Those operations were made unnecessary by Centerboard I and Centerboard II—each carried out by a single U.S. bomber delivering weapons so secret that they had their own codenames: Little Boy and Fat Man. Those super-secret weapons, in turn, were birthed by a codenamed effort known as the Manhattan Project, which yielded Gadget (codename for the first atomic weapon), which was successfully tested at Trinity (codename for a bombing range in New Mexico).

Key to the Allies’ success throughout the war, of course, were Purple, Magic and Ultra—codenamed initiatives dedicated to codebreaking.


As America’s reach and role grew during the Cold War, so did the number of national-security codenames.

There were codenames for presidents and other important persons: Truman was known as General, Eisenhower as Providence, Kennedy as Lancer, Johnson as Volunteer, Nixon as Searchlight, Ford as Passkey, Carter as Deacon, Reagan as Rawhide, Bush as Timberwolf. Queen Elizabeth’s codename was/is Redfern. Pope John Paul II’s was Halo. Even Frank Sinatra had a codename (Napoleon).

There were codenames for places: The White House was called Crown. The secret continuity-of-government facility in West Virginia was Greek Island and Casper. A once-secret command center in Pennsylvania was Raven Rock, as a fascinating book by that title details.

There were codenames for things: The presidential limousine was called Stagecoach. The briefcase containing nuclear-attack strike options for the president was (and still is) called “The Football.” The presidential plane was Sacred Cow, Independence, Columbine II and Angel. Modified Boeing EC-135s continuously airborne and capable of commanding World War III from the skies were codenamed Looking Glass planes. Warships with similar capabilities were codenamed Sea Ruler and Zenith.

There were countless codenamed military exercises: Sky Shield closed North American airspace to civilian planes, enabling NORAD to test air defenses. Ortsac contemplated invading a communist regime strikingly similar to Castro’s Cuba (Ortsac is Castro spelled backwards). REFORGER—short for “return of forces to Germany”—tested U.S. capabilities to deploy reinforcements to Germany. There was Team Spirit in South Korea, Balikatan in the Philippines, Bright Star in Egypt, RIMPAC in the Pacific. (Today, there are exercises with codenames that range from unusual—Steadfast Jazz and Talisman Saber—to bold—Global Thunder and Pacific Iron—to inspiring—Allied Sky—to just plain bland—Large Scale Exercise 21.)

And of course, there were codenames for Cold War military operations. One of the first was Operation Vittles—America’s codename for the Berlin Airlift. The British called it Operation Plainfare—an intentional pun. After 277,000 missions, the airlift ended with the flight of a British cargo plane emblazoned with the words “Psalm 21 Verse 11.” The passage fittingly reads: “Though they plot evil against you and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.”

The Korean War produced Chromite (Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s daring masterstroke at Inchon), Ripper (offensive at Chunchon), Killer (offensive at the Som River) and Piledriver (offensive in central Korea).

The Vietnam War featured Rolling Thunder (bombing campaign in North Vietnam 1965-1968); Cedar Falls (offensive targeting the Viet Cong); Linebacker I and II (bombing campaign in North Vietnam 1972); Arc Light (the Strategic Air Command’s massive operation enfolding more than 126,000 sorties between 1965 and 1973); Frequent Wind (evacuation of Saigon); Babylift (rescue of orphaned Vietnamese children); and Homecoming (return of POWs).

In the autumn of 1969, in an attempt to “jar the Soviets and North Vietnam” into substantive peace talks, historian Jeremi Suri details how President Nixon ordered Operation Giant Lance, which involved 18 B-52 bombers racing toward the Soviet Union in a terrifying nuclear feint.

Faced with the prospect of being overrun in the most desperate days of the 1973 war, the Israeli government made an urgent appeal to Washington. The IDF needed missilery, warplanes, and ammunition of all kinds. President Nixon’s response was unequivocal: “Send everything that can fly.” Dubbed Operation Nickel Grass, the month-long U.S. airlift delivered 22,395 tons of war materiel to Israel. The shipments included fighter-bombers, tanks and ammunition. According to the Israeli government, they made all the difference. “For generations to come,” Prime Minister Golda Meir declared after the war, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”

On the Warsaw Pact side, there was Enormous (atomic-bomb development/acquisition), Wave (invasion of Hungary), Rose (construction of the Berlin Wall), Anadyr (basing nuclear missiles in Cuba), Danube (invasion of Czechoslovakia) and Storm-333 (initial phase of the invasion of Afghanistan).

After Vietnam, the Pentagon formalized and computerized the codename-generating process, as military writer Tim McMillan explains, “by unveiling the Code Word Nickname and Exercise Term System, colloquially known as NICKA.” NICKA prevents the use of terms considered offensive or derogatory, phrases that might be confused with military terminology or callsigns, and “exotic words, trite expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks.”

With NICKA’s guidelines, the 1980s gave us Eagle Claw (attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran); Urgent Fury (Grenada); El Dorado Canyon (Libya); Earnest Will (protection of civilian vessels from Iranian attacks); Golden Pheasant (Honduras); and Praying Mantis (strikes against Iranian naval assets).

After attacks on U.S. servicemen in Panama, President Bush authorized Blue Spoon, which was renamed Just Cause. (Someone at DoD must have read Churchill’s memos.) Likewise, Productive Effort (Bangladesh humanitarian relief) was renamed Sea Angel.

Just Cause, Sea Angel and Desert Shield/Desert Storm represent a return to the use of codenames to convey mission goals to the public and to inspire the troops. Consider Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s message to troops under his command at the start of Desert Storm: “My confidence in you is total. Our cause is just. Now, you must be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm.”

That word “return” is used because, as Sieminski explains, men like Adm. William Blandy, who commanded postwar atomic-bomb tests in the Pacific, recognized that codenames “offered new possibilities for shaping attitudes.” Sensing humanity was facing a decisive moment, Blandy codenamed the tests Operation Crossroads.

Codenames can indeed make a statement and impact public opinion. That explains why civilians borrow codename phraseology. In doing so, they usually hope to convey the urgency and single-minded focus of military operations. For example, the Trump administration launched Operation Airbridge—a public-private partnership that airlifted millions of pieces of medical equipment into the U.S. in response to COVID-19—and Operation Warp Speed, which aimed to rapidly produce and deliver effective COVID-19 vaccines. Warp Speed certainly lived up to its name: What usually takes 10 years took less than 10 months. In the same vein, the Biden administration launched Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce to accelerate protection of frontline Homeland Security personnel against COVID-19.

Civilian agencies partner with corporations annually to conduct Operation Cyber Polygon—a cybersecurity exercise coordinated by the World Economic Forum. This year’s exercise, which involved teams from 29 countries, contemplated cyberattacks against the global supply chain.

States and governors even get in on the codenaming action. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, for instance, recently launched Operation Lone Star, which deploys state police personnel and Texas National Guard assets “to deny Mexican cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.”


Turning back to the military side of the ledger, Desert Storm led to Provide Comfort (humanitarian operations in Iraqi Kurdistan), Northern Watch and Southern Watch (no-fly zones over swaths of Iraq)—each shaping public perception by emphasizing mission goals.

Likewise, efforts to end the manmade famine in Somalia were codenamed Restore Hope. “We must give them hope” and “enable the starving to be fed,” President Bush declared.

Restore Democracy was the planned invasion of Haiti to remove a military junta and install a democratically-elected president. But when the junta agreed to leave peacefully, Restore Democracy became Uphold Democracy—reflecting the difference between entering a permissive environment and invading hostile territory. (Decades earlier, U.S. troops experienced the latter in the Dominican Republic, where President Johnson launched Power Pack.)

Deliberate Force (airstrikes in Bosnia) conveyed the deliberative, calculated nature of operations targeting Bosnian-Serb militia. Joint Endeavor (peacekeeping in Bosnia) highlighted the multinational character of the mission, which included troops from NATO and Russia. Allied Force (NATO airstrikes to protect Kosovo) underscored the assent of the entire alliance.

The inartfully-named Desert Fox (airstrikes targeting Iraq’s WMDs) deviated from the trend of using codenames to emphasize mission goals. But DoD returned to form in waging the war on terror.

Infinite Reach was the codename for simultaneous missile strikes against al-Qaeda-linked targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, signaling that America could strike anywhere.

The post-9/11 campaign was initially codenamed Infinite Justice. However, that was replaced with Enduring Freedom after “Islamic scholars complained that only God was capable of dispensing infinite justice,” as The New York Times reported.

While Enduring Freedom took the fight to our enemies overseas, Noble Eagle defended North American skies from another 9/11 (it continues to this day). NATO offered a helping hand with Eagle Assist.

Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan gave way to Freedom’s Sentinel and Resolute Support (all tragically ironic given what U.S. decisionmakers allowed to transpire in Afghanistan over the past 12 months). Iraqi Freedom gave way to New Dawn. Other notable operational codenames from this century: Red Dawn (capture of Saddam Hussein), Unified Assistance (Southeast Asia tsunami relief), Ocean Shield (counterpiracy off East Africa), Olympic Games (a complex of highly technical operations targeting Iran’s nuclear program that involved the CIA, NSA and DoD—and is considered the first cyberattack “used to effect physical destruction,” according to Gen. Michael Hayden), Tomodachi (Japanese for “friend,” disaster-relief ops in Japan), Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector (airstrikes in Libya), Odyssey Resolve/Odyssey Lightning (operations targeting jihadists in Libya), United Assistance (operations in response to Ebola), Atlantic Resolve (deterrence operations in Eastern Europe), Nitro Zeus (codename for a cyber-strike capable of disabling Iran’s air defenses, communications capabilities and power grids), Olympic Defender (allied cooperation to deter hostile activity in space), Allies Refuge (evacuation of Afghan partners and families) and Neptune’s Spear (takedown of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden).

That brings us to the campaign against ISIS—an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Anti-ISIS operations began August 2014. Britain (Operation Shader), Australia (Operation Okra) and France (Operation Chammal) promptly named their contributions to the campaign. But Washington didn’t name the mission until mid-October. The world noticed. Deutsche Welle questioned “the operation with no name.” U.S. News and World Report criticized “Obama’s anonymous war against ISIS.” The Washington Post mockingly held a contest to name the mission.

This underscores the larger point: The names we give our military operations are important. At their best, they say something about the mission—and us.

The reason for the delay in naming the anti-ISIS campaign, Government Technology later reported, was traced to layers of bureaucratic review and the need for approval from several allies. The result: Operation Inherent Resolve. Only a committee could produce something so devoid of meaning. This isn’t to diminish what the men and women of Inherent Resolve accomplished—reversing the ISIS blitzkrieg, eviscerating ISIS as a fighting force, liberating 7.7 million people and 43,000 square-miles, rescuing Yazidis from extermination, erasing a jihadist safe-haven. But even some military commanders “found it uninspiring,” as the Wall Street Journal reported.


If Inherent Resolve was uninspiring, the codename of the operation that eliminated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was loaded with meaning. Military commanders named it Operation Kayla Mueller to honor the young American abducted, brutalized, and murdered by Baghdadi and his henchmen. The commando unit that carried out the operation called itself Task Force 814—a reference to Ms. Mueller’s birthday.

Operation Kayla Mueller gave focus to the mission and those who executed it, served as a powerful signal that America’s memory and reach are long, made a profound statement about what motivates America’s military, and reminded the American people why their sons and daughters are sometimes put in harm’s way. This was codenaming at its best.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this appeared in the July 2021 issue of the American Legion Magazine.

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