Slide 17 of 65
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CAPT GEORGE C. MORRIS, USAF
"The obstacles to any simplification may seem insurmountable, and the reasons for more complexity are many and powerful. But if we permit this Frankenstein of complexity to continue to work at its current plodding, insidious rate, it will slowly overwhelm us to impotency."
-E. E. Heinemann
Douglas Aircraft Company
AS WE approach the close of the century, we find that insurgency and other forms of low-intensity conflict plague many nations of the so-called third world. From Africa and Asia to Latin America, nations wrestle with varying degrees of insurgency.1 Governments--both oppressive regimes and liberal democracies alike--are threatened, and experts generally agree that low-intensity conflict, including insurgency, will remain the most likely form of confrontation for the foreseeable future.2
Air Force professionals have studied the nature of low-intensity conflict and insurgency.3Scholars have addressed the social and economic implications of counterinsurgency (COIN) air operations. Additionally, writers for the Airpower Journal and other forums have advocated the maintenance of specially trained and equipped units.4
Little has appeared, however, regarding the operational employment and practicality of relatively inexpensive, low-performance fixed-wing aircraft in the COIN environment. This article discusses the possibilities of using low-technology aircraft in COIN operations. Further, we must realize that a solid relationship exists between technology and doctrine--one that holds true for nuclear submarines operating under the Arctic, for deployments to the Persian Gulf, or for "puddle jumpers" in a third-world bush war.
For our purposes, low-tech planes are defined as fixed-wing, piston- or turbine-powered, propeller-driven, single-engine, or multiengine aircraft. Commonly, they are armed versions of primary trainers, light transports, or utility airplanes based on civil designs. Regardless of the specific model, low-tech aircraft feature favorable operating and procurement economics, and their relatively simple systems mean that a developing country can field a viable air arm without depleting its national treasury.
Magazines, glossy sales brochures, and international expositions such as the prestigious Farnborough (England) and Paris air shows tout aircraft as would-be "fixes" for any country facing a guerrilla threat. Although the acquisition of such aircraft may be logical and make fine military sense for some countries, it is simply counterproductive for others. A nation whose citizens have a per capita income of a thousand dollars a year and a life expectancy of 44 years is probably in no position to sink further in debt with the purchase of multiengine transports like the C-130. Even light jet "fighters"--mostly armed versions of two-seat trainers--can severely strain a poor nation's resources and logistic capabilities.
Consider, as an example of the scope of finances involved, the l8 Italian-built jet trainers recently ordered by the Royal New Zealand Air Force for no less than $120 million.5 Even jet equipment an the verge of antiquity does not come cheaply. Recently the air force of Ecuador purchased aging, refurbished T-33s outfitted for attack duties at a price of $1 million per airfrarne.6 Buying aircraft-even modest ones--is an expensive proposition and must be carefully considered by nations faced with severe financial constraints.
Advanced, expensive aircraft require complex, expensive support. Strike jets and 76,000-pound transports demand long, paved runways; engine and avionic repair shops; petroleum. oil, and lubricants facilities; and numerous other support activities. The list can run from aerospace ground equipment to nondestructive inspection labs (i.e., labs whose procedures do not harm the aircraft under inspection). This support is not only costly, but also it provides a lucrative target for guerrilla attack. That is, expensive infrastructure may well require an air force to consolidate its assets at one or two major bases that insurgents will probably recognize and exploit. Such was the case with the A-37 jets of El Salvador's air force. Comprising most of that air arm's offensive firepower and stationed at Ilopango Air Base, these aircraft became a prime objective of the Marxist Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nácional's offensive in November 1989.7 The fall of the airfield would have eliminated the government's ability to launch offensive air operations. Only bitter fighting and last-minute reinforcements prevented Ilopango from collapsing to the insurgents. The lesson is clear: unless an air force is dispersed, a concerted insurgent assault can destroy a government's air power in a single blow.
Writing these words is certainly easier than changing the attitudes of third-world military leaders in today's postcolonial era. After all, modern weapons--particularly combat aircraft--are considered symbols of nationhood in many developing states. A certain mind-set demands that jet aircraft--even a token formation--appear over the capital on independence day. Paradoxically, though, sophisticated equipment can negatively affect a nation's sovereignty. Debt and the reliance on foreign technicians, contractors, and others to help maintain advanced aircraft can easily erode the very notion of nationhood. Thus, the acquisition of such equipment can be not only economically and operationally questionable, but also politically self-defeating.
Rather than the razzle-dazzle of screaming jets or giant transports, most developing countries need an air force tailored and equipped for COIN. Its aircraft must be operationally effective and affordable. To suggest that a puddle jumper is more effective than a multimillion-dollar aircraft is regarded by some people as nothing short of heresy. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies must improve their ability to cope with insurgencies by relying primarily on brainpower and only secondarily on firepower. Hence, an appraisal of low-tech aircraft and their considerable value in COIN air operations is long overdue.
In his study of "Light Aircraft Technology for Small Wars," Jerome W. Klingaman advocates the development of armed, light surveillance aircraft for COIN applications.8 According to Klingaman, rugged, inexpensive, simple aircraft are needed worldwide for sustained COIN operations from remote, forward airstrips. Developing such specialized aircraft is not really necessary, though. They are already available in abundance.9
For example, the Cessna Aircraft Cornpany's Caravan I--designated the U-27A by the Department of Defense--is a single-engine, high-wing aircraft costing $825,000.[Editor: 2004 cost is $1.6 million]10 Its oversized tires allow operation from soft or unimproved fields, and its cabin holds up to 12 passengers. I had the opportunity to inspect the U-27A at Farnborough and found that it boasted various hardpoints for weapons, as well as a three-barrel Gatling gun that poked ominously from the port cargo door.
A nearby wag quipped that such a flying contraption must certainly represent the unbridled optimism of both manufacturer and operator. Are such aircraft merely the products of slick marketing and wishful thinking, or do they represent a valid contribution to COIN operations? Let us reflect on their potential by establishing a hypothetical air force based on the U-27A.
To properly employ light, COIN aircraft, one must first comprehend the philosophy of limited warfare as formulated by Mao Ze-dong and practiced ardently today by Communist and non-Communist alike. Because the grand scope of revolutionary warfare is beyond the purview of this article, let us just say that governments--if they are to withstand their opponents--must offer the people a better way of life than that promised by the insurgents. The people must see that their government will not wither when faced by an armed enemy but will continue to function at every level.11 That is, police must remain on patrol, courts must function, and transportation must flow.
In Aden (Yemen) during the 1920s and 1930s, the Royal Air Force (RAF) quickly recognized the importance of air power in maintaining governmental authority in the face of insurgency.12 By using all of air power's resources, the colonial government maintained contact with the natives and improved their lives. Airstrips soon became a blessing to a destitute population. Air power was instrumental in establishing hospitals, building schools, carrying letters, and--above all--allowing civil servants to visit remote areas many times a year instead of once in several years.13
More recently, Thailand has waged a successful COIN campaign based on strengthening rural institutions.14 Equipped with low-performance COIN aircraft such as [AU-23] Peacemakers, Nomads, and OV-10Cs, the Royal Thai Air Force has played an important role in reaching out and winning villages over to the government's side. Such success is possible only by understanding that COIN is primarily a civic affairs problem and secondarily a military conflict in the traditional sense. Therefore, one's air force must be equipped accordingly.
An aircraft such as the U-27A can contribute to nation building in ways that the RAF pioneers could scarcely imagine. Equipped with an optional spray system, the U-27A can apply pesticides to crops, thus improving agriculture and perhaps eliminating such disease-bearing pests as mosquitoes. Eradication of the narcotics trade is another possible mission for our hypothetical air force. Furthermore, a U-27A equipped with floats could access a nation's rivers, lakes, and coastal waters and help in fishery protection, antismuggling operations, and resource exploration.
Part of a U-27A squadron could also serve as a government-operated airline. Painted in civilian colors but operated by the air force, these aircraft could be used for chartered or scheduled flights to encourage tourism and assist developers in exploiting resources. Such a fleet could be an important source of revenue yet be rapidly remilitarized if necessary. Para-military airlines have been successful for years and are common throughout Latin America.
Vast differences in capabilities exist among third-world nations. Many countries have at least rudimentary technological expertise, but others lack any semblance of an industrial or technological base.l5 The latter, however, still need weapons and equipment and usually acquire them through outright purchase, foreign credits, or barter of raw materials.l6 By procuring relatively simple aircraft for its air arm, a nation can establish an industrial infrastructure. That is, the manufacture of noncritical parts and spare components for these aircraft can evolve into licensing agreements to provide major structures and perhaps even complete airframes for export. Pakistan, for example, started as just another customer for the Swedish-designed Supporter COIN aircraft. From that beginning, the Pakistanis progressed to delivery of semi-knocked-down kits and eventually to full production of aircraft from raw materials. In brief, the effort to equip Pakistani armed forces resulted in training, education, and employment for the local population. Thus, our hypothetical air force could become an instrument for social development and an important contributor to the counterrevolution.
Such examples suggest that aircraft are indeed crucial to the well being of civilized government in the third world.17 An air arm equipped according to its needs and national capabilities can not only contribute to nation building in the field, but also to the very foundation of the society it serves.
Aircraft of even modest cargo capacity can provide critical support to a government's ground forces. The U-27A's ability to accommodate either a rifle squad or 3,835 pounds of cargo is well suited to COIN military operations, which are primarily small-unit infantry engagements.18 Further, the airlift capability of today's low-tech aircraft is sufficient to transport small units of special forces--which can be either air-dropped or airlanded into contested areas--and to supply garrisons and long-range patrols.
Photo courtesy of Chase Warren of DropMaster www.dropmaster.com Thanks Chase!
For example, the RAF sustained a column of 1,400 men and 850 animals on the northwest frontier of India in 1930 for two days with drops of supplies from old aircraft of "very moderate lift."19 During 1962, Great Britain's air power supported ground forces in Kenya in their efforts to disarm rebellious Turkana tribesmen.20 De Havilland Aircraft of Canada DHC-2 Beaver aircraft landing on primitive, short airstrips adequately supplied government patrols. Similarly, Great Britain successfully supported the sultan of Oman during the 1970s. Light, simple transports such as the Short Brothers Ltd. Skyvan and Pilatus Britten-Norman Defender effectively supported remote garrisons and government patrols during the Dhofar rebellion in Oman
Arguably, airlift capacity is not as important as airlift availability, given the small-unit nature of COIN. Even aircraft with nominal cargo capacity, such as the MS 500 Criquet, proved effective in the hands of the French air force during its experience in Indochina. Because the French had few helicopters, this little two-seat aircraft's ability to operate from short airstrips proved invaluable for light-cargo and medical-evacuation missions.21 The experiences of the U.S. Army's liaison squadrons in World War II further illustrate the capabilities and potential of light aircraft. During July 1944 the 30 L-5 aircraft of the 47th Liaison Squadron in England flew 1,048 hours, transporting 172 personnel and over 10 tons of cargo, mostly from short, unimproved airstrips.21 Considering the superior abilities of modern COIN aircraft, we can expect even better performance in contemporary COIN environments.
Because counterinsurgencies are won by ground Soldiers, air power's primary mission is to support them to the maximum extent possible, as well as the needs of the army, police, militia, and civic organizations. The most valuable contribution of our hypothetical air force is to move men and materiel rapidly from one operational area to another.23 Again, we must think along these lines and equip ourselves accordingly.
In The Third 0ption, Theodore Shackley explores the nature of modern insurgency and ways of defeating it.24 Written from an intelligence officer's perspective, the book offers useful information to people who may someday have to plan, advise, or execute a COIN aerial effort. According to Shackley, an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the areas best suited for guerrilla bases is of critical importance.25
The slow, low-flying aircraft of forward air controllers (FAC) in Southeast Asia were instrumental in acquiring information about the land and its inhabitants. Likewise, the French air force recognized the value of light aircraft during its involvement in that region. Its Morane Criquet became the cornerstone of the war in the air because it was the only aircraft that could "see" anything.26
Shackley reminds us that one of the key tasks of government forces is the identification and disruption of channels for arms and supplies.27 By using long-endurance, slow-moving aircraft, a local air arm can patrol likely areas for such activities, particularly coasts and borders. Our hypothetical air force can assist by using the standard-issue Mark I "human eyeball" or one of the low-cost surveillance systems on the market.
These packages are light and relatively simple; further, they can include items such as low-light TV and infrared devices. Having an hourly operating cost of about $120, the U-27As in our force can provide a substantial, economical aerial presence.28
The same airframe can be used for aerial photography and mapping of insurgent base camps, freshwater sources, and crops. We don't need fast jets or SR-71s for these tasks. In most cases our modest COIN air force will do quite nicely.
Psychological operations are another important function of an air force. Loudspeaker broadcasts and leaflet drops from light aircraft can prove valuable in the COIN environment. In Malaya, for example, 70 percent of the guerrillas who surrendered said that their decision was influenced by the "sky-shouter" equipped Austers and Valettas of the RAF.29 By delivering information, safe-conduct passes for surrendering insurgents, literature, posters urging the relinquishment of weapons, and "most wanted" leaflets, aircraft can make a substantial contribution to the battle for hearts and minds.
Air power alone cannot defeat insurgency. In fact. more often than not, the side with air power generally loses the conflict. Although this dismal showing is due largely to political factors, the misguided use of "traditional" air power certainly has not helped. Conversely, a properly equipped air force that keeps pressure on the enemy and provides mobile, direct support of ground forces and civil authorities can be the equalizer in COIN operations.30
The minimal infrastructure required by the well-planned third-world air arm allows for the deployment of small units of aircraft throughout the bush. Although not a short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft in the strictest sense, the U-27A can still operate from fields 2,170 feet in length.31 The establishment of a network of these bush landing strips can produce considerable benefits. First, they enhance government authority in rural areas: aircraft transiting a government-controlled village/airstrip provide visible proof of the regime's commitment to the area. For instance, medical-evacuation flights for the benefit of Soldier and civilian alike have a positive influence on morale, and cargo flights enhance the local economy.
Second, since our aircraft has a cruising speed of only 180 knots, it should be stationed as near as possible to the ground forces to enhance the rapid delivery of supplies, personnel, firepower, and other aerial support.32 Having air support in close proximity to the battle area is a distinct advantage.
Finally, the concept of forward deployment adopts the insurgent's own rules. The insurgent relies on minimal infrastructure, versatility, support of the population, and small-unit tactics; the COIN air force should respond in kind. Small detachments of versatile, readily convertible aircraft can fly casualty evacuation on one mission and firesupport or psychological operations the next. The COIN air force should, in a sense, become a unit of bush pilots well attuned to the environment. It should rip a page from the guerrilla's own doctrine and take it above the treetops.
The air force of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) effectively used forward airfields during that nation's long and bitter insurgency of the 1970s.33 Equipment with an assortment of C-47 transports, a few aging jet fighters, light aircraft, and helicopters, this tiny yet professional air arm proved highly innovative in the face of a black-nationalist insurgency. Using the Lynx--a license-built version of the Cessna Super Skymaster or 0-2--the Rhodesian Air Force operated a network of 12 forward airfields at the peak of the insurgency.34 Most of these little airstrips had surfaced runways from 2,000 to 3,200 feet in length, complete with shelters for storing aircraft at night. Operated by a pilot and two multiskilled ground crewmen,35 the Lynx carried quite a punch: two .30-caliber machine guns and two 37-mm rocket pods, as well as locally designed and manufactured napalm canisters. Like any effective COIN aircraft, the Lynx was versatile. It could be used for casualty evacuation, flare dropping, and fire support of quick-reaction teams dropped by parachute, from C-47s. With a flight endurance of about three hours, the aircraft also proved its worth in aerial surveillance of hostile borders, forward air control, and convoy escort.
We can learn much about the use of aircraft in a COIN environment by studying the Rhodesian experience. With a mission-capable rate of 85 percent and an exceedingly low man-to-aircraft ratio of 1:25, the seldom-studied Rhodesian Air Force warrants attention by any student of COIN air operations.36 Indeed, by applying such knowledge to the selection of low-tech aircraft and the adoption of proper doctrine, we may well have air support when and where we need it.
Although COIN aircraft should be able to carry armaments, we must not overemphasize the ability to deliver ordnance. Excessive firepower, real or imagined, can be detrimental to a government's position: dead civilians win few friends among the population. Such concerns restricted the use of British heavy bombers in Kenya and Cyprtis37 and led to the employment of AT-6 trainers armed with machine guns and l00-pound bombs during the Philippine Hukbalahap rebellion of the 1950s and the Portuguese colonial insurgency in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the perception of massive air power, brutally used, greatly restricted US operations in Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, insurgents will readily make a government's air force the subject of a propaganda campaign. Most recently, the Sri Lankan Air Force was falsely accused by Tamil guerrillas of using carpet bombing against the civilian populace.38
Another reason for the restrained use of firepower is that most insurgencies do not offer targets suitable for fast, heavy-hitting aircraft. Insurgents traditionally maintain a minimal infrastructure that limits the potential for aerial attack. They also usually travel in small groups that are difficult to discover, much less strike. Perhaps most importantly, the insurgent's tactic of mixing with the population and then encouraging government attacks can result in civilian casualties and antigovernment sentiment among the people.
Firepower must be used judiciously and delivered with extreme accuracy. The very threat of aerial attack is often more effective than its actual occurrence.39 Hence, our hypothetical air force of slow U-27As--with side-firing machine guns, light bombs, and rockets--provides the required accuracy and "bite" for most COIN scenarios. All of this is not to say that armed missions are useless or counterproductive. The appropriately equipped air force can perform such missions as forward air control, interdiction, light attack, and armed helicopter and convoy escort. These missions must be planned carefully, however, for even one 100-pound bomb, poorly delivered, can unravel a government faster than l00 insurgents.
The use of light, simple aircraft in COIN operations is not new. The rationale for using such equipment, however, is often based on economic rather than tactical considerations. We have seen that simple, multipurpose COIN aircraft are not only affordable but also are often preferable to high-tech aircraft. The U-27A--representing the midrange of COIN aircraft presently available in terms of cost, complexity, and capability--illustrates the potential of such aircraft.
Taking the low-tech route does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Low-cost air power can be a valuable supplement to a nation's more complex and costly assets. For example, a developing nation could replace some of its expensive, cantankerous helicopters with light, fixed-wing COIN units for armed escort and parachute deliveries. These same aircraft could also serve as control stations for remotely piloted vehicles and as command and control platforms.
Admittedly, such aircraft would meet with limited success in a COIN environment laced with radar-directed guns and surface-to-air missiles--witness the US experience in Southeast Asia, where 82 O-2 and 47 OV-10 aircraft were lost between 1962 and 1973.40 Small wars are not necessarily easy wars. Nonetheless, a properly equipped air arm that serves its police, army, and civil authorities and that follows doctrine designed to offset the methods of unconventional warfare can assist greatly in preventing the growth of insurgency. Now is the time for many small nations to consider the possibilities, use some creativity, and constitute an appropriate air force.
1. For an overview of contemporary insurgencies and other low-intensity conflicts, see Patrick Brogan, The Fighting Never Stopped: A Comprehensive Guide to World Conflicts since 1945 (New York: Vintage Books, l990).
2. Col D. Dennison Lane and Lt Col Mark Weisenbloom, "Low-Intensity Conflict: In Search of a Paradign," International Defense Review 23 (January 1990); 35-39: and James Kitfield, "Third World Wars: Small Doesn't Mean Easy," Military Forum, October 1989, 24-60.
3. Maj Richard D. Newton, "A US Air Force Role in Counterinsurgency Support," Air Power Journal 3, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 62-72.
4. Maj Kenneth M. Page, "US Air Force Special Operations: Charting a Course for the Future." Airpower Journa1 1, no. 2 (Fall 1987): 58-69; Dr Sam Sarkesian, "Low-Intensity Conflict; Concepts, Principles, and Policy Guidelines," in Low-Intensity Conflict and Modern Technology, ed. Lt Col David J. Dean (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1986), 15-16; and Robert S. Dudney, "Low-Intensity; High Priority," Air Force Magazine 73, no. 6 (June 1990): 30.
5. "New Trainers for New Zealand," Jane's Defence Weekly, 20 January 1990, 115.
6. "'New' T-33s for South America," Air Forces Monthly, June 1989, 7.
7. Steve Salisbury, "Battle of Five Cities," Soldier of Fortune, September 1990, 52.
8. Jerome W. Klingaman, "Light Aircraft Technology for Small Wars," in Dean, 123-38.
9. Aircraft presently available for COIN operations include the twin-engine Pilatus Britten-Norman Defender, the Shorts Skyvan, and the Israel Aircraft Industries Arava. Single-engine aircraft include the SIAI-Marchetti SF.260W, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Mushshak, the Valmet Aviation Industries Vinka, and the Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica SA Tucano. Space does not permit a complete listing of the many aircraft that are potential candidates for COIN operations, many of which are recently out of production, in production, or in developmental stages.
10. Quoted price of the basic aircraft as of 1990. A typically equipped aircraft (not including weapons) is approximately $950,000. William C. Hogan, Cessna Aircraft Company, to author, letter, 21 May 1990.
11. Lane and Weisenbloom, 36.
12. Air Commodore C. F. A. Portal, "British Air Control in Underdeveloped Areas," in The Impact of Air Power: National Security and World Politics, ed. Eugene M. Emme (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1959), 362.
14. Stuart Slade, "How the Thais Burnt the Books and Beat the Guerrillas," International Defense Review (editorial supplement), October 1989, 21-25.
15. Gowri S. Sundaram, "The Rise of the Third World," International Defense Review, March 1990, 223.
17. Portal, 362.
18. Michael J. Gething, "The Caravan of Surprises," Defence, September 1988, 640.
19. Ibid., 354.
20. "All My Senses Called 'Danger' " Combat and Survival 4, no. 76 (1988): 1521-22.
21. Jim Mesko, VNAF: The South Vietnamese Air Force, 1945-1975 (Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 1987), 7.
22. Ken Wakefield, The Fighting Grasshoppers: U.S. Liaison Aircraft Operations in Europe, 1942-1945 (Liecester, England: Specialty Press, 1990), 61.
23. M. J. Armitage and R. A. Mason, Air Power in the Nuclear Age (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 224.
24. Theodore Shackley, The Third Option: An American View of Counterinsurgency Operations (New York: Dell Publishing, 1981).
25. Ibid., 53.
26. Gen G. J. M. Chassin, "French Air Operations in Indochina," in Emme, 410-11.
27. Shackley, 53.
28. Cessna Caravan I: Cost of Operation (Wichita, Kans.: Cessna Aircraft Company, 1990).
29. Philip Anthony Towle, Pilots and Rebels: The Use of Aircraft in Unconventional Warfare, 1918-1988 (London: Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1989), 91.
30. Armitage and Mason, 82.
31. John W. R. Taylor, ed., Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1988-89(Surrey, United Kingdom: Jane's Information Group Ltd., 1989), 375
33. Dudley Cowderoy and Roy C. Nesbit, War in the Air: Rhodesian Air Force. 1935-1980 (Alberton, Republic of South Africa: Galago Publishing Ltd., 1987), 60-62.
34. "Cessna 337 Lynx Rhodesian Operations," Warplane 8, no. 85 (1987): 1681-85.
36. Peter Abbott and Philip Botham, Modern African Wars: Rhodesia. 1965-80, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series (London; Osprey Publishing, 1986), 33.
37. Towle, 4.
38. Ibid., 209.
39. lbid., 210.
40. Rene J. Francillon. Vietnam Air Wars (London: Temple Press, 1987), 210.
Capt George ("Cole") Morris (BA, Glassboro State College; MPA, Troy State University) is an exchange officer with the Canadian National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario, where he serves as a life-cycle material manager for CF-18 armament systems. He has served as officer in charge of various aircraft maintenance units and a munitions branch. Captain Morris is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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