October 2020

DEC Bulletin

I hear different versions of phonetic alphabets used on the airwaves today. I was a bit confused as to which version was the correct version. So, I ask “Which phonetic alphabet should be used by amateur radio operators over the air? Should we use the U.S. phonetic alphabet/Able Baker, or the NATO/ITU phonetic alphabet?” After doing some research here is what I found.

The first internationally recognized alphabet was adopted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 1927. The U.S. adopted the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet from 1941 to standardize systems amongst all branches of its armed forces. The U.S. alphabet became known as Able Baker after the words for A and B.

In 1956 the present phonetic alphabet was chosen. The alphabet's common name (NATO phonetic alphabet) arose because it appears in the Allied Tactical Publication used by all allied navies in NATO, which adopted a modified form of the International Code of Signals. Because the latter allows messages to be spelled via flags or Morse code, it naturally called the code words used to spell out messages by voice its "phonetic alphabet". The name NATO phonetic alphabet became widespread because the signals used to facilitate the naval communications and tactics of the United States and NATO have become global. Because the ITU governs all international radio communications, it was also adopted by all radio operators, whether military, civilian, or amateur. English is not required domestically everywhere, thus if both parties to a radio conversation are from the same country, then another phonetic alphabet of that nation's choice may be used.

The answer to the question above is, while our public safety officials and others still use the U.S. phonetic alphabet its plain to see that amateur radio operators should be using the NATO/ITU phonetic alphabet over the air. All references made in the ARRL educational materials also reference the NATO/ITU phonetic alphabet.

Questions and comments are welcome and encouraged regarding the content of this article. Send an email to the address shown below.

Lew Maxwell, KB5HPT

DEC, District 6, TX Section

Email: kb5hpt@arrl.net