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Communicating the Military Way

Using a Standard Language to Communicate

For allied militaries to communicate effectively and in a timely manner, those entities need to understand a single language. Using a single language does not eliminate the possibility of linguistic misunderstandings, but does greatly reduce the risks using multiple languages may pose. For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), English was chosen as the standard language.

Three methods of basic communications used by the militaries of NATO are via the Phonetic Alphabet, Morse Code, and Signal Flags, all three of which are based in the English alphabet.

Military Phonetic Alphabet

The Phonetic Alphabet is used widely in military maritime communications. The phonetic alphabet, a system set up in which each letter of the alphabet has a word equivalent to avoid mistaking letters that sound alike, such as B (Bravo) and D (Delta) or F (Foxtrot) and S (Sierra). The pronunciation for each letter's phonetic word is contained in the parenthesis below it.

Morse Code

The letters of the alphabet in Morse code are represented by dots and dashes in the chart below. Radio operators usually substitute the expressions "dits" and "dahs" for the dots and dashes which resemble the tones of the telegraphic hand key when "speaking" the code. The groups of dits and dahs representing each letter must be made as one unit, with a clear break between each dit and each dah, and a much more distinct break between the letters. A dit is one-third the length of a dah.

Signal Flags

It is very rare that words would be completely spelled out in Navy flag hoist signaling due to the length and number of flags required; not to mention the time it would take to handle all the hoists. To make the process easier and more practical, the signal book was produced. The signal book defines the flags to be used to communicate various messages. Separately, each signal flag has its own meaning, and for the Navy, those meanings are listed alongside each flag below.

Military Alphabet, Signal Flag and Morse Code Chart

Military alphabet, signal flag, and Morse Code comparison chart.
Navy Code of Signals – Phonetic Military Alphabet
LetterPhonetic Military Alphabet ¹Morse CodeSignal FlagsFlag meaning (Navy)
A Alfa "AL-FAH"• — Di dah
Alfa Signal Flag
Diver down; keep clear and maintain slow speed.
B Bravo "BRAH-VOH"— • • • Dah di di dit
Bravo Signal Flag
Taking in, discharging or carrying dangerous cargo.
CCharlie "CHAR-LEE"— • — • Dah di dah dit
Charlie Signal Flag
DDelta "DEL-TAH"— • • Dah di dit
Delta Signal Flag
Difficulty maneuvering; keep clear.
EEcho "ECK-OH" dit
Echo Signal Flag
Directing course to starboard.
FFoxtrot "FOKS-TROT"• • — • Di di dah dit
Foxtrot Signal Flag
Disabled; communication requested -- or flight operations are underway.
GGolf "GOLF"— — • Dah dah dit
Golf Signal Flag
Harbor pilot required.
HHotel "HOH-TEL"• • • • Di di di dit
Hotel Signal Flag
Harbor pilot on-board.
IIndia "IN-DEE-AH"• • Di dit
India Signal Flag
Coming alongside.
J Juliett "JEW-LEE-ETT"• — — — Di dah dah dah
Juliet Signal Flag
Dangerous cargo aboard and on fire; keep clear.
KKilo "KEY-LOH"— • — Dah di dah
Kilo Signal Flag
Communication requested.
LLima "LEE-MAH"• — • • Di dah di dit
Lima Signal Flag
Advise, stop your vessel immediately.
MMike "MIKE"— — Dah dah
Mike Signal Flag
Vessel is stopped.
NNovember "NO-VEM-BER"— • Dah dit
November Signal Flag
OOscar "OSS-CAH"— — — Dah dah dah
Oscar Signal Flag
Man overboard.
PPapa "PAH-PAH"• — — • Di dah dah dit
Papa Signal Flag
All personnel return to ship (in port).
QQuebec "KAY-BECK"— — • — Dah dah di dah
Quebec Signal Flag
All boats return to ship.
RRomeo "ROW-ME-OH"• — • Di dah dit
Romeo Signal Flag
At sea: preparing to replenish. In Port: Ready duty ship.
SSierra "SEE-AIR-RAH"• • • Di di dit
Sierra Signal Flag
Conducting flag hoisting drill.
TTango "TANG-GO" Dah
Tango Signal Flag
Do not pass ahead.
UUniform "YOU-NEE-FORM"• • — Di di dah
Uniform Signal Flag
Beware, you are running into danger.
VVictor "VIK-TAH"• • • — di di di dah
Victor Signal Flag
Assistance required.
WWhiskey "WISS-KEY"• — — Di dah dah
Whiskey Signal Flag
Medical assistance required.
XX-ray "ECKS-RAY"— • • — Dah di di dah
X-ray Signal Flag
Stop your intentions and watch for signals.
YYankee "YANG-KEY"— • — — Dah di dah dah
Yankee Signal Flag
Ship has communications duty (visual).
ZZulu "ZOO-LOU"— — • • Dah dah di dit
Zulu Signal Flag
Tug required.

Written by .

Date Page Published: October 28, 2009.
Date Page Modified: March 17, 2022.

¹ Phonetic spellings: Cutler, Thomas The Blue Jacket's Manual, 25th Edition, U.S. Naval Institute, 2017.

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