The US Navy wants to increase the range of its aircraft so carriers can remain out of missile range, an apparent response to China's anti-ship defenses.
The Navy recently announced that it has awarded Boeing a $219,600,000 contract to build and deliver conformal fuel tanks for its air wings workhorse, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, as part of an emphasis on increasing fuel capacity and refueling ability.
CFTs are additional fuel tanks that are attached to the outside of the aircraft, somewhat similar to drop tanks. Unlike drop tanks, however, they are attached to the structure of the aircraft instead of the wing, and cannot be dropped.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corp)
The CFTs can carry hundreds of pounds of extra fuel, allowing for more hours of flight time.
The tanks are not a new concept — both the F-15 and the F-16 have conformal fuel tanks that can be fitted to them, as do the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The Navy is also trying to implement aerial refueling for carrier missions that do not require large tankers like the KC-46 and KC-135. This will be done through the use of the MQ-25 Stingray.
The Stingray is a unmanned aerial vehicle that is part of the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System, a program that started after the Navy decided to change the direction of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike project, which was intended to create a UAV that would strike enemy targets.
Boeing gave a sneak peak of the MQ-25 Stingray. (Image via Boeing Twitter)
China has a distinct advantage when it comes to anti-ship defenses and reportedly has the world's most advanced anti-ship ballistic missile.
The DF-21D has an approximate range of 1,100 miles, whereas the F/A-18 Super Hornet only has a range of 500 miles. The DF-21D has been referred to as the "carrier killer."
China is also developing other missiles that are just as intimidating, such as the DF-26, which reportedly has a maximum range of 2,500 miles. China is also testing hypersonic glide vehicles that can go as fast as mach 10, making them almost impossible to intercept.
Carrier strike groups are extremely important to the US method of waging war. They have often been the first units sent to conduct strikes in places like Syria and Iraq.