Throughout the F-35’s troubled development, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Defense Department have repeatedly suggested that despite the advanced stealth and better level of awareness F-35 pilots have of the battlespace, the F-35’s real secret weapon is its ability to serve as a data hub. This advanced capability, which some consider to be a requirement for full-fledged “fifth generation” status, tends to fall by the wayside in coverage of the fighter, however; lost in the jet wash of stories about air-to-air missiles, top speeds, and radar signatures.

While the F-35’s elaborate data management capabilities may not be the stuff of attention-grabbing headlines, many within the program see it as the future of airborne combat. Data can be fed into the F-35 from any number of assets: ground personnel, drone aircraft, satellites, Navy ships and more. It can then process all of those disparate feeds into a single manageable interface, allowing the F-35 to extend the envelope of the pilot’s awareness as far as local supporting feeds will allow. That means F-35 pilots could potentially engage enemy aircraft long before they ever even came close enough to be fooled by the F-35’s stealth.

However, that datalink capability offers more than simply broadening the F-35’s targeting opportunities; it also offers other weapons platforms the extended sensor range created by the F-35’s datalink as well — a capability the Marine Corps put on display recently, according to Lt. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, the Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation.

“We were able to connect the F-35 to a HIMARS, to a rocket shot … and we were able to target a particular conex box,” he announced to the audience at an aviation readiness discussion being held at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, or CSIS.

Nonchalant as the announcement may have seemed, the successful use of an F-35’s targeting data fed into a Marine Corps M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to engage a target marks a significant leap ahead for these types of combat management systems. It means the F-35 has now proven its ability to manage data feeds in real time, and use them to engage enemy assets.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it has shown its capability for deep penetration strike missions of the sort F-35s could be tasked with in a conflict with near-peer opponents like China, and proved how effectively the F-35 can manage other warfighting assets in the area to maximize lethality.

The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System at White Sands Missile Range (WikiMedia Commons)

If fighter pilots can rely on transmitting targeting feeds to other aircraft, rocket, artillery, and ground forces in the area to engage targets when necessary, they can keep their internal weapon payloads intact for longer, extending their mission capabilities in terms of both engageable targets and time in the battlespace.

The training engagement took place in Yuma, Arizona, and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, last April. F-35s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, out of Yuma, were tasked with locating specific shipping containers (commonly called conex boxes, or conexes). Once they had positively identified the targets, they relayed the target coordinates to nearby ground troops via a secure data link. Those ground forces then transmitted the grid coordinates to Marine Corps artillery located nearby, who launched guided rockets to engage and destroy the target identified by the F-35s high overhead. Those same pilots with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 would then go on to fly the F-35s first ever combat mission in Afghanistan just recently.

The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is a truck-based, light mobile rocket launcher capable of unleashing six precision-guided rockets at once. The relatively small platform was designed specifically for “shoot and scoot” operations, in which it rapidly deploys ordnance against enemy targets and then quickly clears the area. Marines were recently also able to successfully engage targets from as far as 43 miles away (70 kilometers) from the deck of an amphibious assault ship. In March, Marines transported the same system in the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-130 to an airstrip in Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah, where it was rapidly deployed to engage two targets. The M142 fired just two shots, had two hits and was promptly reloaded onto the same C-130 for redeployment elsewhere.