If you’ve ever heard soldiers communicating over the radio, you might hear them say stuff like, “proceed to map grid tango hotel five eight” you might wonder, “what in the world are they talking about?” That’s the beauty of the NATO phonetic alphabet.


The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRDS) is a communication tool used by the Armed Forces of the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is widely used in telephone communication, even by civilians, to spell out words and avoid errors through a phonetic alphabet that uses 26 code words. If you worked in a call center, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Imagine being in the middle of explosions, and you requested backup. The person on the other line asked, “What’s your twenty? (location)?” and you wanted to say that you’re at building MTD. Due to the noises around, he repeated what he thought he heard, “Did you say building NPB?” and you kept yelling back that it was MTD in your thick Brooklyn accent. Thanks to the NATO phonetic alphabet, confusion caused by noise and different dialects of the English language can be cleared up.

An Estonian Soldier conducts a radio check during a situational training exercise defense lane here, June 10, 2014.

Before the war, phonetic alphabets were used to improve long-distance and poor-quality telephony communication. During WWII, nations had their own versions of the phonetic alphabet, so what is Foxtrot for the US was Freddie for the British, and civilians still use these variations until now.