The NATO phonetic alphabet is the most widely used radiotelephone spelling alphabet. It is officially the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, and also commonly known as the ICAO phonetic alphabet, with a variation officially known as the ITU phonetic alphabet and figure code.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assigned codewords acrophonically to the letters of the English alphabet, so that critical combinations of letters and numbers are most likely to be pronounced and understood by those who exchange voice messages by radio or telephone, regardless of language differences or the quality of the communication channel.
The 26 code words in the NATO phonetic alphabet are assigned to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order as follows:
Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar,
Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.
After the phonetic alphabet was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) it was adopted by many other international and national organizations, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United States Federal Government and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU), the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO); and by many military organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
The same alphabetic code words are used by all agencies, but each agency chooses one of two different sets of numeric code words. NATO uses the regular English numeric words and the IMO define compound numeric words. In practice these are used very rarely, as they frequently result in confusion between speakers of different languages.
A spelling alphabet is used to spell parts of a message containing letters and numbers to avoid confusion, because many letters sound similar, for instance “n” and “m” or “f” and “s”; the potential for confusion increases if static or other interference is present. For instance the message “proceed to map grid DH98” could be transmitted as “proceed to map grid Delta-Hotel-Niner-Ait”. Using “Delta” instead of “D” avoids confusion between “DH98” and “BH98” or “TH98”. The unusual pronunciation of certain numbers was designed to reduce confusion as well.
In addition to the traditional military usage, civilian industry uses the alphabet to avoid similar problems in the transmission of messages by telephone systems. For example, it is often used in the retail industry where customer or site details are spoken by telephone (to authorize a credit agreement or confirm stock codes), although ad-hoc coding is often used in that instance. It has been used often by information technology workers to communicate serial/reference codes (which are often very long) or other specialised information by voice. Most major airlines use the alphabet to communicate passenger name records (PNRs) internally, and in some cases, with customers. It is often used in a medical context as well, to avoid confusion when transmitting information.
Several letter codes and abbreviations using the spelling alphabet have become well-known, such as Bravo Zulu (letter code BZ) for “well done”, Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint C) in Berlin, and Zulu Time for Greenwich Mean Time or Coordinated Universal Time. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government referred to the Viet Cong guerrillas and the group itself as VC, or Victor Charlie; the name “Charlie” became synonymous with this force.
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