Northrop Grumman [NOC] recently announced it has equipped and fielded the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) on an Army Hunter MQ-5B Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) that has deployed to support the Afghanistan surge.

TCDL increases data transfer rates and doubles the communications range on the MQ-5B Hunter, enabling additional payload capabilities.

With the addition of the TCDL, Hunter now complies with requirements for all modern UAS aircraft to have encrypted data and video links, the company said in a statement. Concerns had been raised about the ability of adversaries to intercept unencrypted information from UAVs that they can’t do with digital links.

The TCDL also serves as a foundation to establishing interoperability among different Defense Department air vehicles and ground stations. This allows manned aircraft to use unmanned aircraft, their sensors and weapons as an extension of their own capabilities keeping aviators out of harm’s way.

TCDL also allows smoother integration of present and future Hunter payloads that exchange digital data using airborne ground computers, the company said.

With additional digital payloads in the future for Hunter, the aircraft can bring multiple sensors on an area of interest to the battlefield commander allowing more rapid intelligence gathering, monitoring and even targeting of enemy forces.

“When we changed from the RQ-5A to the MQ-5B configuration of Hunter, we doubled the endurance of the air vehicle,” Drew Telford, Northrop Grumman Technical Services’ TCDL program manager, said in a statement. “And with the data link transition, we have doubled the communications range giving the warfighter a much larger area of coverage. As we enter our 11th year of deployed service in support of the U.S. Army, the entire Northrop Grumman Hunter team is keenly focused on bringing new combat multiplier capabilities to the warfighter faster than the traditional programs of record can.”

The MQ-5B Hunter, which is currently deployed in contingency operations, provides warfighters with state-of-the-art reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), communications relay, signal intelligence, and weapons delivery. Hunter recently surpassed 80,000 flight hours, 53,000 of which are combat-related.

The RQ-5A Hunter was the Army’s first fielded UAS. The MQ-5B is the next-generation Hunter, continuing a legacy of service to Army corps, division and brigade warfighters.

The MQ-5B Hunter has two heavy fuel engines, a fuel-carrying extended center wing with weapons-capable hard points and a modern avionics suite with redundant control systems and a twin tail boom design. The MQ-5B system uses the Army’s One System ground control station and remote video terminal. It also carries a communications relay package to extend the radio range of warfighters.

Hunter also has a relay mode capability that allows one Hunter to be controlled by another Hunter at extended ranges or over terrain obstacles typical of those found in Afghanistan.