The latest version of the U.S. Navy’s venerable Super Hornet air superiority fighter might have a design flaw. The Navy is reportedly mulling over whether or not to install the Super Hornet’s conformal fuel tanks, which are supposed to breathe life into the Super Hornet platform by extending their range. Aviation Week first reported on the Super Hornet’s potential upgrade issue earlier last week, problems that could hinder the most advanced Super Hornet yet—and not installing conformal fuel tanks, or CFTs, onto the Super Hornets could seriously limit the Navy’s air capabilities.
CFTs are essentially large additional fuel tanks that can be attached to airframes in various locations, though they’re typically attached to the airframe’s back, forming a kind of shoulder on either side of the fuselage, or along wing roots, the area where wings attach to the airframe.
Thanks to their contoured shape, CFTs can sometimes offer airframes a reduced radar cross section and/or superior flight characteristics under certain circumstances in addition to the additional range extra fuel provides. Super Hornets (and other airplanes) can be alternatively outfitted with underwing drop tanks, essentially fuel pods that extend range and can be jettisoned when empty, though drop tanks generally cause more parasitic drag than CFTs, and have considerably lower maximum fuel capacity.
In the case of the Block III Super Hornet, Boeing states that their CFTs offer 3,500 pounds of extra fuel and even reduce drag. In addition to large CFTs, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Block III upgrade offers a host of new capabilities, including large touchscreen displays, and a more robust airframe with long, 9,000 flight hour longevity.
It remains somewhat unclear what exactly the problem is with the Super Hornet’s new CFTs. According to reporting done by Aviation Week, some “technical, structural, and sustainment” issues became clear after operational testing.
As the Super Hornet operates with the Navy, and therefore on aircraft carriers, it could be surmised that at least one of the problems is related to how the Super Hornet’s airframe and landing gear deals with the wear and tear caused by additional fuel high up on the Super Hornet airframe.
The Super Hornet’s CFTs may have also been maintenance-heavy. It could be that the CFTs would need to be removed in order to access parts of the Super Hornet during maintenance and servicing. If so, the extra time and logistics may outweigh the additional range the CFTs provide.
Not Just a U.S. Fighter Plane
Currently, Kuwait and Australia operate the Super Hornet, along with the United States, and Boeing would no doubt like to market their advanced Block III Super Hornet further abroad. But, with potential issues to the platform’s CFTs, foreign sales might take a hit.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.