Operation names: how do police and the military choose them?

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Rolling Thunder, Sovereign Borders, Desert Storm - when it comes to military and policing operations, just what's in a name?

A good deal, it seems.

As Australians welcomed the dawn of 2014, New South Wales Police were monitoring revellers as part of their latest high-visibility New Year's Eve campaign, christened Operation Cadman.

Alongside reports of the 3000-officer strong operation at Sydney Harbour, the Abbott government's spruiking of its signature Operation Sovereign Borders campaign against boat arrivals to Australia has entered its second year.

Around the world, Australian Defence Force personnel are deployed in missions including Operation Slipper in the Middle East, Operation ASLAN in South Sudan and Operation Tower in East Timor.

And years after Operation Iraqi Freedom launched by George W. Bush, US President Barack Obama continued the hunt for terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as his military advisers used the code name Geronimo for their target.


While the different operational code names leave little room for confusion, just where do the words come from?

Some experts believe German military leaders in World War I were the first to use specific operational names for military exercises, with the US the first to computerise the system in the 1970s.

An Australian Department of Defence spokesperson said codenames for government directed classified operations are randomly selected from a database of more than 100,000 words.

“The purpose of a random word generator is to remove any ability to derive the type, purpose or target of the operation from the actual codeword assigned to an operation,” the spokesperson said.

“In the event that the operation has a public nature or intent, an operational name linked to the activity may used as long as it has not been used previously.”

The ADF's contribution to the US-led multinational force in Iraq was named Operation Catalyst.

Operation Anode was the ADF contribution to the regional assistance mission in the Solomon Islands and security during the 2006 Commonwealth Games was known as Operation Acolyte.

Less cryptic names are given to missions following natural disasters or emergencies. Think Operation NSW Bushfire Assist and Operation Philippines Assist.

Law enforcement agencies including the Australian Federal Police use similar procedures, recently informing the public of their success in the anti-child exploitation taskforce Operation Thunderer.

An AFP spokesperson said the organisation used a database of thousands of words selected at random when selecting names.

"The word database includes lists of words such as fish, plants, battleships, castles, fonts and gemstones."

The spokesperson said the nature of the operation was considered before a name was chosen.

Australian National University marketing expert Andrew Hughes said operational names were sometimes chosen to help with public perception and political messaging.

“Just look at Operation Sovereign Borders,” he said.

"The opposition at the time, now the government, wanted to have a name for what they were doing which would make it seem quite military in nature and also to have something where people would understand what they are doing and understand they are serious about it," he said.

"Having that sort of branding or marketability of a program or operation in that context makes you think military, you think strategic, defence.”

Mr Hughes said when matched with political rhetoric, operational names could be powerful tools.

"They are good ideas to be associated with if you are a conservative political party."

The Canadian military reportedly uses an alphabetical system when naming its operations, with the first letter of the name taken from the region where it will be conducted.

Mr Hughes said in massive operations by security and defence forces, it was likely little was left to chance.

“With so much involved, they won't make a mistake with the name,” he said.