Sunday, September 2, 2012

Towards SDSR 2015: ISTAR

It is never too early to start and discuss about what the future should ideally bring. Possibly, without losing sight of reality talking about enormous budget uplifts and acquisition of countless new weapon systems and medium bombers and other kit that is clearly destined to remain only a dream, barring a dramatic change in the world's situation and, moreover, in the priorities and policy of the british government.
In this article i'm going to explain what i'd do in the next SDSR if i was in charge. The objective is to give a coherent and sustainable mix of air assets to the Armed Forces, to face the uncertainties of the future.


There is no overstating the importance of knowing what is happening on the battlefield, at all times. Knowledge is key to the victory, and situational awareness is key to successful employment of the resources available.

The most welcome news of the Army 2020 announcement to me was the creation of the Surveillance Brigade HQ, even if we still haven't got much detail about its composition. Even with incomplete information available, the creation of an HQ element with the stated mission of overseeing Surveillance and Intelligence on the battlefield is something to be cheered. It'll be even more of a welcome development if this new 1-star HQ is structured as a joint organ of control bringing together UAVs, Intelligence, battlefield surveillance and Electronic Warfare (the latter being a certainty, as the HQ Royal Signals has confirmed that 14 Regiment (EW) is being transferred to the Surveillance Brigade).   

The new HQ (in itself non-deployable) will provide a central oversight and a central direction to a wide variety of efforts, controlling, more or less directly, a number of different formations and systems. I expect the brigade to include the 3 Military Intelligence battalions of the Army (plus Reserves), with the current Military Intelligence brigade HQ "folding" into the new 1-star command (and in support to this vision, the Military Intelligence brigade is not listed as part of Army 2020). Ideally, the RAF, RN and Army experts of Imagery Intelligence should also refer to the new brigade.
Then i would expect 32 and 47 regiment Royal Artillery (the UAV regiments) to transfer from 1st Artillery Brigade to the new formation.
And, while not part of the brigade, the newborn "Aviation Reconnaissance Force" of the Army Air Corps, to comprise the 1st Regiment AAC (on 4 squadrons of Wildcat recce helicopters) and the 5th Regiment AAC (2 squadrons of Defender and Islander fixed wing surveillance airplanes) would work under the new HQ's direction.
Again, during operations the HQ would control the 5th and 14th RAF Squadrons (Army Cooperation), flying respectively the Sentinel R1 and the Shadow R1. 51 RAF Squadron, with its Rivet Joint ELINT/SIGINT airplanes would also feed data to the new HQ. The RAF's UAVs would do the same.
At times, the AEW platforms of the Navy would also work for this command, in situations such as the Olympics, or such as the continued use of Sea King MK7 ASaC in Afghanistan. 

And here we come down to one of the most insensate announcements of the SDSR 2010, the retirement of Sentinel R1 at the end of operations in Afghanistan. This was an unexpected and very stupid announcement, that was met with incredulity by most, if not all, expert and commentators. The Sentinel R1 has been proving itself again and again on operations, with constant use in Afghanistan and with very successful participation in operations over Libya last year. Retiring this still-new, expensive system in 2014 makes absolutely no sense, and thankfully, most people at the MOD, starting from the RAF itself, seem to have finally understood it. It is now planned that the eventual retirement of Sentinel will be decided by the SDSR 2015, and it is widely expected that the system will get a reprieve.

In my own SDSR, Sentinel is definitely confirmed, as is Shadow. Sentinel's wide area surveillance and ground target tracking capability are simply unmatched by any other system in service or visible on the horizon of the immediate future. The loss of Sentinel would represent a massive reduction in situational awareness and battlefield surveillance capability. A loss that is unjustified, and that would openly contradict the lessons of operations in Afghanistan and Libya. Sentinel is good for COIN ops and for more conventional warfare, representing a perfect example of the flexibility required by the uncertainties of the future: in any kind of scenario, Sentinel is going to prove invaluable.
In future, the Scavenger MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) unmanned airplane might be able to provide enough surveillance to make Sentinel R1 redundant, but Scavenger won't be available before 2020 at best, and it is highly likely that it won't have a radar anywhere near as powerful, and it will lack the level of C3 (Command, Control and Communications) that the manned Sentinel, with its mission specialists aboard, can offer.
At least until 2020, the Sentinel R1 has no realistic competitor, and no realistic alternative, so it has to stay.

UAVs have also proven invaluable on operations, so that while Reaper is a UOR funded by the Treasury out to 2015, bringing it into core is considered a probable RAF move as part of the 10 Years budget. Soon there will be 10 Reaper drones in service, in two squadrons (39 and 13), both based in Waddington (as 39 re-locates from the US from where it has been operating for all this time), and this force is an obvious stop-gap on the way to Scavenger.
If not, and it is possible, the base for Scavenger itself, since the selection of Reaper as base platform for the new drone is far from having been ruled out, especially now that France hesitates, thinks again about its plans and takes time, putting the joint BAE-Dassault Telemos MALE at risk of never really happening.    
In any case, with a gap of at least 5 years in sight before Scavenger delivers, bringing Reaper into Core Budget is a priority in my SDSR.

For the Army, i hope in a confirmation for the Desert Hawk III mini-UAV for use at Company/Squadron level. The Desert Hawk III would be an interim solution on the way to, ideally, a back-packable VTOL mini-UAV more adequate to operations that, as for Army doctrine, are more and more likely to happen in urban environment.
With the Desert Hawk III needing a clear area of 100x100 meters to be launched and recovered safely, and with its other limits well known, for the future the right solution in my opinion resembles the Selex Galileo ASIO, in itself a more advanced evolution of the american T-HAWK idea. The T-HAWK has the main defect of being very noisy, so that it is easily detected, meaning that in urban warfare it would probably be destroyed very soon.
The ASIO combines the advantages of vertical take off and landing (very useful in urban operations) with silent running and with the ability to "perch and stare", landing on top of a building and working as an unattended sensor for extended period of times, in alternative to hovering in the air (which obviously reduces the duration of the mission, in comparison).

Another important sector is that of Base-ISTAR, the provision of surveillance and situational awareness around main bases and FOBs. In Afghanistan, this role has grown dramatically in importance, and it is one of those needs that are here for staying. The Army and RAF Regiment, that already collaborate on Base-ISTAR, have launched the joint Project Outpost, which is about selecting the systems currently in use that are most effective and promising, and bring them into Core Budget. In Afghanistan, a number of Radar sensors, EO/IR cameras and aerostats are in use, integrated in a B-ISTAR system known as Cortez. According to the RAF Regiment, the aerostat has performed so well that it will be part of the future solution under Project Outpost. Currently in Afghanistan the British Army reportedly deploys 7 (initially 5 were ordered) american-made PGSS (Persistent Ground Surveillance System) aerostats, which aren't exactly small: 70 feet long and 25 in diameter when up in the air, and are filled with 25.000 cubic feet of helium. Once filled, it'll stay in the air at 2000 or more feet of altitude with a 150 pounds payload, normally made up by a Wescan M/X-15 Eo/IR camera, plus other kit including acoustic gunfire-locating systems or other payloads. With the M/X-15, the PGSS can detect a man standing at 12 km, and allow identification at 4 km.  
They are tethered to purposefully-designed trailers weighting 16.000 lbs and can be launched in presence of a 20 knots wind, staying in the air even with a 60 knots wind. 
In the US, efforts to make these aerostats better deployable (mainly by reducing size and weight of the mooring station-trailer) are ongoing.

There are lighter, more deployable alternatives worth exploring, which also have the advantage of being british-designed and british-built. Allsopp Helikites offers the helikite solution, which reportedly is indeed already in use in Afghanistan with both British and US forces.

Helikites are semi-rigid and exploit powerful wind lift as well as helium, so a Helikites of only 11 cubic metres can fly thousands of feet high in no wind, or in in gale force winds, and can stay at high altitude unattended for weeks.

They combine aerostat and kite, with great advantages in term of sizes and handling in windy conditions. Allsopp offers the impressive Cased Helikite Aerostat Maintainable Platform (CHAMP) as a fully-self contained system that, folded up for transport, fits in a 190 kg, 4 ft x 4ft x 4ft pallet. It is a 10 cubic meters balloon with a payload of only 5 kg, but it is enough to place an all-weather, radio-downlinked surveillance camera several thousand feet into the air to gain weeks of unblinking view, even in winds of 50 mph or more. 1 sole operator can deploy the system, which comes with an helium reserve good for "months" of operations.
There are also larger formats of aerostat, with increasing payload capacity, still much smaller than the PGSS. A number of helikites have been trialed, and several seem to have gone in service already. They make for an incredibly effective and cheap solution to a range of issues: another use they have is as means to lift a linear radio antenna high into the sky, massively expanding the range of Line Of Sight communication systems.

This is an area in which relatively tiny investments can bring huge benefit to operations, so i'd expect Project Outpost to take a very good look into the range of uses of these systems.
Also, the usefulness of Helikites as communication relay systems is massive: erecting radio antennas pretty much anywhere, with minimum cost and complexity and in literally minutes is a capability that could well prove invaluable in future warfare, enabling long range and on-the-move connectivity. In Afghanistan, the province of Helmand is covered with a wireless internet system working from huge fixed antennas built into bases, but Afghanistan is a relatively static front, and a relatively permissive one. With a return to contingency operations, that include the possibility of fighting an high-end war of maneuver, Helikites represent a portable, cheap and deployable solution to recreate battlefield internet, following the progress of the maneuver.

Last, but not least, the Royal Navy is finally moving onwards with its Vertical Take-Off and Landing Unmanned Air System (VTUAS) [also known as rotary-wing unmanned air system (RWUAS)], an unmanned helicopter for at-sea ISTAR and surveillance. With a nominal entry in service date of 2020, this new helicopter could provide a wide number of useful services.  
This VTUAS could potentially weight up to 3000 kg at takeoff, and offer long endurance and sizeable payload. It is not yet clear how ambitious the Royal Navy will be with the VTUAS, but Qinetiq has offered a 1900 kg Gazelle conversion, and the US market shows some very interesting products, the most impressive of which is probably the Boeing A-160T Hummingbird.

The Hummingbird is still in development, but it is intended to fly for 4640 km or 24 hours, with an ISTAR payload of 136 kg or more. It has so far demonstrated an already impressive 18,07 hours endurance.
Alternatively, the Hummingbird can fly as an unmanned cargo carrier on shorter distances, carrying up to 1135 kg underslung from the cargo hook.
The Hummingbird is 10,66 meters long, and has a four-blade rotor with a diameter of 10,97 meters. It sits in the 3000 kg class. It is not exactly small, but luckily, its fuselage is not wide, and with a folding rotor it would not be a problem to embark it on a Type 45 alongside with a Wildcat (with the Merlin it might be harder). Even easier it would be on the Type 26 future frigate, while the Type 23's hangar might not be large enough to take it and a manned helicopter at the same time.
The Hummingbird currently is not a naval system, but Boeing is likely to be able to develop a navalized variant quite easily, and has indeed offered the helicopter UAV to the US Navy already: the problem is that, as of June 2012, the US Army has lost confidence in this impressive machine following several technical problems, and has issued a stop-work order. The Hummingbird is, literally, a step away from being terminated, and the loss of US government funding might cause Boeing to abandon the Hummingbird entirely.

The US Navy is currently pursuing its own VTUAS requirement by purchasing 28 MQ-8C Fire Scout, not to be mistaken for the original Fire Scout, the small MQ-8B already in use.
The new C uses the same software suite, but installed in a larger, more capable commercial Bell 407 helicopter airframe. Weighting 2724 kg at takeoff, the MQ-8C can operate for 8 hours at 556 km from the launching ship, carrying an ISTAR payload of up to 400 kg. The maximum endurance is 12 hours. As a cargo carrier, it can carry 227 kg internally or 1203 kg under slung.
It is 10,6 meters long and 2,4 meters wide once folded up for fitting in the hangar, and has a rotor diameter of 11,2 meters once unfolded. This means that, folded, the helicopter is smaller than a folded Lynx 8. The Type 45 could easily carry a Wildcat and a MQ-8C, and possibly it could carry a Merlin and a MQ-8C. 

A folded Lynx 8 is at least 3 meters wide and well over 10,8 meters long.
A Type 45 would have no difficulties in carrying a mixed Ship Flight comprising a Lynx/Wildcat and an MQ-8C or similar

AgustaWestland, on the lines of the MQ-8C, is offering to convert into a UAS the poland-produced light helicopter SW-4.
The Type 23 remains an issue, and quite an important one since the Dukes will be part of the fleet all the way into the 2030s, but their own Ship's Flight can be reinforced in other ways, with systems such as ScanEagle or the newer, more capable Integrator selected by US Navy and US Marines. And indeed the Royal Navy is about to purchase a number of such systems, to gain one, and then two task-lines, each capable of 300 hours of operational ISR data collection at sea per month from RFA and Type 23 platforms so that, in theory, the problem is easily solved. 

ScanEagle in british colors on a Type 23 frigate during successful trials at sea in 2007. Now the ScanEagle has a more capable brother, the Integrator. 

My belief is that the Army could benefit from a VTUAS just as much as the Navy. The ability to act as a light cargo hauler would greatly ease the strain on crews and machines tasked with delivery of multiple, relatively-small loads to troops in FOBs or at the edge of the battlefield, as proven by the US Marines experience with the K-Max unmanned helicopter in Afghanistan. This would free up a lot of precious flying hours of manned utility helicopters, that could then focus on troop-transport and other roles. The availability of an unmanned cargo-hauler would also reduce the need for the resource-intensive Combat Logistic Patrol convoys used in Afghanistan to bring supplies to FOBs on roads made dangerous by the IEDs and ambushes. Anything that can cut back the need for such convoys while also keeping the utility helos free, is to be welcomed.
If i was in charge, i'd be very keen to see the Army collaborate with the Navy to put into service each a squadron of such VTUAS, based in Yeovilton, where Army Air Corps personnel and Wildcat helicopters will be jointly based from around 2015.

I would of course go ahead with Scavenger, and specifically i'd try to prosecute the development of a national, or bi-national product along with France. Telemos is going to be fundamental for the future of the aerospace sector in the UK, after all.
I'd want the new drone to make ample use of mission pods, so to be easily reconfigurable for multiple kinds of missions, and i'd stick with the indicative number of 20 (in two squadrons) that was circulated some time ago, with no immediate purchase of attritional airframes, in the hope of procuring further drones only later, when they are needed.
I've covered the Scavenger extensively here: the article provides an update on the current situation and expands on the subject of mission pods.

Last, but not least, as part of SOLOMON the RAF should invest into the development of the Common Ground Control Station software and installation, developing a single, common model of GCS able to interact with both Scavenger and Watchkeeper and at least dialogue with the Sentinel R1 ground element.

On land, with the COBRA artillery-locating radar having been prematurely required and with MAMBA being quite limited in its performances, priority must be accorded to purchase of the Common Weapon Locating Radar, in number of 12, by 2014 at the latest, as planned. The new radar (the very effective ARTHUR C from Saab) will replace fully the already-lost COBRA and the MAMBA.
The Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar, procured as UOR, should be confirmed in service in the longer period due to its effectiveness.

In summary, in the ISTAR domain, my SDSR would include the following indications:

- Continue development of Scavenger, with the aim of acquiring 20 systems from 2020 [Planned]
- Put into service the Common Ground Control Station
- Go ahead full strength with the Rivet Joint plan [Planned]
- Retain Sentinel R1, Shadow R1 and Reaper at least until Scavenger enters service and provides a real alternative to their peculiar capabilities. Reaper is easily replaced, the Shadow should be replaceable if an adequate SIGINT payload is developed for the Scavenger, while the wide-area surveillance offered by the Sentinel's radar might remain unmatched for a long time still. Retaining Sentinel even after Scavenger arrives is probably going to be the best approach. [planned?]
- Go ahead with the urgent purchase of mini-drones for the Royal Navy [planned]
- Bring the Army into the Royal Navy VTUAS effort, buy a squadron of machines for the AAC as ISTAR and cargo-hauler platforms, with a weapons capability possibly following. The VTUAS must at least match the MQ-8C capabilities to truly benefit the forces.  
-  Maintain the Desert Hawk III mini UAS in service as an interim solution; develop/select a VTOL mini UAS for long-term use in Infantry companies and Cavalry/Armor squadrons.  
- Create a capable, integrated, joint HQ, directed by the Army, in the form of the Surveillance and Intelligence brigade, to direct the collection of ISTAR and to process and redistribute the data to the forces. [planned?]
- Retain a credible B-ISTAR package of systems and experience, jointly operated by the Army and RAF Regiment, to include aerostats and/or Helikites, on which i urge more investment due to the extremely cost-effective benefits they offer.
- Go ahead with the purchase and fielding of the Common Weapon Locating Radar; bring into Core Budget the Lightweight Counter Mortar Radars.

I do not call for a revolution in this field: many of my proposals are already part of the strategy and, crucially, of the 10 Years budget. But i do deem indispensable to pour some more specific effort into things such as the VTUAS and lower-echelon ISTAR, at Battalion and, better still, at Company level. These improvements would, in my mind, absolutely be worth the use of money from the famous 8 unallocated billions in the 10 years budget.
I did not mention Watchkeeper and Sentry AWACS because i do not advocate any change in the current fleets and plans for these two machines. On at-sea AEW, i'll expand in a future article, but i'll anticipate that i deem a Merlin-based solution sufficient to meet the realistic UK's needs, so long as the AEW role is given to the 8 currently non-upgraded HM1 airframes. Loading the AEW role on the small fleet of HM2 currently envisaged would be too much of a compromise: there is no room for another demanding and rather unique role in a fleet of airframes and men that are already very hard worked.
My solution to Crowsnest is to remove the ASW kit from the 8 HM1 airframes, while exercising the option for their upgrade to HM2 standard (barring the ASW-specific updates), instead fitting these Merlins with the AEW suite that will prove most effective: either the proven, already-in-service Cerberus/Searchwater AEW or the new Lockheed Martin Vigilance podded solution.  
For a detailed review of Crowsnest current status, i suggest reading here

As for maritime patrol aircraft, i'm going to talk of this vital requirement in a future article. 


  1. Hi Gabriele, firstly just want to say, I am very much impressed with your blog, I read it frequently. I especially enjoy the images and photos you manage to collect and place upon here. Only now however have I finally got round to making a comment/post for the first time, guess that’s just me being lazy, but I enjoy the blog nonetheless. Whilst hardly calling myself an expert, I am more an avidly interested amateur; I was wondering if you could point out where to find the SDSR that you created a while ago. I believe I was able to find and go through it once before but I can no longer find it, it was good reading and I would like to refresh myself as to its contents. Any info would be much appreciated, and keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you for your comments, i'm glad you like my work. As to the article you ask about, i'd gladly help, but i'm not quite sure of what are you searching for. I don't think i ever really wrote an SDSR paper before this attempt i'm making now, but i did write several times about force structures and other SDSR-related topics. I don't know which one you are seeking.
      Anyway, i never remove anything from the blog, so if it was an article of mine, going back through the months will no doubt show the paper you seek.

  2. Gaby

    You say that the MAMBA radar is "quite limited in its performances." You further say that the new radar, (the ARTHUR C from Saab) is "very effective". I was under the impression that the MAMBA was developed from (based on) the ARTHUR. Perhaps the latest version of ARTHUR is much more advanced?

    I also wished to ask a question about 14 (EW) Regiment. Will the equipment they use be modular, do you feel, or mainly placed on one vehicle type, as the cancelled SOOTHSAYER was on the Supacat HMT vehicle? I was thinking of equipment such as the promised Landseeker (if that name is correct).

    1. The MAMBA is, i believe, an ARTHUR B radar. It works well, but its range of detection is relatively short. ARTHUR C is much more capable, while being almost as mobile on the battlefield. The B is not a proper replacement for the lost capability of the Cobra, while the C can arguably replace both Cobra and MAMBA and deliver more performance than both.

      As for 14 (EW) Regiment, as said in other articles there is a LANDSEEKER programme going on, to provide the new equipment that once was planned to arrive via Soothsayer.
      It is early to say what LANDSEEKER will be like in the larger, vehicle-mounted applications, but the Light element has been recently selected: it is the ROKE Resolve, already in service as SEER under UOR.
      Recently it was officially brought into Core, selected along with the military rugged TEMPEST laptops. The system is manpackable and works even on the move.

      A replacement for the larger, vehicle-mounted ODETTE and the replacement for the INCE non-comms ELINT system should follow, depending on how LANDSEEKER progresses.

      The ROKE Resolve fills the requirement that the Man Portable Element (MPE) of Soothsayer would have filled.
      LANDSEEKER will re-equip both 14 Regiment (EW) and Y Squadron (EW) in 30 IeX Commando.

  3. Gaby

    Many thanks for the prompt and detailed reply.

    One more question. Has the Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar (obtained under a UOR) actually been fitted to any British vehicles yet?

    1. I don't know for sure, but i'm pretty sure that it is only used in bases, on tripods. There are 34 or so, if i remember correctly, deployed part in Kandahar and most in Helmand, in FOBs.

  4. Gaby

    Thanks very much for the information.

  5. Gabriele,

    As always a great post. There is a theory doing the rounds at the moment that Scavenger may die to allow Sentinel to live with the at least one squadron of Reaper being brought into the core budget- possibly as a replacement for a GR4 squadron (facilitating the anticipated fall to 7 squadrons of fast jets) to provide a MALE hunter-killer capability.

    I am surprised you did not mention RAPTOR, it seemed to play a substantial role in Libya and contrary to the mythology the SNIPER XR packaged inside the F-35 can not provide the resolution that RAPTOR does. Whilst improving US EO satellites (to whose data the UK has access) will go some way to filling the gap the advantage of RAPTOR is its deployability and reaction times (though this is hindered by the inability to undertake analysis during flight), Reapers will also go some way to replicating this.

    1. Well, RAPTOR has a certain future on Tornado out to 2019, if the plan does not change. After that, it's hard to say if it will still be valid enough to justify integration on Typhoon (or perhaps F35, but it might be more complex due to software and other issues) or even onto Reaper/Scavenger. The acquisition of a new recce pod might be a better option by then.
      The RAPTOR was trialed on a Reaper the first time in 2005, so that is an option too, even if it might be best to keep employing the recce pod on fast jets for survivability in contested airspace.

      As for satellites, the UK has access to US data, but i really think that some domestic capability would be very, very good an investment.
      I covered some time ago the subject of the NOVASAR radar satellite effort, which is sponsored and partly funded by the UK government. Building a national capability in this area would surely be an helpful development. Besides, it would help the UK's space industry, which is one of very few sectors expanding and making money even in this difficult period.
      An opportunity for several good reasons!

    2. Consensus is that RAPTOR will vanish with the GR4 which will leave a gap in high resolution airborne imagery and that would be a real shame. I agree on the satellite front, unfortunately the UK had a bad experience the only time it tried its own recce (SIGINT) satellite: Zircon.

    3. The Reaper platform is actually getting very flexible, GA has proposed a longer (88ft versus 66ft) wing with external fuel pods and strengthened landing gear for a greater take-off and landing weight as an upgrade to existing airframes which would allow greatly enhanced endurance. On top of that SELEX, Cobham and GA have been working on the Sovereign Payload Capability Demonstration (SPCD) programme that has already seen the type fly with a Seaspray 7500E. In addition the DB110 pod (third generation now available and RAPTOR being family member with an earlier generation sensor) has also been flown on the type. With the type already in service the rebuild of the fleet to the proposed standard along with the SPCD and some Seasprays and recycled RAPTOR pods acquired seems like the perfect and lower cost alternative to the Anglo-French MALE.

    4. The Reaper has potential to be used well past 2020, but the impact on the UK defence and aerospace industry of abandoning the Telemos is going to be very serious.
      Unless the 2030 date for entry in service of an UCAV platform are advanced by many years, and the loss of Scavenger/Telemos is compensed by much increased activity on the UCAV front.

      This is my opinion, at least.

    5. I just don't see how Telemos, at best likely to be a handful of airframes, is really going to do anything for the UK aerospace industry.

    6. It is going to be the only thing in production and with export potential for years, and keep expertise alive when Typhoon work ends, in 2017 if there are no further export successes.
      As for "an handful", Nimrod MRA4 was an handful, literally, as it was down to just 9 in the end.
      Yet it was so important, for industry as well as for the military use. Its loss has not been without consequence.

    7. Indeed, but Telemos is not big enough to fill the gap and Nimrod MRA4 was a catastrophe- at least it started at 24 airframes.

    8. To fill the gap in industrial capability left by Nimrod, no. But it should be more than large enough to keep the rest going.
      At one point the MOD was thinking about 20+10 drones, and France (which is however rewriting its defence strategy) was thinking to get as many as 60 MALEs.

      At this stage, you don't want to burn Telemos off, i say.


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