December 12, 2011

Contract Award: Northrop Grumman to add Tactical Data Link technology on U.S. Army's "Hunter"


Here in this blog we have already reported on the recent activities and programs focused on improving the level of integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles within military C4I systems (1,2,3).

In a first post published on November 2nd (Manned to Unmanned) we have discussed the results of the first ever Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability exercise, which established seamless integration of Apache Block II and Kiowa Warrior helicopters, along with the U.S. Army's complete fleet of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Raven, Puma, Hunter, Shadow and Gray Eagle). One of the objective of the exercise was to highlight the U.S. Program Executive Office Aviation's open architectural approach, that allows multiple control nodes and information access points to interoperate via the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL).

In a second post published on November 3rd (Controlling the drones during the battle), we reported on the planned electronic enhancements to the AH-64D Block III, which includes advanced control of UAVs from inside the helicopter. By accessing the improved control suite (the so-called "tactical control data-link radio"), the pilot in the chopper can do everything but launch and land his drone: he can steer the UAV and its sensors and see everything it sees (for the delicate tasks of launching and landing, the pilot hands over control to an operator on the ground).

Finally, in the blog entry appeared on November 15th (U.S. Navy demonstrates UAV to Weapons interoperability through a Service Oriented Architecture) we reported that the U.S. Navy recently completed a demonstration for its unmanned aircraft Common Control System (CCS) at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lake, Calif. During the demonstration, operators used the CCS to control a simulated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and associated sensors tasked by Special Operations Forces. The UAS identified and tracked a hostile moving target and sent images of the target to an air controller. The UAS data created a precise coordinate so that a Net-Enabled Weapon (NEW) could strike. The UAS and NEW controller were then used together to perform a battle damage assessment.

News Report

In the above context, a recent press release announced that the U.S. Army has awarded Northrop Grumman two logistics support contract modifications, totaling $91.2 million, for the MQ-5B Hunter program, aimed at providing the platform with interoperable tactical common data link technology (TDCL).

Under the terms of the contract, Northrop Grumman will reset the current C-Band Hunter MQ-5B systems with TCDL technology to include resetting Hunter air vehicles, ground stations and data terminals with TCDL technology. Additionally, the TCDL also serves as a foundation of establishing interoperability among different U.S. Department of Defense air vehicles and ground stations. Such innovation also allows for manned aircraft to use unmanned aircraft, their sensors and weapons as an extension of their own capabilities keeping aviators out of harm's way.

The Technology

The Common Data Link denotes a family of full-duplex, asymmetric, jam-resistant, point-to-point microwave communication links developed by the U.S. back in the 1970s and used in imagery and signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection systems. TCDL is a narrow-band version of CDL but is evolving into a relatively low-cost, full-bandwidth version.

In the U.S., the TCDL program was introduced to provide a family of interoperable, secure, digital data links for use with both manned and unmanned airborne reconnaissance platforms. Rapid growth in the development of secure, digital TCDLs for use with both manned and unmanned airborne reconnaissance platforms, has tended to focus on ensuring interoperability and thus common standards for TCDL-equipped platforms in U.S. military service.

TDCL transceivers transmit and receive ISR data at rates from 1.544Mbps to at least 10.7 Mbps over ranges of 200 kilometers. TCDL will soon support the required higher CDL rates of 45, 137 and 274 Mbps.

The Context

MQ-5B Hunter is a multi-mission, medium altitude endurance tactical unmanned aerial system (UAS) optimized to provide U.S. Army division and corps commanders with a dedicated reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) capability.

MQ-5B Hunter

The MQ-5B conducts battlefield surveillance using its multi-mission optronic payload. Flying over the battlefield, it gathers RSTA and battle damage information in real time, then relays it via video link to commanders and soldiers on the ground. The payload also broadcasts its sensor data to ground control and mission monitoring stations, providing commanders with enhanced situation awareness and the ability to proactively plan and execute decisive combat operations. The MQ-5B Hunter is distinguished by its heavy fuel engine, its “wet” (fuel-carrying) extended center wing with weapons-capable hard points, and the most modern avionics suite in the DoD inventory.

The Hunter originated as a Joint Army/Navy/Marine Corps UAS program. It was terminated in 1996, but through the procurement of a limited number of Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) systems, Hunter exists today. The modernization from the RQ-5A to the MQ-5B was initiated in FY04. Hunter deployed to Macedonia to support NATO Balkan operations in 1999 and to Iraq in 2002, where it continues to support combat operations today. The MQ-5B Hunter, which is currently deployed supporting contingency operations in Southwest Asia, is providing the U.S. Army with state-of-the-art intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and communications relay. Hunter has accumulated more than 100,000 flight hours, approximately 80 percent of which are combat related.


"With additional Hunters fielded with TCDL, our nation's warfighters are further equipped with greater bandwidth and encryption, safeguarding vital information," said Kevin Goates, director, Northrop Grumman Technical Services' Unmanned Systems Sustainment Center.

"The Hunter was critical to development of numerous advanced manned and unmanned teaming concepts while attached to combat aviation brigades in support of operations in Iraq," said Goates. "Most importantly, it saved, and will continue to save, the lives of countless soldiers and civilians as it plays a vital role in overcoming the threat of improvised explosive devices."

References: C4I Technology News (1,2,3), Northrop Grumman (4,5), UAV Forum (6), ADM (7)

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