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.