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The Evolution of Cruise Missiles: From Precision Strikes to Hypersonic, AI-Enabled Powerhouses

Introduction:

In recent years, the landscape of military technology has been undergoing a rapid transformation, with cruise missiles emerging as one of the most formidable and versatile weapons in modern warfare. Once confined to relatively short ranges and limited capabilities, cruise missiles have evolved into long-range, hypersonic, nuclear-powered, and AI-enabled weapons capable of performing evasive maneuvers and hitting moving targets with unparalleled precision. This evolution marks a significant paradigm shift in the realm of missile technology and has profound implications for global security and defense strategies. Let’s delve deeper into this paradigm shift in missile technology and its implications for modern warfare.

Cruise Missiles:

Cruise missile is any weapon which automatically flies an essentially horizontal cruise flight profile for most of the duration of its flight between launch and its terminal trajectory to impact.

A Game-Changer in Warfare Originally designed for precision strikes within limited operational ranges, cruise missiles have become synonymous with their ability to fly at low altitudes, making them difficult to detect and intercept. This characteristic has provided significant stand-off range, allowing delivery platforms to stay out of the reach of most air defense systems.

Cruise missiles, specifically anti-ship missiles (AShMs), are guided projectiles designed for naval warfare, targeting ships and large boats. They commonly employ sea-skimming techniques and utilize various guidance systems, including inertial, radar, infrared, and radio command guidance. These missiles are categorized based on their tactical or strategic roles, as well as by their warhead type, which can be nuclear or conventional. Additionally, there’s a distinction between Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) and Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs), although modern developments like the SLAM/Block II Harpoon have blurred this boundary.

The drawback in all cruise missiles has always been economic – the fraction of warhead weight to total weapon weight has typically been less than 50%, while the cost of these weapons has been of the order of 50 times or greater than guided bombs. Complex guidance and propulsion systems have been the main cost drivers. Each Tomahawk unit cost about  $1.7 million apiece. Cruise missiles are being improved in many ways: they are made more intelligent or AI based,more long ranged and  they are becoming hypersonic like Russian and Indian Brahmos, in addition they are also becoming nuclear powered.

Shift in Focus:

Rising Tensions and Naval Warfare Following the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Global War on Terror, the focus on anti-ship missile development waned. However, with rising tensions with China and Russia, naval warfare has regained prominence. Nations are now investing in the development of new anti-ship cruise missiles to ensure sea control or deny access to adversaries in regions like the South China Sea.

Technological Advancements:

Recent years have seen significant advancements in cruise missile technology. These include increased range, hypersonic speed, and AI-enabled guidance systems. The ability to travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers at hypersonic speeds while autonomously navigating and evading enemy defenses marks a new era in missile capabilities.

Long-Range Capabilities:

Traditionally, cruise missiles were designed for relatively short ranges, making them suitable for precision strikes within a limited operational radius. However, recent advancements in propulsion systems and aerodynamics have enabled the development of cruise missiles with significantly extended ranges. These long-range missiles can now travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, allowing for strategic strikes against distant targets with unprecedented reach and accuracy.

Hypersonic Speed:

One of the most notable advancements in cruise missile technology is the development of hypersonic capabilities. Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, making them extremely difficult to intercept and providing a significant tactical advantage on the battlefield. These high speeds enable cruise missiles to reach their targets in a fraction of the time compared to conventional missiles, reducing the risk of detection and maximizing the element of surprise.

Nuclear-Powered Cruise Missiles:

The Next Frontier The pursuit of nuclear-powered cruise missiles represents a significant leap in missile propulsion technology. By harnessing nuclear energy, these missiles offer virtually unlimited range and endurance, presenting new challenges and opportunities in strategic warfare. However, concerns about safety and proliferation have sparked debates over their development and deployment.

AI-Enabled Precision:

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) have revolutionized the guidance and targeting systems of cruise missiles, enabling them to autonomously identify and engage high-value targets with pinpoint accuracy. AI algorithms analyze real-time data from various sensors to assess the battlefield environment, identify potential threats, and execute evasive maneuvers to evade enemy defenses. This level of autonomy enhances the effectiveness of cruise missiles in complex and dynamic combat scenarios, making them invaluable assets for modern military operations.

Evasive Maneuvers and Targeting:

Modern cruise missiles are equipped with advanced maneuvering capabilities that allow them to evade enemy defenses and navigate through hostile environments with agility and precision. These missiles can perform evasive maneuvers such as sudden changes in direction, altitude adjustments, and terrain following to avoid interception and ensure mission success. Furthermore, AI-enabled targeting systems enable cruise missiles to track and engage moving targets in real-time, enhancing their lethality and versatility on the battlefield.

Recent Developments and Strategic Implications

Recent tests of ground-based cruise missiles by the United States and the unveiling of nuclear-powered cruise missiles by Russia underscore the ongoing arms race and geopolitical tensions. The ability to strike targets with precision, evade defenses, and deliver devastating payloads poses significant challenges for global security and stability.

These advancements could rewrite the rules of warfare:

  • Reduced Warning Time: Hypersonic speeds leave little time for decision-making, increasing the risk of miscalculation and accidental nuclear war.
  • Unprecedented Destructive Power: Nuclear-powered missiles could potentially carry larger warheads or deploy multiple smaller ones, amplifying their destructive potential.
  • Erosion of Deterrence: AI-powered missiles with independent targeting capabilities could complicate deterrence strategies and raise the risk of unintended escalation.

Employment of Russian Cruise Missiles in the Ukraine Conflict: A Devastating Reality

Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, Russia has heavily relied on cruise missiles as a key weapon in its arsenal, launching them from land, air, and sea platforms to devastating effect. These highly advanced missiles have been instrumental in inflicting significant damage on Ukrainian infrastructure, military targets, and tragically, civilian populations. As the conflict unfolded, Russia’s initial wave of destruction targeted critical Ukrainian infrastructure such as airports, military bases, communication hubs, and energy facilities. These precision strikes aimed to cripple Ukraine’s defenses, disrupt communication networks, and sow panic among the population, showcasing the formidable capabilities of Russian cruise missiles in modern warfare.

However, as the conflict progressed and faced with staunch Ukrainian resistance, Russia adjusted its tactics, shifting focus to attacking logistical hubs, supply depots, and troop concentrations in eastern Ukraine. Despite this shift, cruise missiles continued to play a prominent role in offensive operations, albeit with potentially decreased accuracy and effectiveness due to heightened Ukrainian defenses and countermeasures. One of the most concerning aspects of Russia’s cruise missile use has been the high civilian casualty rate, with indiscriminate attacks hitting residential areas, hospitals, and schools, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Such actions have drawn widespread condemnation from the international community and raised serious concerns about potential war crimes, highlighting the urgent need for greater accountability and adherence to international humanitarian law in armed conflicts.

Implications for Global Security:

The evolution of cruise missiles into long-range, hypersonic, nuclear-powered, and AI-enabled weapons poses significant challenges and opportunities for global security. While these advancements enhance the offensive capabilities of military forces, they also raise concerns about the proliferation of advanced missile technology and the potential for destabilizing arms races. Moreover, the ability of cruise missiles to deliver precision strikes with minimal collateral damage underscores the importance of international efforts to regulate their proliferation and use in accordance with humanitarian law.

Case Studies:

Among the notable cruise missiles are the UGM/RGM-109 Tomahawk/TLAM used by the US Navy and the AGM-86 ALCM/CALCM deployed by the US Air Force. ASCMs, which dominate deployment, typically possess ranges spanning tens of nautical miles, carry warheads around 100 kg in size, and operate at subsonic speeds. Common examples include the Exocet, Harpoon, Kh-35U, and YJ-8 families. Conversely, heavier ASCMs like the Russian Styx family, the supersonic Kh-22M Burya, the ramjet-powered Kh-41 Sunburn, and the Yakhont/Brahmos highlight the higher end of the spectrum in terms of range, speed, and payload capacity.

In recent years, there have been notable advancements and tests in cruise missile technology by major global powers. For instance, in August 2019, the United States conducted a test of a new ground-based cruise missile capable of covering a range of 500 kilometers, shortly after withdrawing from an arms treaty that prohibited such systems. The successful test, conducted at San Nicolas Island, California, demonstrated the missile’s precision and effectiveness, with data collected informing future development efforts.

Meanwhile, Russia has also showcased advancements in cruise missile technology, notably unveiling a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile named the 9M730 Burevestnik (Skyfall), capable of indefinite flight and striking targets anywhere on the earth’s surface. However, a subsequent incident in August 2019, where Russia’s experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile exploded, resulting in fatalities and a radiological incident, underscored the risks associated with such advanced weaponry.

Similarly, the United States has a history of experimenting with nuclear-powered missiles, with past projects dating back to the 1960s, showcasing the ongoing pursuit of cutting-edge military technology in an ever-evolving geopolitical landscape. From precision strikes against stationary targets to engaging moving vessels at sea, these missiles demonstrate the diverse applications and evolving nature of modern warfare.

USA: Spearheading Innovation

The United States remains a leader in cruise missile technology, constantly upgrading its arsenal. Notable examples include:

Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM): Designed to pierce through enemy defenses and strike ships at long distances, this missile boasts stealthy design and advanced targeting capabilities.

The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) emerges as a formidable contender poised to supplant its predecessors, notably the Harpoon, in maritime warfare. Developed as a derivative of the U.S. Air Force’s JASSM-ER cruise missile by Lockheed Martin, LRASM inherits the stealthy and jam-resistant design features of its predecessor, offering enhanced capabilities for naval operations. With a range mirroring the JASSM-ER’s estimated 500 miles, LRASM significantly extends the engagement radius of U.S. Navy air and ship platforms, empowering them to strike adversaries from extended distances with precision.

One of LRASM’s key advantages lies in its versatility and compatibility with diverse naval platforms, including the Mk. 41 vertical launch system silos found on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Burke destroyers, as well as the Mk. 57 silos deployed on the cutting-edge Zumwalt-class destroyers. This adaptability enables individual ships to carry a substantially larger inventory of anti-ship missiles compared to previous systems, amplifying their offensive capabilities against maritime threats. However, this expanded missile loadout necessitates strategic considerations regarding the allocation of resources, as it may impact the availability of other critical munitions within a ship’s arsenal, such as surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine rockets.

Tomahawk Block V: The latest iteration of the iconic Tomahawk, it features improved range, precision, and modularity, allowing for a wider range of warhead options.

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) stands as a pinnacle of precision weaponry within the American arsenal, recognized for its versatility, accuracy, and long-range capabilities. With a length of approximately 21 feet and a weight of 1.5 tons, the TLAM can be deployed from both traditional torpedo tubes and vertical launch tubes on modern submarines, enhancing its adaptability for various naval operations. Once airborne, the TLAM’s turbojet engine propels it to speeds of up to 500 miles per hour, while its sophisticated guidance system ensures precise targeting through a combination of GPS, TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching), and DSMAC (Digital Scene-Matching Area Correlator) technologies.

Central to the Tomahawk’s effectiveness is its intricate guidance system, which relies on discernible terrain features known as waypoints to maintain course accuracy. Operating at low altitudes, typically 30-50 meters above ground, the missile utilizes electro-optical systems to navigate, climbing briefly to 100 meters for optimal target acquisition before descending again. With a circular error probable (CEP) within 10 meters on average, the TLAM’s satnav capability enhances accuracy to within 10 centimeters, crucial for engaging point targets like ICBM silos. Notably, the missile’s trajectory incorporates evasive maneuvers, circumventing direct routes to minimize interception risks, as emphasized by retired US Army Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks.

Beyond its precision targeting capabilities, the Tomahawk exhibits adaptability through specialized variants, including cluster munition-carrying models designed to inflict fragmentation and incendiary damage on designated targets. Recent advancements, such as successful tests against moving maritime targets in 2015, highlight the missile’s evolving capabilities. Equipped with long-range communications and potential autonomous targeting through advanced seekers, the Tomahawk continues to extend its reach, demonstrating unparalleled effectiveness in engaging both fixed and mobile threats on land and at sea.

The Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST) cruise missile represents a significant evolution of the Tomahawk munition, a cornerstone of the US Navy’s arsenal since the 1980s. While the Tomahawk has undergone numerous upgrades over the years, the introduction of the MST variant signifies a dedicated effort to enhance its anti-surface capabilities. Initially conceived through an acquisition strategy outlined by the US Navy in 2017, the MST variant aimed to transform the Tactical Land Attack Missile (TLAM) Block IV into a formidable anti-ship weapon, with aspirations for initial operational capability by FY2022.

Manufactured by RTX (formerly Raytheon), the Tomahawk Block V series, introduced from 2020 onward, encompasses various improvements aimed at extending the missile’s service life and enhancing its combat effectiveness. The Block V series includes upgraded navigation and communication systems, the ability to strike moving targets at sea (Block Va), and the MST variant, tailored specifically for maritime strike operations. Additionally, the Block Vb variant boasts a joint multi-effects warhead, expanding its versatility to engage a broader range of land targets compared to standard versions.

Hypersonic Air-breathing Missile (HAWK): Still in development, HAWK promises hypersonic speeds (Mach 5+) and extended range, potentially revolutionizing strike capabilities.

Russia: Powerhouse of Destructive Force

Russia isn’t sitting idle either. Their cruise missile development focuses on raw power and range:

The Club missile system, utilized by the Russian Navy, comprises a versatile family of weapons sharing a common airframe. Primarily recognized for its anti-ship variant, the 3M-54E1, Club encompasses variants tailored for land attack and anti-submarine warfare, extending its operational utility across diverse missions. Notably, Club systems have found their way into the arsenals of several nations, including Algeria, China, and India, underlining their appeal in the global arms market.

Comprising four distinct versions, Club’s adaptability is evident in its deployment mechanisms, ranging from submarine-launched (Club-S) to surface vessel (Club-N), land-based (Club M), and even container-based launch platforms (Club K). The missile’s propulsion system features a solid-fueled first stage, facilitating a swift departure from launch platforms before transitioning to a turbofan-powered cruise phase. Enhanced targeting capabilities define the 3M-54E1 variant, incorporating active radar seekers, GLONASS positioning, and internal navigation systems to ensure precision strikes against naval targets. With a formidable warhead weighing 881 pounds, the 3M-54E1 cruises at 0.8 Mach, skimming the surface at altitudes of 10-15 meters, while select versions achieve supersonic speeds of 2.9 Mach during the terminal phase, minimizing reaction time against enemy defenses. The missile’s maximum range, capped at 300 kilometers, adheres to international nonproliferation agreements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, underscoring Russia’s commitment to responsible arms control measures.

Kalibr: Available in land-attack and anti-ship variants, Kalibr missiles have seen extensive use in recent conflicts, showcasing their precision and destructive potential. In a significant display of military capability, Russian warships from the Caspian Sea Strike Group executed a precision strike against Islamic State targets in Syria in October 2015. Utilizing the newly deployed Kalibr cruise missile, the operation marked the inaugural combat mission for this advanced weaponry. Traveling a remarkable distance of nearly 1,500 kilometers over Iran and Iraq, the 26 cruise missiles struck designated targets with exceptional accuracy across Raqqa, Aleppo, and Idlib provinces, areas under the control of the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Zircon: Boasting hypersonic speeds (Mach 8+), Zircon offers unparalleled speed and maneuverability, posing a significant challenge to interception.

Reports indicate that Russia has successfully developed a hypersonic missile, known as the Zircon cruise missile, touted as capable of obliterating an aircraft carrier with a single strike. With speeds ranging from 3,800mph to 4,600mph, equivalent to five to six times the speed of sound, the Zircon poses a formidable threat that could potentially outmatch existing naval defenses. This development has sparked concerns among military experts, particularly regarding the vulnerability of advanced naval assets like the £6.2 billion HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, to which the Navy’s current anti-missile systems may prove insufficient.

The unprecedented velocity of the Zircon presents a significant challenge for conventional naval defenses, as existing anti-missile technologies are tailored to intercept projectiles traveling at speeds up to 2,300mph. This capability mismatch leaves naval vessels, including aircraft carriers, exposed to potential devastation, forcing them to operate beyond the Zircon’s estimated 500-mile range to mitigate the threat. Such defensive measures would severely hamper operational effectiveness, limiting the ability of carrier-based aircraft to execute missions and return safely due to fuel constraints, effectively neutralizing their strategic significance. Naval experts caution that even attempts to intercept the hypersonic missile may prove futile, as the sheer kinetic energy of the debris generated upon impact could inflict substantial damage on targeted vessels, highlighting the urgent need for enhanced defensive strategies in the face of evolving threats.

Kh-101 and Kh-555: These long-range cruise missiles boast impressive range and are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, underlining Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy.

China: Emerging Competitor

China’s advancements in hypersonic cruise missile technology have surged notably over the past decade, showcasing the nation’s growing prowess in the field. Among its domestically produced missiles, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has deployed the indigenous Ying Ji (YJ)-62 ASM, known for its range of up to 216 nautical miles and equipped with a formidable 300 kg semi-armour piercing warhead. Additionally, the PLAN has augmented its coastal defense batteries with the YJ-62C variant, indicating a multifaceted approach to maritime security.

Further bolstering China’s maritime capabilities are variants like the C-802, available in submarine- and air-launched versions, and the YJ-18 missile, renowned for its supersonic terminal phase and a range of 290 nautical miles. The introduction of the CM-302 ASM, unveiled by CAISC, underscores China’s commitment to innovation, boasting supersonic speeds and precision targeting capabilities, with a single missile capable of incapacitating a 5,000-tonne warship.

China’s foray into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has also spurred the development of air-launched weapons like the YJ-9E ASM, designed to engage a diverse array of targets, including ships, structures, and vehicles. Moreover, recent breakthroughs in scramjet technology by top Chinese science institutes hint at further advancements in hypersonic cruise missile capabilities, promising significant strides in China’s defense capabilities and strategic posture on the global stage.

China’s rise in military technology extends to cruise missiles, with advancements like:

YJ-18: This supersonic anti-ship missile boasts speed and maneuverability, posing a threat to enemy fleets in the Pacific region.

CJ-1000: Similar to the Tomahawk, this land-attack cruise missile offers long range and precision strike capabilities, challenging US dominance in the क्षेत्र.

DF-100: This hypersonic cruise missile is still under development, but its potential hypersonic speed (Mach 3+) raises concerns about destabilizing regional dynamics.

Japan

Japan’s strategic focus on defensive military capabilities has necessitated the development of smaller anti-ship missiles (ASMs) suitable for deployment across ships, aircraft, and ground installations. Among Japan’s efforts in this domain, the XASM-3 stands out as a third-generation ASM currently undergoing joint development by the Government of Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). While details about the missile remain limited, its potential introduction into production signifies a significant advancement for the Japan Self Defense Forces’ operational capabilities.

The XASM-3 is poised to be a hypersonic missile, leveraging a solid-fueled rocket with an integrated ramjet system to achieve speeds of up to Mach 5. Engineered for stealth, akin to the BrahMos, the XASM-3 aims to exploit its velocity to drastically reduce enemy reaction time, affording defenders a mere 15-second window for response. With active and passive integrated seekers, this missile weighs approximately 1,900 pounds, though specifics regarding its warhead size remain undisclosed, and it is anticipated to boast a range exceeding 120 miles.

Designed for deployment on various platforms, including Japan’s indigenous F-2 fighter, potential carriers encompass the Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft and Japan’s F-35A fighters. However, integration with the F-35A may necessitate external carriage due to size constraints, potentially compromising stealth capabilities. Despite delays in development, with inception dating back to 2002 and an anticipated conclusion in 2016, the XASM-3 holds promise for both domestic and export markets, reflecting Japan’s commitment to enhancing its defensive capabilities while fostering potential partnerships with allied nations.

Iran

Iran’s naval forces recently conducted a test-firing of new cruise missiles in the Gulf of Oman, marking a significant advancement in their military capabilities. Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, Iran’s navy chief, announced via state TV that the newly deployed “homing” C-class cruise missiles feature upgraded warheads designed to precisely strike targets at close range. Emphasizing their resilience against electronic warfare, Khanzadi highlighted the missiles’ ability to maintain accuracy under various hostile conditions. Of particular significance is the incorporation of homing technology, enabling these missiles to autonomously track and engage targets without external guidance systems.

Explaining the operational capabilities of the missiles, Khanzadi underscored their “fire-and-forget” nature, signifying their self-sufficiency in target acquisition and navigation. Once launched, the missile independently manages all necessary data for target engagement through its integrated navigation systems. This advancement streamlines the firing process, enhancing efficiency and effectiveness in combat scenarios. With the integration of homing technology and sophisticated navigation systems, Iran’s cruise missiles represent a formidable asset, underscoring the nation’s commitment to bolstering its defensive capabilities amidst regional tensions.

The BrahMos missile system stands as a remarkable testament to the fruitful collaboration between India and Russia in defense technology.

Born out of a joint venture initiated in 1998 between India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation and Russia’s Mashinostroyeniye Company, the BrahMos has evolved into the world’s fastest operational cruise missile.

At the heart of its power lies its ramjet propulsion, enabling speeds exceeding Mach 3, significantly reducing reaction time and enhancing its effectiveness against anti-missile defenses. Its versatility shines through its diverse launch platforms, including land, sea, and air, offering tactical flexibility for various missions. Whether launched from warships to strike coastal targets or deployed from fighter jets for deeper inland attacks, the BrahMos packs a punch.

Beyond raw power, the missile boasts precision guidance systems, ensuring target accuracy even at long ranges. This precision, coupled with its supersonic speed, minimizes collateral damage and enhances its overall effectiveness. Although primarily designed for anti-ship warfare, its adaptability allows for land targets as well, making it a multi-role weapon valuable in various conflict scenarios.

Notably, the BrahMos project has witnessed continuous innovation and expansion, as demonstrated by the introduction of a submarine-launched variant tested in 2013. This advancement promises a stealthy and formidable asset for future naval operations. Moreover, recent tests of the land-attack cruise missile variant highlight India’s commitment to augmenting its military prowess across various domains. With its exceptional speed, Mach 2.8 flight capabilities, and devastating impact potential, the BrahMos represents a formidable force on the battlefield. Its adaptability for deployment on mobile ground stations and warships underscores its versatility and strategic value, offering India a potent tool for precision strikes and stealth operations.

Looking ahead, India’s collaborative efforts with Russia extend to the development of the BrahMos-II, leveraging scramjet technology for enhanced performance. Anticipated to boast an extended range of 600 km, the BrahMos-II embodies the spirit of continuous innovation and advancement in defense capabilities. With testing slated for the near future, the BrahMos-II holds the promise of further elevating India’s strategic deterrence and military effectiveness on the global stage.

Conclusion: Navigating the Future of Warfare

The evolution of cruise missiles represents a monumental shift in the dynamics of modern warfare. As these weapons continue to evolve and proliferate, policymakers, defense experts, and international organizations must adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Collaboration, regulation, and strategic foresight will be crucial in navigating the complex landscape of missile technology and global security.

In conclusion, the emergence of long-range, hypersonic, AI-enabled, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles has reshaped the military landscape, ushering in a new era of strategic competition and uncertainty. It is imperative for stakeholders to remain vigilant, proactive, and cooperative in addressing the multifaceted challenges posed by these advanced weapons systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Reources also include:

https://www.scmp.com/news/world/middle-east/article/3089678/iran-navy-test-fires-new-cruise-missiles-gulf-oman

https://www.naval-technology.com/news/what-is-the-maritime-strike-tomahawk-cruise-missile/?cf-view

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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