Military Aviation

Chief Petty Officer explains why the US Navy gave up plans to fit conformal fuel tanks on its F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet

Conformal fuel tanks for US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet

Conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) are additional fuel tanks fitted closely to the profile of an aircraft that extend either the range or “time on station” of the aircraft. CFTs have a reduced aerodynamic penalty compared to external drop tanks.

In 2018 the Pentagon announced that Boeing had been awarded a contract for the design, development, test and integration of the CFTs in support of the US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet.

The job had to be completed by 2022.

The CFTs had to be not only one of the several improvements for the Block III Super Hornet, but they also had to be integrated on the rest of the US Navy Super Hornets.

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US Navy gives up plans to fit conformal fuel tanks on its F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet

However, in 2021 the US Navy decided to not put CFTs on F/A-18s and in fact they are not fitted on Block III Super Hornets nor on standard Super Hornets.

Why has the serviced decided to drop the CFTs project for its Super hornets?

‘Risk vs. Reward,’ JS Squidley, former US Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer BMCS (SW/AW), says on Quora.

‘Conformal Fuel Tanks aka CFT’s, work grandly on land based military aircraft. The F-16 and F-15 have been using them in various land based air forces for decades.

USAF F-15E Strike Eagle

UAE F-16F Desert Falcon

‘When Boeing went through its paces for proposing the features of the Block III Super Hornet update, the powers that be loved the idea of what bring CFT’s to the table. CFT’s not only increase the range/combat radius of an aircraft, they free up weapons stations and the aircraft equipped is more maneuverable with CFT’s than it would be with drop tanks. 2 other factors of CFT’s is that they can carry more than just fuel, they can carry sensors as well, and with the underslung type of CFT it can mount additional hard points for weapons stations. Additionally if you are trying to improve the Radar Cross Section aka RCS aka “Stealthiness” of an aircraft, CFT’s help with that when compared to drop tanks.

Changing opinions

‘However, when reality hits that tends to change opinions. Unlike the F-15E or F-16E/F, the Super Hornet lives at sea. It has to deal with the harsh realities of the salty sea environment and limited space for maintenance, as well as equipment. In addition to that, the Super Hornet has to violently launch from an aircraft carrier and then violently land on the same aircraft carrier.’

Squidley concludes;

‘What Boeing and the USN discovered was that the CFT’s were too cumbersome for carrier squadrons to store, maintain and mount while at sea. Furthermore, on the very first trap (on a land-based arrestor system) VX-23 discovered the CFT’s were heavily damaged.’

CFTs are still available for F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornets offered on the international market.

Advanced Super Hornet

Photo credit: Boeing, Michael B. Keller and TSGT Robert W. Valenca / U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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