WASHINGTON — When U.S. military leaders decided to make a new spring push against ISIS in Syria, the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, looked to his grade school for guidance on what to call the new offensive.
Funk attended elementary school in Roundup, Montana. To Funk, that was the perfect name for an operation designed to corner and kill the remaining elements of ISIS scattered in Syria and hanging on in a few redoubts along the Euphrates River and border with Iraq.
Thus begate “Operation Roundup,” which this week entered what officials said should be its final phase.
“While the mission of the Coalition is tasked with defeating the Islamic State in designated areas of Iraq and Syria, and ensuring conditions are favorable for subsequent operations, we are rounding up and destroying the remaining remnants of ISIS, thus the name,” Col. Sean Ryan, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, told TMN.
Operation Roundup is not named, as some reporters initially speculated, after the insecticide “Roundup,” which eliminates stubborn and persistent weeds.
Funk’s less-than-scientific approach to christening a military operation was permitted since the level of that military thrust was within his command. Most of the time, naming an operation is strictly determined by rules, memos and, more recently, public relations value — rules that would have prevented his choice.
At least three memos exist outlining procedures on how to name operations, according to those working in the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s history office. However, they declined to provide those memos.
A treatise on naming operations by outside scholars notes that in 1975 the Joint Chiefs implemented guidelines by establishing a computer system to fully automate the maintenance and reconciliation of nicknames, code words, and exercise terms.
The computer system, called the Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System (NICKA), is still in operation today and can be accessed through the Worldwide Military Command and Control System. The NICKA system assigns the various Defense Department components, agencies, and unified and specified commands their own two-letter alphabetic sequences. It requires that the first word of each two-word nickname begin with a letter pair from one of the sequences.
For example, the then-U.S. Atlantic Command (USACOM) was assigned six two-letter alphabetic sequences: AG-AL, ES-EZ, JG-JL, QA-QF, SM-SR, and UM-UR. From the last of these sequences, a staff officer recommended the nickname Urgent Fury for the 1983 invasion of Grenada.
“This system and process used for the maintenance and reconciliation of nicknames, code words, and exercise terms continues to work effectively and efficiently as the U.S. military conducts its missions across the globe,” one defense official, not authorized to speak on the record, told TMN.
The system was set up to avoid misfires in naming on cultural, historical and just outright awful-sounding names.
That happened before the 1989 invasion of Panama. Some in the Pentagon cringed when they heard it was to be called Operation Blue Spoon. Two top generals debated alternatives, and Operation Just Cause was born.
“Since 1989, major U.S. military operations have been nicknamed with an eye toward shaping domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe,” wrote Lt. Col. Gregory Sieminski, in his seminal 1990s study of the subject.
“From names that stress an operation’s humanitarian focus, like Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey, to ones that stress an operation’s restoration of democratic authority, like Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, it is evident that the military has begun to recognize the power of names in waging a public relations campaign, and the significance of winning that campaign to the overall effort,” he wrote.
The Pentagon was inconsistent in naming operations for public consumption during the Korean and Vietnam wars, including one time when President Lyndon Johnson angrily ordered a name change.
It was after Vietnam that development of the current nicknaming system began, anchored on four principles: make the nickname meaningful, target the key audiences, be wary of fashions, and make it memorable.
“Applying the four guidelines will result in an effectively nicknamed operation, an outcome that can help win the war of images. In that war, the operation name is the first-and quite possibly the decisive-bullet to be fired. Mold and aim it with care,” Sieminski wrote.
Funk was able to call the efforts against ISIS “Operation Roundup” because he avoided the system. Had he used the system, his choice would have been rejected on “reconciliation” grounds since the nickname had been used twice before.
The first Operation Roundup was the name of a cross-channel invasion planned for 1943, one year before D-Day in 1944. That mission was not implemented.
A smaller scale Operation Roundup did take place during the Korean War as one of a series of counteroffensives undertaken by U.N. forces from February to April 1951.
That Operation Roundup was successful, as apparently the current one appears on track to be.