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, even when compared to fourth generation competitors like the F-15 Strike Eagle or Russia’s Su-35.
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.
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.
The F-35s ability to communicate all on its own is exactly what makes it so deadly, according to Lockheed Martin, but nearby drones and warships aren’t the only things the F-35 is communicating with — and as anyone that works in cyber security can tell you, the more avenues of access a system has, the harder it is to defend.
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.
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. Enemy operatives that gained access to the ALIS system could wreak havoc on repair and maintenance scheduling, making many aircraft non-operational. The bigger threat, however, would be using the ALIS network to locate F-35s around the world and gain important information about the operations they’re involved in.
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. Hackers gaining access to this system could potentially bring it down, leaving the F-35 without one of its most valuable tools, or even change the data it provides to indicate gaps in defenses that aren’t really there. In effect, the JRE could be used to lure unsuspecting F-35 pilots into a trap.
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. And, as seems to be the case with all digital technologies, you can’t stop the hackers forever.