THE PECULIARITIES of modern warfare were rarely more apparent than when the Pentagon sought to warn the public of Armageddon astride the Persian Gulf in the form of Silkworm missiles.

China may have built those fearsome weapons wielded by Iran, but their larval nom de guerre came courtesy of the same nattering nomenclaturists that brought us the Backfire bomber, the Foxbat fighter and the Hormone helicopter. The namer in this game is a NATO committee, which assigns names to arms of adversaries. It does this in the absence of a proper baptism by Moscow or Beijing -- two towns notoriously insensitive to the public relations of modern warfare.

In an era when the first objective of military campaigns is to seize the television station, and when whole families of weapons can pass into obsolescence without a battlefield test, the side whose arms sound more bellicose has a long leg up.

What a formidable advantage, then, for the Pentagon not only to be able to name the Intruders, Sea Stallions and Tomcats of the U.S. arsenal, but to sit as well on the NATO committee that comes up with the Frogfoots, Flagons and Fishpots that adorn the Soviet counterparts.

Is this skulduggery or not? No question about it, if the Chinese and the Soviets pretend to more ferocity than comes across from the names Silkworm and Backfire, they must put forth nomenclature with their own spin on it.

A battery of calls to the Chinese Embassy on the Silkworm matter indicates that, for now, Beijing has other priorities. The attaches, asked if the name was their own, alternately laughed or fell silent. Actually the makers of the Chinese Navy's dread device called it the HY-2. HY, it turns out, is an abbreviation for words meaning Sea Hawk -- so it is not so much that Beijing is defenseless in this propaganda war, just uncommunicative.

Now the tea-leaf readers are watching the one man with both the title and the name to bring China up to speed in this matter: the chief of the Chinese propaganda department, Zhu Houze.

The naming of weapons, and particularly of warplanes, came of age during World War II. U.S. military intelligence had to provide fighter pilots, antiaircraft gunners, air-raid wardens and, I can testify, schoolboys in knickers with the name, number, profile and characteristics not only of the Allies' planes -- so as to let them pass unimpeded -- but of Japanese and German planes, to be reported post haste. These details the military duly provided. To keep up-to-date, we lads consulted the backs of our cereal boxes.

If military intelligence was effective, it would assign a name to an adversary's new plane even while the makers were still pretending it did not exist. The American code name for Japan's mainline fighter at the time of Pearl Harbor was the Zeke; but that had no chance against the Zero -- Tokyo's own moniker for the fighter. My pals and I sang "Johnny Got a Zero" as we looked in vain for the enemy on high. (The Japanese had a way with names. One of the aircraft carriers that snuck up on Hawaii was the Smiling Crane.)

As weapons proliferate, of course, cataloguing can become more arcane than cunning. NATO practitioners charged with labeling the multitudinous Soviet aircraft probably should be excused for coming up with the occasional Clank (an Antonov 30), Coot (Ilyushin 18) and Hoodlum (Kamov 26).

NATO's cataloguing of Soviet aircraft starts with the initials of the designer. Thus the Mi8 helicopter was the eighth effort of Mikhail L. Mil -- whose name the committee scarcely could have improved upon. The Mi8 was mnemonically named the Hip. Mil's military Mi14 was labeled the Haze, and the committee, by then souring on the series of copters, called the Mi24 the Hind.

This effort to credit the designer has a notable precedent, recorded in the "Dictionary of Weapons & Military Terms": The British Sten gun of WWII fame derived its name from the initials of the designers, Shepherd and Turpin, and the first two letters of the firm for whom they did it, Enfield.

These days, the intelligence community's name droppers pay most attention to missiles. Specialist Stephen Zaloga, writing in Jane's Defense Weekly, has made an effort truly Herculean (pertaining, thus, either to the Lockheed C-130 troop transport or to a British light aircraft carrier) to correlate NATO's designations for Soviet missiles with those that have surfaced from the Kremlin itself.

Maybe the Russians are better off letting NATO name their rockets. The anti-tank AT4, for instance, known in the West as the Spigot, is called the Fagot by the Red Army. Translated, that means Bassoon. The SS3, on the other hand, called the Shyster by NATO, is the Victory to the Muscovites. What NATO calls the Swatter, curiously enough, is identified in Soviet publications as the Bumblebee.

Zaloga has yet to come up with any Russian names for the Soviets' memorable series of surface-to-surface missiles, known by NATO as the Scaleboard, Scapegoat, Scrooge, Sinner, Spanker and Sandbox. Nor for the Scalpel, Sickle, Styx, Satan, Stingray or Stilleto.

The Pentagon, for its part, has reduced the naming game to a few good directives, i.e., "Only approved mission-design series designators and popular names shall be used in referencing . . . aerospace vehicles" -- which may explain why the U.S. arsenal has taken to sounding stale since the salad days of the Sidewinder.

The Navy came up with Captor for an "encapsulated torpedo," masquerading as a mine, while the service's amphibious-warfare ships include the belligerent Aggressive, the less aggressive Anchorage and the possibly misspelled Misspillion.

Bureaucrats at the Pentagon are not very communicative when it comes to explaining just how the "popular names" are chosen. A word from on high clearly still suffices. President Reagan is said to have put the new handle on the MX missile, (which was probably named initially by a headline writer or perhaps a caster of symbols for the stock exchange.) The MX is now the Peacemaker, which re-raises the question, What's in a name?

Lewis Diuguid is an assistant foreign editor for The Washington Post.