For years now, the F-35 has been compared to the wide variety of aircraft it is eventually expected to replace. Everything from the close-air-support legend A-10 Thunderbolt to the fastest fighter in the U.S. stable F-15 has had the F-35 laid down alongside it in an effort to spot strengths and weaknesses.

Because the F-35 was designed for such a wide variety of operations, some contend it has sacrificed its ability to particularly good at any specific one. For instance, the F-35’s higher stall speed, smaller guns, and huge operating costs make it a poor replacement for the aging Warthog, and despite its stealth, the notably slower and less maneuverable F-35 also doesn’t make for the best intercept fighter, a role that the F-22 or even the new F-15X may be better suited for in many circumstances.

It seems that no matter what aircraft you line the F-35 up against, you find signs that it may have been built on a few too many compromises… but then, maybe the problem has been in the very nature of the comparison. In fact, officials from the F-35 program have been making similar arguments for years now — saying that the real value of the F-35 isn’t in its speed or machine guns, but in its computational abilities.

From left to right: F-16 Fighting Falcon, A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and F-15 Strike Eagle. Air Force Photo

It’s not uncommon to hear pilots say the F-35 is more computer than fighter jet — and that’s for good reason. Its status as a fifth-generation fighter is based not only on its stealthy design and supercruise capabilities; it’s also based on its ability to serve as a data hub. F-35 pilots enjoy a greater awareness of their battle space than any military aircraft has ever allotted before, and that’s not just because its helmet displays allow the pilots to literally look through the aircraft. It’s also because the fighter can receive targeting data from a number of completely different systems, compile it into a single feed, and use that information to engage targets from so far away, they may never even know the F-35 was there.

Aside from battlefield communications, every F-35 in the world, whether belonging to an American branch of the military or a foreign ally, relays information back to the United States via at least two secure networks. The first of these networks is the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS. ALIS serves as an automated logistical support system that tracks issues within each individual F-35, the location of spare parts, and repair assets worldwide. ALIS allows the rapid repair or maintenance of F-35s without delays caused by parts shortages or waiting on equipment.

F-35s deployed aboard Navy and Marine Corps ships would be particularly susceptible to logistical attacks. (DoD Photo)

The 13 dedicated ALIS network servers on board every F-35 transmit this information back to its designated host nation and then through to Lockheed Martin’s central server hub in Fort Worth, Texas.

The second publicly acknowledged system is the Joint Reprogramming Enterprise, or JRE. The JRE provides a constantly updated library of adversary weapon systems and capabilities intended to help better inform F-35 pilots as they head into the fight. The JRE can help create strategies when planning combat operations by helping to assess the standoff distances of anti-air assets or identifying gaps in a nation’s defenses.

Hacking the F-35: Turning the fighter’s biggest strength into its biggest weakness

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Of course, these networks come equipped with the latest and most advanced cybersecurity protections, but it seems certain that enemy actors will be working to access them as more F-35s join the fight around the world — one just has to hope the security in place can withstand the onslaught.


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force