The embroidered patch is a concise way for different units within the military to show what they’re about.
Patches can cram a lot of visual information and text into a small space, conveying the mission, history, and overall character of the armed forces’ various sub-groups. Often, it’s these units’ unofficial patches that provide the most interesting material to parse for meaning.
We spoke with Trevor Paglen, an artist who compiled 40 such patches for his book, “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems From the Pentagon’s Black World.”
Here’s a look at 7 of them.
This one suggests that not only do aliens exist, but that there’s a team within the US military dedicated to keeping them in shackles and milking their technology.
The reality is more mundane, but still intriguing. Paglen’s source for this patch was “part of a unit that was based at, I believe, Space Command in Colorado,” who worked in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — a secured room off-limits to individuals below a certain security clearance. The patch was a way of poking fun at the unit’s secrecy without breaking it.
Paglen says this patch belongs to the crew of “something called Desert Prowler, which is a UAV,” an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.
Though unsure of what the Omega symbol (Ω) may represent, Paglen adds that the lightning bolt is a common symbol of electronic warfare. The New York Times, reporting on a secretive CIA drone’s crash in Iran in 2011, cited independent experts saying “the drone almost certainly carries communications intercept equipment.”
The crash led to the drone’s declassification. The UAV is officially named the RQ-170.
Paglen started collecting patches after speaking with Peter Merlin, an aviation historian with a keen interest in Nevada’s infamous Area 51, symbolized here by the white star encircled by five red ones. He says the Desert Prowler drone was likely tested there.
These patches are a window into the most classified reaches of the US military. “This is one the very few glimpses that you get into this world, the black world, as they call it,” says Paglen.
Paglen speculates that the above patch represents an NSA or signals intelligence satellite. “The dragon is a very consistent symbol of secret satellite iconography and signals intelligence satellites,” he says.
A spy satellite’s massive antenna — “about the size of a football field,” Paglen says — recalls a dragon’s unfold wings. On this patch, the dragon’s gold colour recalls the satellite’s similarly-hued foil.
The stars on the right may represent the other satellites that make up this one’s “constellation” and the red arrow its particular orbit, says Paglen. As for the tough-to-discern green cobra jutting into the foreground, Paglen is confident that it “refers to some kind of censor which is called the cobra brass sensor.”
Finally, the Latin here reads “all your substructures [or bases] belong to us.” The phrase first appeared in a Japanese video game’s comedically awkward English translation before it was popularised online. Someone in the unit must be a fan of classic-era web memes.
Paglen speculates further on this patch in a blog post.
The 509th Bomb Wing is stationed in Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and operates the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
The Latin reads “Tastes Like Chicken.” This, along with the English words at top, are a reference to a classic episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “To Serve Man.” Paglen says that older versions of the patch carried the words “classified flight test” at the top, which was later changed to appease a higher-up displeased with the patch’s advertising of classified material.
Given the secrecy of the programs the patches represent, Paglen had to use a number of methods for obtaining them. Sometimes these were the unit members themselves — though “often times it would be the person who worked next door to where the secret units work, as weird as that sounds.”
Bars were another big source, says Paglen. Watering holes near military bases would sometimes carry the insignia on their walls.
Another, more intuitive source of patches: FOIA requests, which are applications filed with the US government to disclose documents pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.
Panther Den is a special access program that oversees “electronic combat intelligence support,” according to one unclassified document. To that end, the patch has three lightning bolts, a traditional symbol of electronic warfare.
“All of these things are real things,” says Paglen of the programs depicted on the patch. “It’s just that the patch doesn’t necessarily say what the actual thing is.”
“The faceted shape used here may refer to early designs of stealth aircraft,” Paglen writes about the above patch in his book. The patch belongs to “a unit also based at Area 51. They’re a squadron of test pilots and all they do is fly secret aeroplanes.”
The lower-case sigma (σ) represents a variable in the mathematical work engineers use to develop the tough-to-detect properties that can give aircraft radar-evading capabilities.
This last one is one of Paglen’s favourites. In the pre-digital age of the 1960s, spy satellites captured their earthward observations on film. “The satellite would actually eject the film canister out of the satellite and the film canister would fall to Earth,” Paglen says.
The patch was worn by the 6594th Test Group, Paglen writes in the book. Based in Hawaii, the “special film-recovery teams were charged with catching the film canisters midair over the Pacific using specially modified aircraft” equipped with nets.
Paglen says his book was especially popular among people within covert military projects. “People told me later that it was for a while a topic of different conversations, what I got right and wrong about patches from different projects people have worked on.”
That goes to emphasise how little even experts can be totally sure of when dealing with the most secretive reaches of the US national security apparatus. Though his speculations are internally consistent and come across as plausible, Paglen was sure to add, in one aside, that “there are no guarantees.”
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