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AFSOC Pathfinding Needs a Doctrinal Foundation

  • Published
  • By Maj Dale Gsellman


AFSOC as a Technology Pathfinder

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has stated that it intends to be a technology pathfinding element for the conventional Air Force. Like many Special Operations elements, it considers itself uniquely capable of providing value to its parent service by acting as a source of innovation, a springboard for emerging technology, and an incubator of concepts and platforms. AFSOC has seen success in this role with programs such as Big Safari and assistance to Air Force Research Lab on delivery of palletized effects tested under the name Rapid Dragon. However, specific doctrine does not exist which tasks AFSOC to conduct these activities. This results in complications including lack of funding, difficulty with programming and staffing, unclear expectations and end states, and a lack of guidance and boundaries. Complicating the issue further is the nature of the Department of Defense innovation ecosystem as it stands in 2023; the surge of emphasis and investment in innovation has created a chaotic environment with potential to be disjointed, redundant, or even wasteful. Change to USAF doctrine has the potential to alleviate or minimize these risks while maximizing the potential benefits. Changes to doctrine which solidify the role of AFSOC as a technology pathfinder will better prepare the Air Force for the ever-changing nature of war. Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-05, Special Operations should be updated to include Technology Pathfinding as a Core Mission.

What is a Pathfinder?

The term ‘pathfinder’ in the modern parlance is a U.S. Army designation for specially qualified soldiers who have been equipped with a unique combination of skills that allows them to serve as enablers for larger follow-on forces. They were created at the peak of American involvement in WWII after the fraught parachute operations of the Sicily invasion demonstrated the need. Subsequently, Pathfinders played a critical role in drop zone and landing zone identification and marking to enable the invasion of Normandy.[1] Air Force Special Operations Command has tapped this legacy to coin the term technology pathfinder to communicate the role which AFSOC intends to play for the conventional Air Force.[2] Thus, AFSOC will advance early and decisively, shield the larger force from undue risk, and prepare the environment for the Air Force to achieve great things. 

The Doctrinal Gap

Despite widespread intent for SOF to pathfind, there is a disconnect between commander’s visions for SOF as innovators and the doctrinal tasks they are prescribed to do. USSOCOM’s vision statement includes the priorities to “trail-blaze” and innovate.[3] Yet, nowhere in Joint Publication 3-05 Special Operations is the task of innovating or trail blazing prescribed as an end unto itself. It certainly is not a “special operations core activity.”[4] Similiarly, there is a disconnect between USAF guidance and doctrine. The 2020 AFSOC Strategic Guidance charges the command with “pathfinding and experimentation” to “pathfind new operational concepts and technologies for the Air Force while aligning experimentation efforts with the SOF enterprise.” This guidance unambiguously states AFSOC’s role as an incubator as “successful concepts and technologies will be integrated into AFSOC for specialized SOF missions and scaled up by the Air Force […] where applicable”[5] Yet, Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-05 Special Operations only parrots the “Special Operations Core Activities” found in the joint publication.[6] Reinforcing the point, any assigning of pathfinding as a doctrinal task is absent from Field Manual 3-05, Army Special Operations, Army Techniques Publication 3-76, Special Operations Aviation, and Field Manual 3-18 Special Forces Operation.[7] Therefore, there is currently a problematic gap between Commander’s intent and vision for SOF, AFSOC specifically, and the doctrine which dictates special operations activities.

SOF as Innovators

In 2010, Joint Special Operations University published a report with the aggressive title Innovate or Die: Innovation and Technology for Special Operations authored by Dr Robert Spulak, notably ten years before Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Brown’s “Accelerate Change or Lose.”[8] While both authors are likely frustrated with the lethargic pace of the response to their urgent calls, the early appearance of and importance prescribed by special operations to what became an Air Force theme is notable. Facing the challenge of rapid innovation, Spulak’s proposal was for an innovation braid of intertwined operational experts and technology developers. This operational concept can be expanded from an effort which rapidly develops technology particular to the special operations needs to be a technology incubator for Air Force priorities writ large.[9] AFSOC as a Pathfinder does precisely this. It affords the space in which new technologies can be fielded at an appropriate scale, see real world use, and place operators and developers in close contact to form a rapid feedback loop.

Innovation in conventional forces requires long timescales, institutional support, and substantial financial risks. Fielding at large scale can also trigger significant operational risk.[10] Several of the counterpoints are reasons why SOF is uniquely suited to innovate even when their parent force is wisely reluctant to do so. There is no room in this consideration for circular or arrogant arguments of SOF having an inherently superiority, they are simply a differently built and trained force with distinct advantages and disadvantages. That being said, emphasis on the creativity and “elite warriorship” of special operations personnel has been accepted as justification in other instances such as higher acceptance of operational risk.[11] If it is valid justification for operational risk, it can be extended to justify the programmatic risks of innovation. Further, the structure of SOF as smaller and more independent, as well as beneficiaries of greater training investment, does have relation to the potential role as innovation pathfinders. What may be too costly to field in the conventional force, both in terms of dollars and training, can find a home in AFSOC. 

The DoD must face an uncomfortable reality with the state of innovation in the private sector that “fail fast,” and “f*ck it, ship it” are not only acceptable, but ideal.[12] While a venture capital firm can absorb numerous losses so long as spectacular wins compensate, and a software company can be first to market knowing the first patches are already in the works, the cost of backing losers is much higher for the DoD. Failed programs of record not only erode the public trust and cause budgetary nightmares, but they also cost time! Because of this, AFSOC’s scale and ability to move rapidly are key aspects to the appropriateness of the Pathfinding mission. The positive aspect of fostering innovation has an equally important dark side to make sure that failures happen as quickly as possible with as little cost to the Air Force’s priorities. AFSOC as a pathfinder makes steps towards compatibility between the rapidly paced tech sector and the lumbering DoD budgetary process. 

Researchers have found that despite the prevalence of innovation emphasis, the processes themselves were in disarray. Prof. Leo Blanken and his team at Naval Postgraduate School proposed a solution that linked graduate researchers with fielded military units, specifically special operations forces. Having chosen to emphasize SOF for “the same reasons they are entrusted with high-risk missions – their maturity, flexibility, rigorous selection process and potential for risk tolerance,” the team highlight examples of SOF technology that has later gained wider proliferation, namely global positioning systems for ground vehicles and Android Team Awareness Kits. They advocated for taking advantage of rare natural experiments that occur as SOF field new technology because real-world use provides vital data that even the best-run test and evaluation program cannot provide. Thus, “three seemingly disparate activities can be intertwined to great effect: special operations deployments, military graduate education, and the quest for innovation.”[13]


Beyond fostering clean-slate innovation, AFSOC may reduce risk for the Air Force by serving as an incubator of technology. By giving technology somewhere to exist and develop, an incubator ensures that the technology will be ready for wider adoption should the need arise. “Predicting the future is an enterprise with a very poor record unless predictions are so broad as to be useless for setting priorities,” asserts John Jogerst in his exploration about the importance of special operations.[14] Especially in the face of the rapidly changing nature of conflict in 2023, the DoD has a low chance of predicting with budgetary precision what it will need and when. Jogerst’s recommended hedge against this uncertainty is a wide range of capabilities within the SOF community, which have been brought to bear against unexpected conventional problems in the past. For example, SCUD hunting in Iraq utilized an existing SOF capability that had been developed for a different mission set. With a minor adjustments, it was rapidly deployed to solve a key problem for the larger conventional force.

While Jogerst focuses on training and readiness, innovation initiatives within AFSOC can equally represent a broad menu of fully developed equipment and training ready for rapid expansion to the parent force. Tactics, techniques and procedures can live in AFSOC’s human capital ready to train the trainers when the need arises for a capability to grow and meet the demand of an Air Force requirement. All the while, this inflow of innovation contributes to AFSOC’s own mission as it provides the best for their troops. Furthermore, small purchases by AFSCO could prime the pump for private industry to justify further investment into a particular technology.

Reasonable Limits and Creative Avenues

Of course, giving AFSOC the doctrinal task of technology pathfinding does not mean that all technology will flows through AFSOC. Clearly, SOF expertise has little to offer to many of the communities of skilled professionals and high technology around the Air Force. There will be no B-21 prototypes or ICBM silos on AFSOC bases in the near future. However, humility and creativity may open more options than just battlefield hardware. AFSOC Wings can serve as excellent testbeds for new email servers, green energy, non-petroleum-based fuels, new uniform items, new organizational concepts, child development center redesigns, or community relations and recruiting initiatives. While landing a C-130 on night vision googles is a compelling case study of proliferation of a niche capability, so too is the success and expansion of the Preservation of the Force and Family program.


Changing Air Force doctrine to explicitly task AFSOC as a technology pathfinder for the conventional force prepares for changing character of war by providing a unique mechanism to field technology rapidly into real world use, provide feedback to developers, and hold innovations in ready reserve for broader adoption.  Innovation is of such essential significance that it should move from Commander’s intent to a SOF Core Task. AFSOC will remain humble in this task as pathfinding is not about receiving new toys as a reward. Nor will it replace the skilled professionals in the rest of the innovation and acquisitions ecosystem. Rather, it is carrying out an essential service to the benefit of the larger force. AFSOC will move quickly and take on risk because it is uniquely suited to do so. It will succeed by leveraging both its human capital and organizational uniqueness serving as the Air Force’s SOF. Lastly, doctrinal solidification would stand as an example within the innovation ecosystem of the benefits of making the effort to define roles, commit to tasks, and move innovation from an at time faddish buzzword to a true tenant of an organization. Technology Pathfinding is an AFSOC Core Task.


Maj Dale Gsellman
Maj Gsellman is an United States Air Force Special Operations Pilot currently enrolled in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

This article received an honorable mention in the inaugural Inspiring Doctrinal Innovation essay contest by LeMay Center.


[1.] Richard Scott Hickenbottom, “U.S. Army Pathfinders in World War II: The Mediterranean and Europe” (Thesis, Texas A&M University, 1995),

[2.] Air Force Special Operations Command, AFSOC Strategic Guidance (Hurlburt Field, FL,  2020), 6,

[3.] “About USSOCOM,” USSCOM, accessed February 5, 2023,

[4.] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine for Special Operations, JP 3-05 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020, xii,

[5.] AFSOC Strategic Guidance, 6.

[6.] Department of the Air Force, Special Operations, AFDP 3-05 12 (Washington, DC: Department of the Air Force, 2020),

[7.] Department of the Army, Special Operations Aviation, ATP 3-76 (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2017) ; Department of the Army, Army Special Operations, FM 3-05 (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2014); Department of the Army, Special Forces Operations, FM 3-18 (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2014).

[8.] General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., “Accelerate Change of Lose” (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 2020); Robert Spulak, Innovate or Die: Innovation and Technology for Special Operations (MacDill Air Force Base, Florida: JSOU, December 2010),

[9.] Spulak, Innovate or Die, 35.

[10.] Ibid., 19.

[11.] Ibid., 7.

[12.] Nora Draper, “Fail Fast: The Value of Studying Unsuccessful Technology Companies,” Media Industries Journal 4, no. 1 (May 1, 2017): 1,

[13.] Bla Leo Blanken, Philip Swintek, and Justin Davis, “Special Operations As An Innovation Laboratory,” War on the Rocks, February 25, 2020,

[14.] John Jogerst, “What’s so Special about Special Operations?,” Air & Space Power Journal 16, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 98,

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