Based on this question, I learned that the F and A-Letters in the naming of (military) aircraft reflects what their intended purpose is. A: Attack (Air-to-ground) F: Fighter (Air-to-air)

their names mostly reflect what their intended purpose is rather than their actual purpose.

It is to be noted that the naming convention is followed only loosely in some cases. A good example is the F-117 Nighthawk, which is not a fighter aircraft in any sense of the word.

from aeroalias answer from this question.

The F117 isn't capable of attacking Air-Targets, it's only used as an attack aircraft. But the name of the Nighthawk is F-117 (Fighter).


  • Was the idea behind the Nighthawk originally a stealth-fighter (Air-to-Air) aircraft but was later changed to a stealth-attack aircraft? That would explain the name 'F-117'.
  • Are there other attack-aircraft with the F in the name?
  • Are there fighter-aircraft with an A in the name?

F-117 Nighthawk

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The F/A/B etc designations haven't always been strictly adhered to. For example the F-35 (and to a lesser extent F-22) should both really be F/A as they have ground attack capability. Among others. And the A-10 has some air to air ability. That said, I believe the F-117 is the only "Fighter" designated aircraft to have no air to air ability $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Sep 14, 2015 at 10:13
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia: "A televised documentary quoted a senior member of the F-117A development team as saying that the top-notch USAF fighter pilots required to fly the new aircraft were more easily attracted to an aircraft with an "F" designation for fighter, as opposed to a bomber ("B") or attack ("A") designation" $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2015 at 10:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ F/A-18 is one of those aircraft that are a fighter and can attack ground targets. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Sep 14, 2015 at 12:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ethan that's why it's called Fighter / Attack - 18, In my question 2 & 3 I'm looking for an attack-aircraft only able to attack air-to-air targets (no air-to-ground) or an fighter aircraft only able to attack air-to-ground targets (like the F-117). $\endgroup$
    – jklingler
    Sep 14, 2015 at 12:25
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW First, there has never been an "F-18" in active US service. Before the Hornet ever entered service, its fighter and attack variants were merged, and the very first active ones had ground attack capability. The difference with the Super Hornet is not the addition of attack capability. Second, F-XXX was not a continuation of a special black ops scheme; pre-1962, the USAF was actually up to the 100s, and it only became black-ops after 1962. $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Sep 15, 2015 at 5:59

5 Answers 5


The short of it is that the "A" designation for a ground-attack aircraft has historically been a Navy distinction. The USAF/USAAF/USAAC has not traditionally differentiated between an aircraft designed for tactical ground strikes versus a dogfighter/interceptor. Most WWII-era Air Force planes were capable of both, and would be called "multirole fighters" in today's parlance (including the famous P-38, P-40, P-47 and P-51). Between WWII and the adoption of the 1962 Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, the USAF used "F" almost exclusively for any one- or two-man aircraft performing either the air-to-air or tactical air-to-ground role (using "B" for aircraft intended for larger-scale strategic bombing). Thus, the "Century Series" aircraft, many of which were primary ground attack aircraft, all got the "Fighter" designation even when their mission profile was exclusively air-to-ground, such as the F-105 and F-111.

The Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System was patterned most closely to the Air Force's pre-existing system, but resetting all the counters (the Navy's system involved much lower numbers, many of which were grandfathered into the new system) and adding mission designations common in the other branches, including the Navy's Attack designation. The Air Force has more or less ignored many of the finer points of this system when designating its own aircraft; the A-10, and its A-X competitor the YA-9, are the sole airframes designed primarily for the USAF to carry the Attack designation (which is fitting as both planes were designed from the ground up to kill tanks and other armor). The other A-designated aircraft to enter service with the Air Force were Navy planes first (including the A-1 Skyraider and A-7 Corsair II).

The F-15E should, by tri-service rules, be designated AF-15E (emphasizing its modified mission of tactical strikes over its air-superiority pedigree). "F/A" as used for the Hornet is also non-compliant, and stems from an original desire to have separate fighter and attack variants of the Hornet which ended up being rolled into one plane. "FA" or "AF" would suffice not only for the Hornet, but also the F-16 Falcon and the F-35 Lightning II (yet another aberration, this time in the numbering, keeping the number from the X-35 tech demonstrator instead of being the F-24 as expected).

The F-117 is a very special case. The airframe received its designation after 1962 and so should have been designated either A-14 (as its mission has always been tactical ground strikes) or F-19 (keeping with the USAF's tendency to label any light offensive aircraft a "fighter"). Development of the F-117 from the Have Blue project was an open secret, and it is widely believed that the Nighthawk is the missing "F-19" in the U.S. numbering system (the F-20, a variant of the F-5 powered by a single larger turbofan, having been announced and demonstrated long before the F-117's existence was officially acknowledged), with the pre-1962 designation intended as misinformation.

  • $\begingroup$ Re "The short of it is that the "A" designation for a ground-attack aircraft has historically been a Navy distinction. The USAF/USAAF/USAAC has not traditionally differentiated between an aircraft designed for tactical ground strikes versus a dogfighter/interceptor. "-- I don't think this is entirely true. I can't think of any WW2 (or earlier) USAAF/USAAC aircraft bearing a "P" designation that was originally designed for ground attack. For example, the original ground attack version of the P-51 was called the A-36, not the P-xx or the P-51x. $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2019 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ I can't think of any WW2 (or earlier) USAAF/USAAC aircraft bearing a "P" designation that was originally designed exclusively or primarily for ground attack. For example, the original ground attack version of the P-51 was called the A-36, not the P-xx or the P-51x. Sure, in the Korean war, P-51's (by then called F-51's) got repurposed for an exclusively ground-attack role, but that's another story. $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2019 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ @quietflyer prior to the utilisation of P series aircraft in ground attack roles, policy was to only use light bombers in that role. Aircraft like the B-23 (a failure) and B-29 were intended for this role. Hence the lack of dedicated ground attack aircraft with a P designation. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Sep 4, 2019 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting -- "ground attack" is usually used to mean something more narrow than just any sort of dropping bombs; neither the B-23 nor the B-29 would normally be considered either "ground attack" aircraft or "light bombers". There was a whole series of single and twin-engine aircraft w/ "A" designations and most of these would be called "light bombers" . Douglas A13/A17, A-20 Havoc, A-36 Apache, A-26 Invader (later renamed B-26 after retirement of B-26 Marauder) are the only ones that pop into my mind right now but there were more, some of which were pre-WW2 "duds" that saw no wartime usage. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Comment above is specifically about WW2 and earlier, of course. Also, second - to - last sentence in very first comment should have read "designed PRIMARILY for ground attack". Also, note that most of the famous fighter- bombers of WW2 were originally envisioned as pure fighters. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 16:17

a. No. The F-117 Nighthawk was intended to be a stealth attack aircraft from day zero. At no point was the Have Blue program, which led to F-117, intended to produce a fighter.

Have Blue

"DARPA USAirForce HaveBlue" by US Air Force Photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It came to be known as the F-117 as a result of a number of unrelated reasons. The aircraft was assigned a radio call sign '117' during testing in the range of the Soviet aircraft being tested in US and the number stuck.

Also, the 'F' in the designation appears to have been allowed by the USAF in order to confuse the Soviet intelligence. Technically, the aircraft should've had the number F-19, which was never used.

b. Another very good example of an attack aircraft having the 'F' moniker is the F-111 Aardvark, which was developed in the same time period.


"F-111F dropping high-drag bombs" by Service Depicted: Air ForceCommand Shown: F3253Camera Operator: STAFF SGT. DAVID S. NOLAN - ID:DFST8711197. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Perhaps more confusingly, after the F-111 was retired, its duties were taken up by the F-15E strike Eagle, among others.

c. Most of the current aircraft are multirole and are capable of carrying out the strike role to varying extents. As such, they have the 'F/A' designation, like F/A-18 Hornet or they may have only the 'F' designation like the F-35 Lightning II in spite of the fact that it was designed to replace (among others) the A-10, an attack aircraft.


"CF-1 flight test" by Andy Wolfe - This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 110211-O-XX000-001 Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

  • $\begingroup$ Another notable attack aircraft with the F designation is the F-105, although this was designated before the United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system was implemented. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2015 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ The F-105 and F-111 were called fighter / bombers. During development the F-111was supposed to be a fighter for the navy, but that didn't work out, so the navy dropped out. According to Wikipedia ''A" was used in the air force designation system to denote amphibian. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Sep 14, 2015 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ The F-111 is a bad example, as it was originally designed to be an air defense fighter, a version that ended up not being built and the Navy buying the F-4 instead for that role (and eventually the ground attack role as well at times). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Sep 14, 2015 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, the S in JSF was "Strike" which is another term for "Attack" in military aviation jargon. F-35 is the JSF. $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2017 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ And at some point the designation of the P-51 ("P" standing for "pursuit" I believe) changed to F-51. That was during the Korean war. $\endgroup$
    – user7241
    Dec 23, 2017 at 18:54

The F-117 name is unusual in two ways. Not only does it use the letter F, but it continues a numbering scheme which had been abandoned long before. The "century series" fighters were designed in the 1950s, and in 1962 the US introduced the Tri-Service aircraft designation system, which re-started the numbering. The first of those produced in sizable numbers was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which was initially named F-110 by the US Air Force.

Both the fighter designation and the numbering were used as means of obfuscation. While the early work on Have Blue was made public, all work after 1976 was highly classified. Similar tricks were played before: The Me-163 was initially a competing design for a call by the RLM for a short-takeoff airplane which was won by the Fieseler 156. Only when design on a rocket-powered interceptor started was the number re-used to divert attention away from it.

The F-117 was intended as a strike aircraft from the outset. To be used as a fighter, any modern aircraft would need a powerful radar and external stations to carry air-to-air missiles. Both would had completely nullified the low signature of the F-117. Note that the F-22 carries a special version of the AIM-9M Sidewinder, called Boxoffice, with shorter span fins to enable them to be carried internally, thus preserving the low-observable characteristics until shortly before the missile is launched.

  • $\begingroup$ The F-22 uses the AIM-9X, which incorporates design features of the Boxoffice project. Boxoffice variants of the M never made it to full production before the Joint Chiefs directed the efforts toward AIM-9X. $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Sep 14, 2015 at 21:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @KeithS: Wrong, the AIM-9X is just being certified and will not go into service with the F-22 until 2017/18. $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2015 at 6:51

Whether the F-117 was "intended" as a strike aircraft or not, and despite some comments about it needing external stations, it did and could fire just about anything in the US arsenal including a 20mm cannon.

I was there, I worked on it as journeyman A,B & C shred avionics tech. The bomb bay doors, where the normal GBU-27 were deployed from, had extendable/retractable stations. It's actually how we loaded the planes on the ground. Prior to taxi, we the techs or chiefs would retract the stations, and close the doors. At one point in our history we pretty much disabled and removed most of those capabilities, but we did have it.


This was done to confuse the USSR, in case of an information leak while the F117 was still in development.

There were two parts to this simple deception:

The F designation, indicating fighter, would have the Soviets reading any leaked information as if it were intended for a state of the art fighter.

The century designation (117) was intended to get the Soviets to think that this was an older design that was abandoned. The USAF had rolled the numbers over into the F4/F5/F15/F16 over ten years before the F117 began development.

It helps that the USAF is normally very strict about aircraft designations. F means fighter... period. The only other case of a strike aircraft getting a F designation was the F111, and there were some thoughts about it taking on a fighter role when it was designed.

The F117 was always an attack/strike aircraft. Give the tech of that time, it didn't make sense to put that sort of design on a fighter that will be engaging other fighters. The odd shape meant that the F117 wasn't particularly maneuverable, and that it wouldn't be able to go supersonic.

Better to employ early stealth on strike aircraft, where maneuverability and high speed aren't a major concern, but not being detected by the radar that the USSR based its entire air defense network on, would be a huge boost.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .