Super Hornet & Growler to get longer legs as US Navy funds conformal tanks

The combat effectiveness of the RAAF’s Super Hornets and Growlers could be the beneficiary of a US Navy decision to fund the development of range-extending conformal fuel tanks.

Last week the US Navy awarded Boeing a US$219.6 million contract to develop the conformal fuel tanks – or CFTs – for the Super Hornet airframe, covering the “design, development, test and integration” of the conformal fuel tank.

However, it would be some years before US Navy and, potentially, RAAF Super Hornets and Growlers could benefit from the capability enhancer, as the work is not expected to be completed until mid-2022.

Boeing first proposed shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks for the Super Hornet as one of a number of upgrades for the jet, as part of what it would later call the Advanced Super Hornet, at the 2010 Farnborough Airshow. It then flew a Super Hornet demonstrator fitted with aerodynamic mockups of the tanks, along with other Advanced Super Hornet improvements, in 2013.

That testing validated the aerodynamic performance of the design and showed that CFTs would increase the Super Hornet’s combat radius by up to 130nm, for a total combat radius of more than 700nm.

The tanks have a combined fuel capacity of 1,600kg (3,500lb), do not increase the aircraft’s subsonic drag, and increase transonic drag only equivalent to carrying an external centreline tank. With some internal fuel system plumbing changes the CFTs were designed to be retrofittable to existing aircraft.

The US Navy added conformal fuel tanks to its ‘road map’ for the EA-18G Growler, which shares the same basic airframe as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, in 2015.

Conformal fuel tanks on the Growler would free up underwing stations, reduce drag compared to carrying underwing external fuel tanks, and improve the ‘field of regard’ for the aircraft’s ALQ-99 jammer pods (as underwing tanks can partially block their line of sight).

A slide from a 2013 Boeing presentation highlighting the promise of CFTs. (Boeing)

It is thought likely that the RAAF would acquire CFTs for its fleet of EA-18G Growlers (reduced to 11 aircraft following a recent engine failure on takeoff incident) should the US Navy fund their development. The 2016 Defence Integrated Investment Program roadmap of defence capability spending provides for some $5-6 billion in funding for upgrades to the Growler over the next decades.


  1. Dan says

    Excellent news! Let’s hope the RAAF jumps on board this fantastic product in the future? Any news on the damaged Growler?

  2. Craig says

    For what reason. By 2022 the supers and growlers will be replaced by the much more capable 35’s.

  3. Bill says

    The way article states “now at 11 aircraft” suggests that the damaged jet may be a write off. The cost of repairs would probably come close to a new aircraft, but whether the government replaces it, remains to be seen.

  4. jasonp says

    Craig. The Growlers won’t even be at FOC by 2022, and the Super Hornets will likely be around well into the 2030s.

  5. Raymond says

    CFT’s that were first proposed in 2010 are not expected to be completed until 2022 – if they’re not delayed…

    I understand things take time, but why so long just for CFT’s?

  6. ONeil says

    Raymond, nobody wanted to pay the development costs The US was still realing from the GFC. Anyways let’s hope they put the F414 engines through a purposed upgraded that will improve power output and fuel consumption.

  7. Craig B (not the other Craig) says

    130nm? Is that all? Is it worth it then? Why do Russian aircraft seem to have far greater range?

  8. Jason says

    Craig the Growlers are not going to be replaced by the F-35’s. Not in the RAAF or the USN. Also from an RAAF perspective they are not looking at a Super Hornet replacement until the mid 2020’s. So they will be in service to implement the upgrade and it is one they should do. The entire Advanced Super Hornet upgrade they should go for as they have to be kept current.

  9. says

    Since Australia government is pushing ads saying support the defence industries why doesn’t a local company be awarded a contract too develop our own cfds? As previously said why so much for tanks what companies should be made too actually produce working examples before any contract is given because simple fact is that’s just a proposed development contract meaning that’s not for supply and fitment spares and support too the growler fleet it’s money for jam , the tanks will then prob cost 20 too 40 million per aircraft too fit and when they fail too buy tech support and spare part access another 100 million

  10. breeder says

    can someone tell me if the 414 engine has been fitted to the legacy hornets which come with 404s? I have read that the 414 was designed to fit into the same space as the 404.

  11. Adam Hampshire says

    Drag is drag. The beauty of center line or wing mounted fuel tanks are, if you need to you can jettison them for what ever reason for example combat manouverability, fire/severe damag etc; however, the CTF’s are fixed in place with no option but to ride it out with up to 1600 kg’s strapped to your back. Im not saying that CFT’s are the wrong choice, but I would be cautious before jumping for joy.

  12. PAUL says

    @breeder yes looks like the 414 has similar dimensions to the 404 as the Swedish Airforce will be upgrading all their legacy Gripen Aircraft to Gripen NG which uses the F414 thus replacing F404.

  13. says

    Breeder, there is no way they will be putting 414s in legacy jets. Robert, They can’t give it to a local firm when the USN, and Boeing have this experience? They might give a part of it to Boeing Australia but that is all I reckon. Having the CFTs will definitely free up some weapon stations which is great. Now for EPE engines and the Rhino will be very formidable!!

  14. breeder says

    Paul. yes the more powerful 414 was designed as a replacement for 404 but i cant see if anyone has actually tried retrofitting a legacy hornet with the 414. The 414 should physically fit into a kegacy but it may cause some aerodynamic problems. Who knows until it is tried. Oz airforce should try a retrofit of legacy hornets with 414s before selling all of them off. would seem to be a cheaper option than buying more supers and would likely produce a fantastic little jet…may even have the speed for an interceptor. would really like some more info on this possibility if anyone can help. thanks

  15. says

    Breeder, who knows if they will fit, it will never happen. What does this have to do with buying more supers? I’m very confused about your posts, no offence. Cheers.

  16. breeder says

    This article (“Confident GE heads to F414 CDR next month” (1994). Aerospace Daily. Vol 169, No. 34; p. 270.) says the 414 engine was designed to ‘fit into the same footprint’ as the 404. meaning the more powerful 414 could be retrofitted to a classic hornet. i am wondering if that has been tried.

  17. says

    Adam Hampshire, very good points you have there mate. Having the choice of jettison your tanks is a big plus. I’m pretty sure they will be going for CFTs anyway. The CFTs are more aerodynamic than big tanks under the wings. Just my opinion. Cheers.

  18. jasonp says

    The 414 and 404 are not interchangable. They have different connections, different casings, and are a different engine. the common ‘footprint’ refers to maintenance and GSE aboard ship.

    Also, the Gripen C/D is NOT being upgraded to the NG, The NG is a bigger aircraft, kind of like Super Hornet compared to classic Hornet.

  19. PAUL says

    The F414 is a derivative of the F404 with different internals but exact same dimensions in length & diameter. Because fan section is longer they shortened afterburner section by 4 inches to retain same footprint as F404..

    Sweden were to upgrade 60 Gripen C’s to E standard but now appears they are going to build new airframes & re-use some parts.

  20. says

    PAUL, your not wrong there. I think the 414s are the best sounding engine out there, and I have heard just about every jet out there. Imagine how good the EPEs would sound!!! Yum yum!

  21. breeder says

    jasonp ‘The 414 and 404 are not interchangable’. I think u r wrong mate. they are interchangable and that was the point the 414 was made…for upgrades and retrofits…as paul points out above and the article i refer to above points out.

  22. breeder says

    only forseeable problems of retrofitting 414 to legacy hornet would be incompatible electrics, which could be overcome, and areodynamics of having more powerful engines and thrust in the smaller airframe of the legacy.