The U.S. Navy appears to be giving up on a creative solution to extend the range of the service’s mainstay fighter jet.
The failure of the Boeing-led effort to install overwing “conformal” fuel tanks on the latest Block III F/A-18E/F Super Hornet underscores a vexing problem for U.S. forces in the Western Pacific.
American fighters lack range. Novel refueling and basing schemes can help them fly and fight farther from base—but at potentially high cost and risk. It might take a brand-new fighter design finally to solve the problem.
There were signs early this year that the conformal tanks weren’t working. Now it’s pretty clear the Navy won’t be adding them to its Super Hornets.
“The Block IIIs coming off our assembly today have the provisions in place to accept a conformal fuel tank in the future,” F/A-18 manufacturer Boeing told Shephard News reporter Tim Martin.
But for now, the Super Hornets won’t have the overwing tanks, the Navy and Boeing confirmed in separate statements. The service paused the tank program back in January, the Navy stated.
There was a time, a generation ago, when the Navy embarked long-range tactical warplanes on its aircraft carriers. The A-6 bomber could range a thousand miles with a heavy bomb load without mid-air refueling.
A carrier embarking a thousand-mile bomber could stand off outside the range of most land-based enemy defenses and still bring to bear meaningful firepower—all without risking the U.S. Air Force’s big, slow aerial tankers.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 undercut the Navy’s dedication to long-range aviation. The A-6s retired in the mid-1990s without direct replacements. Instead, the Navy packed its carrier decks with F/A-18 Hornet fighters that could fight other planes and, with the flip of a switch, also bomb ground targets.
The F/A-18 is flexible. The problem is, it also is short-legged. The current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can range no farther than 600 miles with a heavy load of weapons and no mid-air refueling. That means a carrier must sail much closer to an enemy coast in order to launch an air raid.
In the Western Pacific, that’s risky. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force fields hundreds of anti-ship ballistic missiles that can target ships 600 miles away or even farther.
The Navy once again badly needs a long-range fighter. A few years ago Boeing, which manufactures the F/A-18, proposed a stopgap solution. The company proposed to fit conformal fuel tanks to the latest Block III Super Hornet.
The first of 78 Block IIIs on order delivered to the Navy last year. It’s unclear whether the service might buy more of the type. Navy leaders say they don’t want more Super Hornets. But some lawmakers are determined to pay for them, anyway.
The Block III’s conformal tanks together carry 3,500 pounds of fuel, adding around 120 miles of range to a loaded F/A-18, according to a Boeing infographic. That’s still short of an A-6’s unrefueled range, but it’s better than nothing.
As a bonus, the flush overwing tanks—if they replaced underwing tanks—might somewhat reduce the Super Hornet’s radar signature and free up underwing pylons for weapons.
Never mind. While testing the conformal tanks last year, the Navy found problems related to “cost, schedule and performance,” the service stated. The fact that Boeing still is offering the tanks to customers such as Canada and Kuwait, which fly Hornets strictly from land bases, has led some observers to conclude that the problems are related to carrier compatibility.
In other words, the tanks either couldn’t stand up to the stresses of catapult launch, or they complicated maintenance in the tight confines of a carrier’s hangar deck.
Either way, the Navy might have to make peace with a 600-mile strike capability until it can field a brand-new fighter. It’s unlikely that will happen before the mid-2030s.
For strikes farther than 600 miles, the sailing branch could call on Air Force tankers. Another option is to leap-frog fighters along several small airstrips, refueling at each.
The Navy and U.S. Marine Corps are working on a plan—“Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations,” they call it—whereby Marine units would occupy outposts across the Western Pacific, potentially inside what the Chinese call the “first island chain” that stretches from Japan to The Philippines.
The Marines are already practicing long-range strike missions—up to 2,600 miles in range—using their big-wing F-35C stealth fighters and a combination of aerial and island refueling. The Navy could stage its Super Hornets in the same way.
But if Chinese forces target the tankers and outposts, they could cut off the refueling support the U.S. fighters would need to fly farther than 600 miles. American admirals would have no choice. To strike targets close to the Chinese mainland, they would have to sail carriers toward China’s missiles.