At the start of World War I, the Royal Flying Corps commander Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson was considering how he could mark his aircraft to avoid friendly forces shooting them down. On attending a concert by the rock band ‘The Who’ he was impressed by the ‘roundel’ design worn by the band and some of its Mod fans. The next day he decreed that all RFC should carry the design for identification purposes.
Of course, that is not true. However, the roundel – a circular design derived from medieval heraldry – is the standard way of telling your friends and enemies the nationality of your military aircraft. Though strictly speaking, the word ‘roundel’ describes a round symbol, today it is popularly used to describe an air arm’s main insignia, whatever the shape.
The ubiquitous aeroplane roundel has been a sure-fire way of identifying who a military aircraft belongs to for over a century now – in fact, it’s the law, though how you’re meant to catch anyone not using them has never really been explained. Pretty much every country has its own form of roundel or other, usually based on the country’s national flag or colours, (because otherwise, what’s the point really?) although some get a bit more abstract and experimental at times. There have been some interesting designs over the years; some that have become iconic, some gaudy and camp, and some that really stretch the meaning of the word “roundel” (looking at you, Hungary). This totally non-exhaustive and utterly subjective lists picks out some of the roundels of the world, and rates them using completely arbitrary methods based pretty much on how good I think it looks and not much else.
Note that this doesn’t take into account the “low viz” form that many roundels take these days – which are still better than the monochromatic F-35 symbols which are forcing airshow spectators into habitual Ayahuasca use.
It makes sense to start with the grandaddy of them all, the French cockade, iconic symbol of the French Revolution, which first appeared on French Army aircraft in the First World War as a way of making sure they weren’t confused with the hated Germans or worse, the British. I suppose they didn’t really have much to work with, given that no one else was doing it at the time, but you’d think that the French of all people would come up with something a little more creative. It does the job, but doesn’t carry the flair one would expect of such a stylish country. Shame, France.
Props to the French Navy for their version, though. It’s got a pretty dope anchor on it, what’s not to like?
I’m rating the looks a little down too as I don’t think the dominant red is quite as nice. Invert the colours and you’d have a pretty nice roundel, I reckon.
Identifiability: 8/10 Originality: 10/10 (first ever) Looks: 6/10
What did I say? Much nicer, much more balanced. The British military’s roundel has definitely become one of the most iconic the world over, brought to the world’s attention by the epic imagery of the Battle of Britain but made truly famous by the Mod movement of the 1960s (and ’90s revival).
Famously, and sadly, the red circle in the middle was too close to the Japanese roundel in the Second World War and many confused American pilots struggled to tell the difference, so it was changed in that theatre to a fairly ugly two-tone blue. Not a fan. The origins of the British roundel are based on a similar desire to avoid confusion; British aircraft originally carried the Union Flag, which at a distance could be confused with Germany’s cross design.
I have to mark this one down for originality though. I mean, it’s literally just the French one inside out. “Mind if I copy your homework” “Sure, but just change it up a bit so it’s not obvious”.
Identifiability: 8/10 Originality: 2/10 Looks: 8/10 Iconicity: 9/10
Click here for the top ten aircraft camo schemes of 2017.
This is a pretty nice roundel. It certainly matches the colours of the country’s flag, and is simple enough to go on a wing pretty quickly. I reckon if you saw this, you’d know it was Ethiopia. Interestingly, though, there’s already a pretty dope symbol in the middle of Ethiopia’s flag, so I’m not sure why they didn’t use that? It’s definitely cooler plus looks a little bit occult so might spook superstitious enemies, giving you a crucial advantage in a tight battle. Seemingly, there’s an unwritten rule that African roundels must contain green, red, yellow or black (nobody told Somalia).
Identifiability: 6/10 Originality: 6/10 Looks: 6/10 Iconicity: 3/10
This is definitely what you’d call an interesting take on the roundel design, but it scores very highly on the identifiability scale for it. I’d love to know where the inspiration for the swirl design come from*, unless the designer was just a very big fan of ice cream (pistachio and orange sherbet have topped Ireland’s favourite flavours for over 120 years). Ireland is a neutral country but does have combat capable PC-9s, which proudly wear the roundel on the side rather largely so there’s still some call for them to serve their intended purpose.
Honestly, I really like this one, it works really well, it represents the country as much as it needs to, and it stands out among the concentric rings brigade. It gains minor points in iconicity for being on Fouga Magisters, which are indisputably some of the prettiest aircraft ever.
Identifiability: 8/10 Originality: 8/10 Looks: 8/10 Iconicity: 5/10
*Editor notes: the design is a version of the ‘Triskelion”‘- a common symbol, found throughout Irish and Celtic history, but most often used in Christian Ireland as a symbol of the Trinity.
I like the simplicity of the Danish roundel. Matches the national flag colours spot on, nothing extraneous, not trying to be something other than what it is – a sign that says “This plane is Danish, you better respect it.” It’s sometimes brave for a military to go with a minimalist design, but this looks good on pretty much any aircraft – special mention must go to the now-retired blue Lynx Mk 90s (R.I.P.).
Sadly I’ve got to take points off the originality rank here – compared with the sister Scandinavian countries, there was surely room for a bit more Danish identity in here? Maybe a Lego block or something. Actually, that’s a great idea for my fantasy air force.
Identifiability: 7/10 Originality: 3/10 Looks: 6/10 Iconicity: 5/10
Wow. Gosh, there’s a lot going on here, isn’t there? This almost modern-art style roundel really goes all in in the “show your national colours” role here – it doubles down on the flag, in fact (honestly not sure where the little star comes from though. Nice little personal touch, I guess). It’s a little known fact that the Colombian Air Force, struggling to come up with an original design, actually took this straight off the TV colour test card in a fit of frustration, and to this very day it makes monitors flicker in confusion. Astonishingly there is a low-viz version of this one.
I’m going to give this one quite a low looks score – I mean, yeesh – but you might be surprised to see it receive a fairly high iconicity because in my mind this roundel is synonymous with the fantastic images of Colombian Kfirs that do the rounds fairly regularly, and does it get much better than Kfirs?
Identifiability: 7/10 Originality: 4/10 Looks: 3/10 Iconicity: 7/10
Well, it was never going to be original, what with the Queen and colonialism and all that stuff, but it’s got a kangaroo (easily one of the top ten animals) in the middle and that’s freaking awesome, so I’m rating it pretty highly. The only air force insignia to feature an animal with three vaginas.
Identifiability: 9/10 (hello, where do kangaroos come from?) Originality: 1/10 Looks: 8/10 Iconicity: 7/10
Turkmenistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. If you didn’t already know then before you spotted one of their military aircraft, then you sure did afterwards. There’s quite a lot going on in this one and if you’re not picking up on the religious overtones then I don’t know what to say. This is the first of our non-round roundels and it’s a strong entry into this category – the colours are decent, it does a pretty good job of showing which country it is and, actually when compared with the country’s flag it’s pretty restrained. That said, when you see it on the side of jets, you definitely think it’s probably better framed and on someone’s wall than on ten-odd tonnes of war machine, so marks down on iconicity.
Identifiability: 6/10 Originality: 5/10 Looks: 6/10 Iconicity: 3/10
If you tell Belarus that the USSR broke up nearly twenty years ago, it firmly sticks its fingers in its ears and shouts “La la la, I can’t hear you” until your five-day visa expires. It just doesn’t want to know (I mean, it still has an organisation called the KGB…) and, well, isn’t that just reflected here. Russia at least threw a bit of new twist on its star with some sick flag styling, but Belarus just sticking resolutely with that good old Soviet symbol like it’s 1989 and Moscow’s still calling the shots. Well, more than it still is, I mean. Pretty low scores overall here (similar for their ranking for human rights), extremely low effort and I don’t like to see countries stuck with their heads in the past.
Get with the times, Belarus.
Identifiability: 0/10 Originality: 0/10
Looks: 6/10 (classic design) Iconicity: 2/10
Hey, way to make Belarus look bad, Kazakhstan. Taking a classic design with a fresh new look, Kazakhstan matches the gold and red of communism that we’ve all come to know and love with a definite home-grown look that marks it out as an aeroplane of the Steppe. I’m loving the stylised eagle at the bottom especially – there are quite a lot of roundels with birds on but this one is the nicest in my opinion.
Identifiability: 7/10 Originality: 5/10 Looks: 7/10 Iconicity: 4/10
FORGET WHAT I JUST SAID. Woah! Check out that guy in the middle, he’s amazing! Honestly, why would Uganda even have fighter jets, just send that guy in, game over, war won. Google tells me he’s a grey crowned crane and is the national bird of Uganda, and they seriously made the right choice in putting him in their roundel because if I saw him coming my way I’d surrender on the spot. That said, details like this aren’t obvious from particularly far away and the full effect won’t be immediately obvious, so some points got docked for that. Purely because I want this guy to be the first thing you notice about any Ugandan aircraft. Plus I’m getting a pretty good “West London chicken shop logo” vibe which is definitely working for me right now.
Identifiability: 6.5/10 Originality: 8/10 Looks: 10/10 Iconicity: 4/10
Choosing to take their military’s roundel straight out of Gundam (ED: I’m hyperlinking that as I’ve never heard it) or something, this might just be the most futuristic one out there. My assumption here is that the Philippines (god, that’s hard to spell right first time) is banking on being a pretty big player in the eventual space wars that mankind will fight over the solar system’s precious resources, because they’re investing early in the ‘future-chic’ game. Honestly, big fan of this one but mostly because I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd.
Iconicity: 8/10 (awarded from the future)
Well. There’s no mistaking who owns this plane, huh? Most people just write it on the side of the plane but I guess the Iraqis took the “identifying marks and insignia” line pretty literally. Not sure the significance of the Trump hair with a green stripe and a cock’s comb on it though. The bird of prey looks seriously pissed off, perhaps because being in the Iraqi Air Force has long been a pretty terrifying gig.
Good on them, I guess.
Seriously, it actually says it on the roundel.
Looks: 3/10 (I’m sorry but just writing your name on it is pretty rubbish) Iconicity: 5/10