In 2018 President Donald Trump first floated the idea of a new branch of the U.S. military known as the Space Force, and ever since, the department has been defined by its branding as much as its actual duties. When Trump personally unveiled the service’s logo in 2020, it immediately inspired derisive comparisons to the Star Trek logo. Likewise, an early reveal of Space Force’s dress uniforms reminded many observers of costumes worn on the TV show Battlestar Galactica.
But for better or worse, Space Force is just the latest service branch to contribute to a long tradition of military branding. We’re referring, of course, to the use of deranged emblems to identify individual units.
I became fascinated by the insignias used on military patches after reading Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me, a collection of patch designs from the “black world” of classified Pentagon projects. Paglen used government records, FOIA requests, and crowdsourcing to acquire these artifacts of units that aren’t officially acknowledged but feel like identifying themselves through cryptic imagery. At times, these emblems tend towards the boring guns-and-eagles iconography you’d expect from the military. But in many other instances, their designs go in psychedelic directions that could be described as “bizarre” or “metal as fuck.” Designs like these:
These designs have always lingered with me, so when I saw some people sharing notable emblems from Space Force’s units, I immediately wanted to see them all. Alas, creating a single repository for all of its new emblems doesn’t seem to be a priority for the USSF. A spokesperson for the branch told us they do not maintain a complete list of logos, and pointed us to the individual websites of the units. The saints of Wikipedia have done a good job of collecting a lot of them, but many are still missing, and can only be found amidst an enormous collection of other material. So I’ve done my best to pull together as many of these patches as I could find.
Are Space Force’s emblems as bonkers as those from the classified “black world?” Sometimes, yeah! Since the Space Force badges are official commissions, they employ a more uniform aesthetic approach, but still use a lot of head-scratching iconography and inscrutable symbols.
When it first launched, Trump’s fixation on Space Force meant that many people, myself included, saw it as a punchline. For god’s sake, as a sitting president, he launched a drive to crowdsource which hypothetical Space Force logo should go on merchandise that his political campaign was selling. MAGA fans may have thought they were voting on Space Force’s official branding, but they were really just informing the campaign which design they would pay for on a Trump tote bag.
I still don’t think Trump had any interest in this new military branch outside of the surface-level pizazz he intuited it could lend his image. He called space “the world’s newest war-fighting domain” and we laughed it off as another distraction. But in recent days, the service’s mission has become more clear.
Last year Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, told the Washington Post that Russia and China were using lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyberattacks to target U.S. satellite systems “every single day.” In early April, Thompson told NBC News that Russia could be using jammers to prevent Ukrainians from using GPS signals as they defend themselves from invasion. And after Russia claimed it had used a hypersonic Kinzhal missile to attack an underground weapons depot in Ukraine, Space Force announced it is developing new satellites to track hypersonic missiles. This threat of spillover from a hot war has gotten the attention of President Biden, who added an extra $5 billion to his administration’s funding request for Space Force’s 2023 budget.
If that all sounds like more bluster from powerful men rattling lightsabers, the fact that Netflix just canceled its Steve Carrell sitcom Space Force has to be some kind of sign that we’re not laughing at the USSF as much anymore.
But fret not, friends. There are still plenty of Space Force emblems that’ll give you a chuckle or make you scratch your head. We’re ranking them in the slides ahead, broken down by operating unit. Because I wanted to highlight the best while collecting everything, we’ve decided to hand out participation trophies. Every unit gets a winner and runners-up within that unit; we’ve also ranked each unit head-to-head in the overall ranking.