« Heh | Main | Quote of the Day »

November 08, 2004
Sleepy Weasel

I always thought the naming of military operations was something of a minor art form. Once upon a time, names were made up on the spot by a commander or one of his staff officers.

  • "Overlord" — the D-Day invasion of France. The all-time classic name.
  • "Torch" — the invasion of North Africa in 1943 (during which many Vichy French soldiers surrendered or assumed room temperature) which ultimately helped defeat Rommel's vaunted Afrika Korps.
  • "Market-Garden" — the airborne invasion of Holland depicted in the film A Bridge Too Far.
  • "Urgent Fury" — the invasion of Grenada.
  • "Tidal Wave" — the bombing of oil refineries in and around Ploesti, Romania in August of 1943.

["Tidal Wave" is my all-time favorite-to-study combat mission in all of history. 178 B-24 "Liberator" heavy bombers flew at tree-top level, right into the muzzles of the flak cannons, in an attempt to destroy a portion of Germany's oil-refining capability. Such courage is hard to fathom. 30% of the aircraft were lost, and the aircrews suffered 55% casualties. Five Medals of Honor were awarded for the mission, three posthumously. And I'll bet a dollar that you never even heard of it before now.]

Later, names were made by pulling two random words from a sort of operation name generator book. Now I suppose they're generated by a computer.

The point of an operation name wasn't to have something catchy for the press release. OPSEC — Operations Security — was not something to be taken lightly. The name of an operation was thus supposed to be a reference term that would not give away the objective of the operation. A hypothetical German agent in 1944 London overhearing the phrase "Operation Overlord" would have had no idea to what it referred.

Then came the era of Pentagon press awareness. Suddenly, the name of an operation was not a trivia item to be memorized by bored high school history students 30 years later, it became the chapter name for textbooks yet to be written.

  • "Just Cause" — Panama.
  • "Desert Shield / Desert Storm" — duh.
  • "Iraqi Freedom" — biggest duh of them all.

The Pentagon really needs to fire the staffer who came up with "Operation Iraqi Freedom." "Operation Sleepy Weasel" would have been a more OPSEC-conscious name.

And today begins "Phantom Fury," the taking of Fallujah. Sanity appears to have returned to the Operations staff, as far as naming operations goes. It sure beats "Operation Urban Brawl" or "Operation Take Fallujah." And three or four months ago, when planning for Phantom Fury began, the name would have given no indication of intent to any possible eavesdroppers.

As a side note: a number of years ago the Pentagon decided that frivolous or non-serious names were inappropriate. Indeed. Good men were and are killed on these operations. No one wants to hear that their son has died in action, and it would be an outrage to tell parents that their son had died in "Operation Fluffy Bunny."

Late, late update – 12Aug2005: John at Castle Argghhh! goes into much greater detail on the topic. Definitely recommended reading.

Posted by Russ at 12:30 PM, November 8, 2004 in Nat'l Security

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I have read more than one history of the Ploesti missions. I remain awed by the mater of fact bravery of WW II bomber crews.

Posted by: mostly cajun at November 8, 2004 08:19 PM

I knew a man, since deceased, who was a gunner on a B-24. He didn't talk much about it, other than to say that the raids on the Ploesti oil fields were the most terrifying of them all.

Amazing men, those.

Posted by: Jim - PRS at November 9, 2004 10:00 PM

I have known about that raid for most of my life. Of course, I would read any WWII book I could get from the library while in elementary school. A good documentary of the raid is shown on PBS around here every so often either titled "Utah Man" or about that airplane and aircrew.

Utah, USA

Posted by: Brian at November 10, 2004 04:42 PM

The major operations names today are advertising slogans, designed for the media and the public to easily identify and (hopefully) rally 'round.

True operational mission names are more cryptic and generic; "Anaconda", "Viper" and "Nutcracker" to name a few.

"Iraqi Freedom" isn't meant to be secretive. If it were called "Reflex Forge", who would know what it was about? It doesn't tell what we're doing, which is vital in advertising.

Posted by: Winston Smith at November 15, 2004 12:06 PM