When people think in terms of open war between nation-level opponents, they tend to consider things like the destructive capability of weapons technologies and the size or number of massive war fighting platforms, but when it comes to a potential conflict with a nation like China, the winner might be decided by something far simpler: fuel capacity.

America’s ability to take the fight to China if ever war were to break out between the two nations really boils down to just that: China’s arsenal of anti-ship missiles, some of which are capable of maintaining a near horizontal flight path while traveling at hypersonic speeds (making them nearly impossible to intercept) have an effective range that reaches out some 800-1,100 miles from their shores. America’s most potent means of delivering destruction to an enemy nation, carrier-based aircraft, have an operational range of only around 500 miles. That 300 plus mile capability gap means big trouble for U.S. forces if a Chinese/American war ever did break out.

The Navy and the Marine Corps are already working on plans to address this, including sending out heavy payload helicopters to establish hasty flight lines for offensive F-35s to land, refuel and re-arm, and then get back into the fight all within that exclusion zone. A number of companies are also competing for a Navy contract to build the MQ-25 Stingray; an autonomous refueler drone that could help extend the range of the Navy’s carrier based squadrons. Novel as these ideas are, neither address what seems, at first glance, to be the simplest solution: simply expanding the fuel storage on the aircraft themselves.

General Atomics MQ-25 concept art (General Atomics)

Simple as it seems, adding fuel to an aircraft is actually rather complicated. For decades now, fighters have utilized “drop tanks” to extend their range: fuel tanks that mount on the wings of the aircraft on munitions hard points, that can then be dropped once depleted. For legacy platforms that don’t rely on stealth, these tanks can offer hundreds of miles in increased range, at the expense of speed and maneuverability. For advanced platforms that rely on stealth like the F-22 and F-35, these types of external fuel tanks are just about out of the question, however, as they increase the aircraft’s radar signature and compromise the defensive capability allotted by the stealth aspects of the aircraft.

That’s where conformal fuel tanks come in. Unlike drop tanks, conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) are affixed semi-permanently to the fuselage on both sides of the engine air intakes. The tanks conform to the shape of the aircraft, offering better maneuverability and a smaller radar signature than drop tanks, at a lower cost (because the tanks are reused, rather than being dropped once expended). The F-15E Strike Eagle, which is a variant of the F-15 that is equipped for long range strike missions, has utilized CFTs for years. The tank shape is so similar to that of the fuselage, that you might even be hard pressed to notice the difference at a glance. CFTs have also been put into use on later iterations of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Air Force ground crews install a Conformal Fuel Tank under the wing root of an F-15 Strike Eagle. (WikiMedia Commons)

Last week, the U.S. Navy decided to get into the CFT game by awarding Boeing a contract for $219 million for the “design, development, test and integration of the conformal fuel tank in support of the F/A-18,” which is the Navy’s carrier based workhorse for the foreseeable future, despite plans for a fleet of F-35s. If successful, these CFTs will increase Hornet and Super Hornet operational ranges by around 300 miles, matching the range of some of China’s anti-ship missiles.

Like establishing refueling sites within the missile-mandated exclusion zone, or fielding a fleet of drone refuelers, these CFTs are not an effective solution to the range-gap presented by a war with China alone, but in conjunction with one another, America’s array of fuel range solutions may be enough to engage China’s anti-ship assets and shrink their exclusion zone, allowing American carriers to close the gap.