Allocation of Official Aerospace Vehicle MDS Designations
Copyright © 2003-2023 Andreas Parsch
Under the current designation system as explained in the article about the Current Designations Of U.S. Military Aircraft, every U.S. military aerospace vehicle is required to have an official designation (also known as "MDS"). This article gives a detailed description of the various steps which have to be taken by the military to have an MDS allocated to a new aircraft or missile.
A few abbreviations are used in the text below, which will be explained now:
- PO - Program Office; the organization managing the development of an aerospace vehicle
- PEO/PM - Program Executive Officer / Program Manager for an aerospace vehicle
- DODCP - Department of Defence Control Point; the U.S. Air Force office which is coordinating all actions necessary for MDS allocation. This is currently the USAF Asset Identification Branch (HQ AFMC/A4SI) at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH (formerly AFMC/LGIS in Battle Creek, MI), which is part of HQ AFMC/A4S (HQ Air Force Material Command, Logistics Division, Supply).
- AF/A8PE - the symbol for the Directorate of Programs, Program Integration Division (former symbol was AF/XPPE; the change became effective on 1 February 2006). This is the USAF office at the Pentagon, which is ultimately responsible for official MDS allocation.
Before official (written) correspondence is started, sometimes (probably often, possibly almost always) someone from the PO of the aerospace vehicle program contacts the DODCP for some informal discussion on a new MDS for their vehicle. If an MDS is tentatively established, DODCP records this MDS and very sketchy data on the project (e.g. the military department of the requester). Up to the late 1990s, such a preliminary record was either a Nomenclature Record Form or simply an informal hand-written note, but the use of such hand-written records has been discontinued. One can assume that some kind of electronic storage is used today. In any case, with such a record the MDS is regarded as "reserved". So if a new MDS in the same series is requested soon afterwards, the reserved MDS will be skipped.
Note: Step 1, while apparently frequently taken, is not strictly necessary. In principle, the PO can start with Step 2.
The PO sends a written request for assignment of a new MDS to the DODCP. For U.S. Air Force POs this is done directly, while for the other DOD services (Navy/Marines, Army, Coast Guard) or the NASA, this is done via that service's DCP (Departmental Control Point), which handles and forwards all MDS requests for the respective service. The written request must include a reasonably detailed description of the program and the vehicle, so that DODCP can determine which new MDS (if any!) should be assigned. The request must include a suggestion for the new MDS. For a completely new design (as opposed to a modification of an existing one), a suggested design number may or may not be included. E.g., the request can ask for allocation of "C-___A" if simply the next C-series number is desired. On the other hand, e.g. "C-42A" can also be requested when the requester particularly likes the number 42 and/or thinks it's the next number in sequence anyway.
Note: If Step 1 is never followed by Step 2, the result is a reserved MDS, which is never officially requested, let alone assigned. This has e.g. happened for the design numbers A-11, C-30/36, V-17/19/21 and X-39, and effectively resulted in gaps in the lists of allocated designations (see also article on "Missing" USAF/DOD Aircraft Designations). However, if a reservation is explicitly cancelled by the original requester before the next number is allocated, the number can effectively be reused (as has been the case for C-16).
DODCP checks for any inconsistencies between the proposed MDS and the regulations. In the end, DODCP comes up with a recommended designation, which may or may not be identical to the one proposed by the requester. Especially if Step 1 is omitted, discrepancies are not unlikely.
DODCP sends a copy of the original request, together with its own recommendation, to AF/A8PE in the USAF Headquarters in the Pentagon, where the final decision for MDS allocation is made. DODCP usually includes a proposed brief data set for the MDS for inclusion in DOD's official MDS listing.
AF/A8PE decides which of the proposed MDSs (the originally requested one or - if different - the DODCP's recommendation) is to be assigned. In theory, A8PE can also come up with an MDS of its own and have this allocated. In practice, however, in most cases the originally requested MDS is approved, even if DODCP recommends a different one. Typical examples for this case are the recent non-conforming designations F-35 and KC-767A (see also article on Non-Standard DOD Aircraft Designations). It can also happen that A8PE completely rejects MDS assignment, optionally leaving the MDS in the "reserved" state. The latter has happened e.g. for the XAGM-153A missile designation.
AF/A8PE sends its decision (usually the confirmation of the assigned MDS) back to DODCP. DODCP then stores all related correspondence in its filing system, and creates a proper entry for the new MDS in its internal database system.
DODCP notifies the PO (for USAF programs) or the responsible DCP (for non-USAF programs) of the result of the request (usually the assignment of an official MDS).
Note: The official steps 2 through 7 usually take about two months, but this may vary significantly! Especially in the case of disputed designations (as has been the case with the F-35 designation) the process can take much more time.
In the 2014 revision of AFI 16-401, many roles and responsibilities in the process have been redefined. The most relevant change was the removal of the DODCP at AFMC/A4SI as a distributor/collector of MDS allocation requests. Now all requests are directly sent to and handled by AF/A8PE.
The PEO/PM of the aerospace vehicle and/or its using command send a written request for assignment of a new MDS to AF/A8PE. The required content of the request is essentially the same as outlined in Step 2 of the former process (i.e. proposed MDS, description of vehicle/program, etc.).
Step 2, Step 3
Similar to Step 5 and Step 7 of the former procedure, AF/A8PE decides about approval or rejection of the MDS request, and forwards the result directly to the requester.
Note: While the change certainly streamlines the process, it has also removed one potential control point to catch mis-applications of the MDS system. In the past, it was often the DODCP, which pointed out that a requested designation didn't follow the regulations and should not be allocated. On the other hand, such a verdict was usually overruled by AF/A8PE anyway.
 AFJI 16-401, AR 70-50, NAVAIRINST 13100.16: Designating and Naming Military Aerospace Vehicles,
 AFI 16-401, AR 70-50, NAVAIRINST 13100.16: Designating and Naming Military Aerospace Vehicles, 2020
 Department of Defense Aerospace Vehicle Nomenclature Records
Comments and corrections to: Andreas Parsch
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Last Updated: 28 November 2023