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Militaries developing Lethal, extremely maneuverable, Autonomous and stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV)

An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone or drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that usually carries aircraft ordnance such as missiles. Aircraft of this type have no onboard human pilot. These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy. While several nations possess and manufacture unarmed UAV, only the United States, Israel, Italy, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey are at present known to have manufactured operational UCAV as of December 2015.

The  MQ-1 Predator and its larger  cousin, MQ-9 Reaper, dual intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance-strike platforms have been highly successful against non-state actors as part of the counterterrorism fight. However, these slow-moving and relatively low-flying aircraft make them susceptible to advanced anti-aircraft batteries and radars employed by near-peer competitors in what are described as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments.

Russia is known to operate some of the most sophisticated enemy air defenses in the world. Russian-built air defenses, such as the S-300 and S-400, are now better networked to one another, have faster processing speeds and are able to detect fighter aircraft on a wider range of frequencies, making it much more difficult for even stealthy fighters and bombers to operate.  Countries are now developing next generation of UCAVs that can operate in  anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments.

Future Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) would be large, comparable in size to fighters, combat capable, stealthy and highly sophisticated systems designed to be deep penetrating and stealthy strike aircrafts. In addition, they will be highly agile and supersonic, armed (aircraft ordnance) such as missiles, but with limited persistence. Carrier based advanced UCAVs of this type have also been proposed in the US.

UCAV Roles and Missions

The UCAV concept covers a wide range of systems with many different characteristics. Michael Franklin was until recently a researcher in the Military Sciences Department of the Royal United Services Institute UCAVs, classifies them into three types.

Armed Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

UAVs like General Atomics Predator and Reaper, both of which have been used during the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are primarily used in ISR roles, but are armed to provide lethal effects if required.

Large, advanced, stealthy UCAVs

These UCAVs are highly sophisticated systems that are designed to be deep-penetrating and stealthy strike aircraft. They can be used to perform long-range bombing campaigns against fixed ground targets and for the suppression or destruction of air defence assets especially those against heavily defended targets. SEAD missions, such as destroying enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites,  requires searching for targets and then acquiring and engaging once they are detected.

In the long-term, they could be used to gain control of the airspace. These systems will be operating in very hostile environments in the quest for Air Superiority and Air Supremacy. They would be required to conduct air-to-air engagements from long-range and also at close quarters. Examples of this type of system include the UK Taranis demonstrator programme, the now-terminated US Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) programme and the European nEUROn programme.

A carrier-based version of this type of UCAV could be used to increase naval reach, conducting sea-based surveillance, naval strike and the suppression of enemy air defence missions. However, UCAVs have not yet demonstrated high decision-making skills and situational awareness of a human pilot, hence being employed for air-to-air combat against other aircraft is still far off.

Small, agile, expendable UCAVs

Small, agile, expendable UCAVs, with airframes similar to large, long-range cruise missiles, are potentially a third type of UCAV. They would be much smaller than other UCAVs, and so would be hard to detect and, unlike a cruise missile, they would be reusable. These UCAVs would be suitable for penetrating air defence systems and could deliver small weapons from close range against an array of ground targets. If such a system could be developed at low cost, they could operate in extremely hostile environments as they would be expendable.

An example of this type of UCAV is the Lockheed Martin Minion concept. The proposed system is a cruise missile like, air-launched unmanned aircraft, which is able to carry a payload of four precision-guided small diameter bombs or, as an alternative, an electronic attack payload. Engagements would be controlled from the launch aircraft, before the Minion returns to a forward operating base, landing using
its own retractable landing gear. The aircraft is estimated to cost substantially less than a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).


Extremely Maneuverable

Since UCAVs do not need to carry equipment necessary for a human pilot (such as the cockpit, armor, ejection seat, flight controls, and environmental controls for pressure and oxygen), they have lower weight and size than a manned aircraft, they can be designed to be extremely maneuverable, and stealthier. Their extreme maneuverability will allow them to make very high g moves and even evade missiles. However, because being typically smaller than manned, they are not able to carry much fuel and are typically tailored to specific kinds of missions and not as versatile as a modern multi-role fighter.


Highly Autonomous

These drones are designed to be more autonomous to enhance their survivability. Unlike current military drones such as the General Atomics Reaper, which are generally flown by ground based “pilots,” the new model would have the autonomy to reach its own operational decisions and would contact ground personnel only to initiate attacks, Martin RoweWillcocks, BAE’s head of business development for future combat air systems, said in a briefing at the company’s Warton plant in northwest England. BAE Systems Plc lifted the veil on plans for the world’s first combat drones, saying it’s working toward a scenario in which the unmanned warplanes will fight alongside piloted aircraft rather than instead of them.

The processing speeds of computers and algorithms aimed at increasing autonomous activities have continued to evolve at an alarming rate, creating a fast-moving circumstance wherein drones will increasingly take on more and more functions by themselves, Air Force Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias told Scout Warrior in an interview. Computer algorithms will enable drones to conduct a much wider range of functions without needing human intervention, such as sensing, targeting, weapons adjustments and sensor payload movements, ranges and capabilities, he added.


Weapons Technologies

Armed ISR UAVs will be operating in relatively benign environments in which a state of air superiority has been achieved. They will be able to approach targets at close range and so will employ low-cost and simple guided munitions. The payload capacity of current armed ISR UAVs is also much lower than manned aircraft. Small, lightweight,  precision missiles, including Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles, Raytheon Paveway Laser Guided Bombs and Boeing JDAMs, have been successfully integrated on to armed ISR UAVs. The power available is also less, hence small size, weight and low cost Jamming units have been developed. The US Hunter joint tactical unmanned aerial system is an example of an operational UAV that can conduct electronic attack missions.

Large, advanced, stealthy UCAVs shall have higher payload capacities than armed ISR UAVs and shall carry conventional air-to-ground cruise missiles in their internal weapon bays to improve the stealth characteristics of the airframe.They will be very high-value assets, and so will stand off to ensure survivability and will require more complex stand-off weaponry. Conventional air-to-ground cruise missiles for UCAVs may be superseded by smaller missiles that are classed as micro-munitions.

The development of micro-munitions is dependent on the advancement of Microelectromechanical System (MEMS) and Nano Electro-Mechanical System (NEMS) technologies. Micro munitons shall also be useful for armed ISR and small expandable UCAVs.

In the future UCAVs shall  deploy Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), which could be used for both the attack of ground targets and self protection. One of the  potential DEW technology for the future is high-power microwave (HPM) weapons. A HPM weapon generates continuous or pulse microwave beams that could be directed at a target potentially turning any unhardened electronics into molten silicon.

Electromagnetic bombs, or E-bombs, may be used to destroy the electronics of its target – a radar system, GPS system, radio system or a computer. At an appropriate range from the target, a short and powerful burst of electromagnetic pulses (usually in the microwave range) is released. Small E-bombs delivered in a projectile, similar to a conventional cruise missile can be used in all classes of UCAV to deliver extremely localised effects.  The main advantage of these systems is that the duration of the pulse is so short that they are potentially non-lethal; an attack could spare human lives and leave buildings undamaged. As such, E-bombs are ideal for use in urban environments, where the level of collateral damage is critical. Electromagnetic warheads could be integrated into missile suites similar to GAMs (GPS Aided Munitions) and JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions).

A second future DEW technology for UCAVs is high-energy laser weapons. DARPA’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems. The project goal is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system with maximum weight of 750 kg (1,650 lb) and maximum envelope of 3 cubic meters (70.6 cubic feet).

According to The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), enemy threats to aircraft, both manned and unmanned, have grown increasingly sophisticated and necessitate a powerful response. HELLADS could be the answer, with lasers to counter multiple threats with the power and the speed of light. In addition to defense purposes, combat lasers could also be of great help in offensive missions, as they would allow for precise targeting while minimizing the extent of collateral damage.

Finally, in the long-term, UCAVs may be used to gain control of the airspace and so will require weapons for air to- air engagements. In this role UCAVs will be acting as unmanned fighter aircraft operating in hostile environments. These aircraft will be very high performance systems, operating with high speed, agility and a high degree of  autonomy. They would be required to conduct air-to-air engagements from long range and also at close quarters. Examples of Air Superiority and Air Supremacy weapons that are being integrated into today’s advanced manned fighter aircraft are MBDA’s ASRAAM and Meteor. It is possible to envisage that similar weapons could be integrated into advanced UCAVs in the long-term.


Militaries around the world are pursuing UCAV R&D programs

France begins Naval testing of Neuron UCAV 

Europe’s nEUROn unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator was presented in flight in June 2016 at an air meet at Istres organized by the French Air Force. It is the first time in world aeronautical history that a stealth aircraft controlled from the ground has flown in public. Dassault Aviation conducted a formation flight of the nEUROn UCAV with a Rafale fighter and a Falcon 7X business jet in March 2014, marking the world’s first operation in which a combat drone flew in formation with other aircraft.

The Dassault nEUROn is an experimental Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) developed with international cooperation, led by the French company Dassault Aviation. Countries involved in this project include France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden & Switzerland. The design goal is to create a stealthy, autonomous UAV that can function in medium to high-threat combat zones. The operational UCAV is expected to be a larger design than the nEUROn demonstrator.

The UCAV is developed by an industrial team led by Dassault Aviation with the collaboration of Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi, Saab, Airbus Defence and Space, RUAG and HAI. nEUROn is expected to be larger and more advanced than other proven UAV systems like the MQ-1 Predator. It would be able to launch precision-guided munitions from an internal weapons bay, and perform an air-to-ground mission in a network centric warfare.

The air vehicle fuselage length and the wingspan are approximately 10m. The empty weight of the air vehicle is around 4,500kg and with a full payload the weight will be about 6,000kg. The air vehicle has tricycle-type landing gear for runway take-off and landing. The French maker states the nEUROn’s Adour engine (tuned from the SEPECAT Jaguar) will be replaced in the production version by a more powerful, specific, engine based on Snecma’s M88 from the Dassault Rafale.

nEUROn will have the capability to carry two laser guided 250kg (550lb) bombs in two weapon bays. The air vehicle is expected to have an endurance of several hours and high subsonic speed i.e. a maximum speed of Mach 0.7 to Mach 0.8. The unmanned nEUROn is controlled from ground-based stations and from control stations in combat aircraft such as the French Rafale or the Swedish Gripen.

The demonstrator made its first flight at Istres on December 1, 2012. The test schedule was completed in September 2015 with the 123rd flight. An additional series of tests was launched by the DGA in May 2016 to study the use of an unmanned combat air vehicle in a naval context.


BAE Taranis model, one of the largest design concepts

The British completed what was thought to be the third and last series of test flights from a site at Woomera, Australia, in the autumn of 2015. “Analyses from the third phase of flight trials is still going on. What we plan to do beyond that will be a subject for discussion once the analysis phase is completed,” said Martin Rowe-Willcocks, the head of future programs at BAE’s Military Air and Information business. An industry team led by BAE Systems completed two phases of trial flights at Woomera, Australia, between August 2013 and January 2014.

Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, was built by a BAE-led consortium in a £200 million (US $291 million) program primarily meant to test British unmanned air combat vehicle controls and low observable technology. Taranis is a British demonstrator programme for unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technology. BAE describes Taranis’s role in this context as following: “This £124m four year programme is part of the UK Government’s Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle Experiment (SUAVE) and will result in a UCAV demonstrator with fully integrated autonomous systems and low observable features.”

The 9 meters wide by and 4 meters high Taranis demonstrator will have an MTOW (Maximum Takeoff Weight) of about 8000 kilograms and be of comparable size to the BAE Hawk – making it one of the world’s largest UAVs. It will be stealthy, fast, and able to deploy a range of munitions over a number of targets, as well as being capable of defending itself against manned and other unmanned enemy aircraft. The demonstrator will have two internal weapons bays. BAE, GE Aviation, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Selex are among the companies behind development of the 8-ton vehicle, which is similar in size to the Hawk trainer jet. 

US’s  Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles

Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration (LCASD)

The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded target drone builder Kratos a contract to execute what it calls a Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration (LCASD). This proof-of-concept initiative is centered on creating a (relatively) cheap unmanned combat aircraft that the USAF can afford to lose in combat, even opting to do so willingly by sending it on a one-way mission if need be. Alternatively, if the vehicle had the range to return to friendly territory, it could be repeatedly recovered and launched again on other missions, even from small bases without runways. The contract’s total value is $40.8 million, with Air Force contribution  is only up around $7 million,

Here is exactly what the AFRL wants out of this demonstration phase:

The LCASD system KUSD will provide a configurable design for multiple variants, anticipated to perform various missions that could require Nap-of-The-Earth (NOE) Flight, Cruising at High Altitudes, Defensive Counter Air (DCA) Maneuvers, Offensive Counter Air (OCA) Maneuvers, the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), and the Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD). Additionally, the System will also incorporate performance capability including extreme agility for missile avoidance maneuvers to improve survivability.

The Kratos LCASD design will meet, or in certain cases significantly exceed, the following stated Air Force goals for the program:

  • UAS Acquisition Cost: $3 million or less for the first unit up to 99 units, and $2 million or less for 100-or-greater unit quantity purchases.
  • 1,500 nautical mile mission radius with a 500 lb. payload.
  • Capable of Mach 0.9 Dash.
  • Maximum G load limits, maneuver rates, and subsystem environmental suitability.
  • Internal weapons capability; sized to carry and deliver at least two GBU-39 small diameter bombs.
  • Runway Independent Take-off and Landing capability.
  • Emphasis on the use of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) materials, sub-systems, manufacturing processes, and open mission system architecture concepts.
  • Tactical consideration of the vehicle shape, elimination of gaps and mismatches, and aero-structural inlet integration.


 US’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) programme

The Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) programme began being managed by DARPA, but was handed over to a joint US Navy and Air Force office in October 2005. The two principle systems being developed under the first phase of the programme, the Spiral 0 phase, are the Boeing X-45 and the Northrop Grumman X-47.


X-45 J-UCAV (Joint Unmanned Combat Air System)

Boeing has unveiled its Phantom Ray, a fighter-sized unmanned combat air vehicle which first flew in 2011. The aircraft has a 50-foot wingspan, can climb to 40,000 feet and reach speeds of Mach .85. The Boeing joint unmanned combat air system X-45 is an unmanned combat air vehicle being developed for strike missions such as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD), electronic warfare and associated operations.

Built and wholly financed by Boeing as a future technology test bed and demonstrator, it is a stealthy, 50ft flying-wing design, which is said to be able to carry 4,500lbs of payload to a ceiling of 40,000ft and at speeds of up to 534kn.

In March 2004, the X-45A completed a ten-day schedule of test flights including dropping a 250lb inert Small Smart Bomb (SSB) at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California. In August 2004, the first test of multi-vehicle operations took place. Two X-45A demonstrators were controlled by a single operator / pilot. X-45A flight tests were successfully concluded in August 2005.


US Navy’s X-47B

The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) designed for aircraft carrier-based operations. The X-47B is a tailless jet-powered blended-wing-body aircraft capable of semi-autonomous operation and aerial refueling.

With a gross takeoff weight of 44,000lbs, a payload of 4,500lbs and capable of flying at altitudes of up to 40,000 feet at high subsonic speeds for six hours, hybrid wing-bodied X-47B is the size of a strike fighter and has a range of some 2100nm without refuelling.

UCAVs also don’t need to worry about pilot fatigue as operators work in shifts and are easily substituted, meaning mission lengths can be extended to up to 50 hours. By comparison, fighter jets need to return to base, undergo maintenance and change pilots before they can take off again.

The aircraft is highly autonomous, can fly a pre-programmed mission under computer control and then returning to base at the mouse-click of its operator, who monitors its operation but does not actively directly pilot it.

The UCAV conducted its maiden flight in 2011 before completing ground tests and commencing test flights in 2013. In-flight refueling tests began at the start of 2015. In August 2014, the US Navy announced that it had integrated the X-47B into carrier operations alongside manned aircraft.

UCAVs can also carry a wide range of ammunition, including the MK-84, GBU-31, BLU-109, MK-83, MK-82, GBU-32, GBU-103, GBU-104, GBU-105, AGM-114, AGM-65E, CBU-99, GBU-12, MK-82, MK-46/50/54, and so forth, making them extremely versatile and capable of carrying out missions over both sea and land as well as engaging in aerial combat. Importantly, the X-47B would allow US aircraft carriers to maintain a distance of more than 500 nautical miles off the coast of mainland China in an assault

Northrop Grumman intends to develop the prototype X-47B into a battlefield-ready aircraft, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which will enter service in the 2020s



According to the United States Defense Department’s latest report on China’s military build-up, China is poised to become the world leader in unmanned military aircraft with up to 42,000 pilotless aircraft aloft by 2023. These will include fixed wing and rotary aircraft to conduct surveillance, attack and even air combat missions.

AVIC 601-S is a series of Chinese low-observable flying wing UAVs jointly developed by Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (SYADI) of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Shenyang Aerospace University

In 2013 China revealed that it was developing four new types of UAVs including the Yilong and Lijian which look very similar to US built aircraft such as the General Atomics Reaper and the Northrop Grumman X-47B carrier based Unmanned Air Combat Vehicle (UCAV).

The Lijian, also known as “sharp sword”, is a stealthy flying wing design that first flew in November 2013 and is very similar to the X-47B that has been operated from a US aircraft carrier. The Sharp Sword is jet-powered and has a wingspan of 14 meters. It’s not yet known the precise mission Sharp Sword is assigned, but possible missions would including reconnaissance and eventually combat missions.


 China  developed part Missile and Part UCAV

Jane’s sources have shed new light on a hitherto unseen anti-ship weapon/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-like system – centred around a wing-in-ground-effect optimised airframe – that was initially circulated on Chinese internet discussion forums around May 2017 in a Mandarin language brochure with a redacted product designation.

Developed by defence prime China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s (CASC’s) China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) subsidiary, the system has been given the product designation of CH-T1, although it is understood that the company prefers to identify it as the Ground Effect UAV (GEUAV) demonstrator.

The forward segment of the 5.8 m long GEUAV demonstrator is shaped like a conventional missile, with a cylindrical fuselage capped by an ogival nosecone where the radar seeker is located. Towards the rear is an unconventionally designed main body featuring two thick, long chord but short-span stubby wing structures running along the sides of its belly that combine to form a continuous wing-like undersurface. Two small outer wings can be found at the front of the main stub wings, along with upwards cranked V-tailfins at the rear that have an overall span of 3.8 m.

The air vehicle has a specified maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 3,000 kg – although the prototype weighed significantly less during trials as it only carried partial payloads and fuel loads – and achieves take-off via rocket assisted catapult launch. It can be powered by either a turbojet or turbofan engine, which enables it to travel at a maximum speed of Mach 0.65 (802 km/h) while cruising at terrain hugging altitudes of 1–6 m. The engine draws its air from an intake located on top of its main body to avoid ingesting sea spray during low level flight overwater.

Russia’s MIG Skat Stealth UCAV Prototype

Russian military aircraft maker MiG said in May 20115, it was ready to go ahead with a research and development project for an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) based on its Skat prototype, after signing a deal with the Trade and Industry Ministry earlier that month.

SKAT is a low-observable, subsonic craft meant to carry weapons in two ventral weapons bays large enough for missiles such as the Kh-31, powered by a single Klimov RD-5000B turbofan engine, a variant of the RD-93. It has an 11.5 meter (37.7 ft) wingspan, and is 10.25 meters (33.6 ft) long.

The single-engine subsonic design has a maximum thrust of 49,4 kN. So that the Skat is able to reach a top speed of 800 km/h with a maximum take-off weight of 10 tons, at altitude. The Skat is expected to have a service ceiling of 12,000 m and a range of 4000 km.

The Skat will be able to carry 2 tons of armament in two internal weapon bays. It should be equipped with Air-to-Surface missiles, Glide bombs, Cruise missiles and anti-radiation missiles. Possible roles include the suppression and attack of enemy air defenses.

United Aircraft Corporation’s president Mikhail Pogosyan revealed plans to produce a prototype of a 20-tonne UCAV by 2018. Pogosyan also revealed that this prototype will be based on the Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter.


India’s AURA unmanned combat air vehicle being developed by DRDO

AURA is an autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. The Main role of AURA is to deploy as Unmanned Stealth Bomber. The AURO is UCAV with long range and have properties of ‘Stealth’ which makes it almost undetectable on defence radars.

The UCAV’s design is similar to the American Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit bomber. IT is capable of flying at the altitude of 30,000 feet and has a range of 300+ km.  The whole of the AURA is made by composite materials and weigh less than 15 tonnes. The DRDO is going to use a Kaveri engine to power this unmanned vehicle.

The AURA is mainly deploy for the various military missions which includes Deep penetration strike, Suppression of enemy air defences, strategic reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

Unlike other UCAVs which only armed with missiles, The AURA can be capable of releasing missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions. It will act as the ultimate ‘force multiplier’ and ‘game changer’ in any battle scenario of the future.

The Project cost is estimated to $1.5 billion ( Rs 8,250 crore).


Israel’s Harop

The IAI Harop (or IAI Harpy 2) is a disposable attack unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) developed by the MBT division of Israel Aerospace Industries which is part UAV and part missile. Rather than holding a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone itself is the main munition. This SEAD-optimised UCAV is designed to loiter the battlefield, hunt critical targets and attack targets by self-destructing into them.

Harop is 8 feet, 2 inches long with a wingspan of 9 feet, 10 inches. The range is said to be in the 1000 km range or upto 1000 km range and upto six hours of flight time. The aircraft is lauched from a prepared container and extends its outboard wing sections upon launch.

The Harop features two guidance modes: it can either home in on radio emissions by itself with its anti-radar homing system, or the operator can select static or moving targets detected by the aircraft’s electro-optical sensor. This latter mode allows the Harop to attack radars that are presently shut down and therefore not providing emissions for the aircraft to automatically home in on. Harop has been exported to a handful of Asian countries.

The head of Israel Aerospace Industries’ military aircraft division believes its future profits reside in the market for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). Future combat UAVs should be fast and carry a lot of weapons, and they may even be like flying bomb trucks that operate alongside manned aircraft. “This is one of the configurations you’re looking at,” Shahar says. “Not every UCAV will be an F-35 without the pilot.”


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