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 $US5 ($7) 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 cancelled 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.
15. Space Systems Command
Winner: Space Delta 45. Coming in at the bottom of our list are the various divisions of Space Systems Command, with a handful of functional but uninspired designs. This field command has fewer deltas in it than others, and they share an emblem aesthetic, so we’re lumping them together. Our winner edges out its two competitors because of its blocky colours and details.
Runners-up: (left) Space Delta 30, (right) Space Systems Command
14. Space Delta 13
Winner: The top-level Space Delta 13 logo. Of all the birds you could choose to depict flying in space, the owl seems most appropriate. A predator, sure, but the owl is also a bringer of knowledge and wisdom, like how many licks it takes to get to the centre of a Tootsie Roll Pop.
Runners-up: (left) Forrest L. Vosler Noncommissioned Officer Academy, (right) National Security Space Institute
13. Space Delta 11
Winner: Main Space Delta 11 emblem. Few graphical symbols go harder than crosshairs, just ask Public Enemy.
Runners-up: (left to right) 25th Space Range Squadron, 11th Delta Operations Squadron, 527th Space Aggressor Squadron
12. Space Delta 2
Winner: 21st Operations Support Squadron. Rams are alright, but this one is just too close to a logo you’d find on a Dodge truck. The bone swords are cool, though.
Runners-up: (left to right) 18th Space Defence Squadron, Space Delta 2, 20th Space Surveillance Squadron
11. Space Delta 10
Winner: Space Delta 10. I’m sure many people will be puzzled by the decision to rank a nonsensical image of an oil lamp, the letter X, some stars, and an arrow, above a ram with bone swords. I understand, but it’s just so mysterious.
Runner-up: 10th Delta Operations Squadron
10. Space Delta 8
Winner: 8th Combat Training Squadron. This one is straight out of a supervillain lair, or a Bond movie about an international crime cartel known as S.T.I.N.G. or Los Escorpiones.
Runners-up: (left to right) 4th Space Operations Squadron, 50th Operations Support Squadron, 2nd Space Operations Squadron
9. Space Delta 4
Winner: 10th Space Warning Squadron. Dude doesn’t even wear pants in space.
Runners-up: (top row left to right) 7th Space Warning Squadron, 11th Space Warning Squadron, 2nd Space Warning Squadron (second row left to right) 13th Space Warning Squadron, 12th Space Warning Squadron, 6th Space Warning Squadron (bottom) 3rd Satellite Communications Squadron
8. Space Delta 7
Winner: Space Delta 7. Why does a bear need a key and what does it open? That information is available on a need-to-know basis.
Runners-up: (left) 72nd Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Squadron (centre) 73rd Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Squadron (right) 71st Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Squadron
7. Space Delta 5
Winner: Space Delta 5. Other animals in the collection seem to be dominating space and Earth simultaneously, but this one has also harnessed the power of weather.
Runners-up: 55th Combat Training Squadron
6. Space Delta 9
Winner: 9th Combat Training Squadron. Will literally swat a plane out of orbit with a broadsword.
Runners-up: (left to right) 3rd Space Operations Squadron, main emblem of Space Delta 9, 1st Space Operations Squadron
5. Space Delta 3
Winner: 16th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron. Same powers as the weather-controlling tiger, but it’s a cobra, the second-coolest kind of snake.
Runners-up: (top) emblem of Space Delta 3, (bottom row left to right) 5th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron, 4th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron, 3rd Combat Training Squadron
Special Mention: Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron wins best unit name.
4. Space Delta 12
Winner: 3rd Test and Evaluation Squadron. Tigers and bears have already made an appearance, you knew this was coming.
Runners-up: (top row left to right) 17th Test and Evaluation Squadron, main emblem of Space Delta 12, 12th Delta Operations Squadron (bottom row left to right) 1st Test and Evaluation Squadron, 4th Test and Evaluation Squadron
3. Garrison Commands
Winner: Peterson-Schriever Garrison. There it is, the coolest kind of serpent: A hydra with clawed talons.
Runners-up: (left) Buckley Garrison (right) Los Angeles Garrison
2. Delta 1
Winner: 533rd Training Squadron. That’s the stuff. Death from above. But in space, there’s no way to know which way is up.
Runners-up: (top row left to right) 328th Weapons Squadron, 319th Combat Training Squadron, 392nd Combat Training Squadron (bottom) main emblem of Space Delta 1
1. Space Delta 6
Winner: 23rd Space Operations Squadron. If we were doing a straightforward ranking of the individual emblems, Space Delta 6’s squadrons would take several of the top spots. The overall winner earns its spot with solid on-theme iconography combined with a space wizard and the number 23, the most enigmatic of all numbers.
Runners-up: (top row left to right) 21st Space Operations Squadron, 22nd Space Operations Squadron, 61st Cyber Squadron (bottom row left to right) 62nd Cyber Squadron, main emblem of Space Delta 6, 65th Cyber Squadron