Remotely Piloted Vehicles: A Sensible Approach To Development And Utilization
SUBJECT AREA Intelligence
TITLE: Remotely Piloted Vehicles: A Sensible Approach
to Development and Utilization
I. Purpose: To examine the evolution, advantages and
effective employment of the RPV on the modern battlefield.
II. Problem: Present trends in RPV development threaten
the very advantages which make the RPV an effective weapons
III. Data: Key issues must be thoughtfully resolved if we
are to avoid over-development of the RPV and preserve the
advantages which make it effective on the modern
battlefield. A primary development issue involves the
multi-mission RPV configuration versus the variable payload,
single mission configuration. The latter preserves the
advantages of survivability, low cost, and mobility.
Another decision must be made between fixed wing (FW) versus
rotary wing (RW) design of the RPV. The FW RPV offers
proven technology, larger payloads, lower production costs,
and less vulnerability to air defense weapons. Meanwhile,
the primary advantage of the RW RPV is greater mobility due
to small ground support equipment (GSE) requirements.
Prototypes under consideration include the Scout, Mastif,
Aquila, SkyEye, and Peanut. The organizational location of
the RPV platoon is also in question. Proposed locations
include the Marine Air Support Squadron, Marine Air Group,
artillery regiment, and headquarters battalion of the
IV. Conclusions: Further RPV development should be based
on a low cost, high quantity vehicle with variable mission
payloads. Presently, the Mastif RPV best exemplifies this
approach. In addition, location of the Mastif with the
headquarters battalion of the division and employment in a
direct support role is most advantageous.
V. Recommendations: Research and development on
increasingly sophisticated RPVs should be continued.
However, the inherent advantages of small size/survivability
and low cost/expendability should guide such future
development. These principles will insure maximum
operational flexibility for the battlefield commander when
Thesis: If we are to capitalize on the RPV, we must clearly
understand its advantages and carefully base its development
on practical operational requirements and financial
I. RPV Retrospective
A. Hammond's "Flying Bomb," WWI
B. BV246, WWII
C. Henschel 293D, WWII
D. Mistrel, WWII
E. Photo/Recon Vehicles, Vietnam
II. Enemy Air Defense Threat
E. Mission Success Probability
A. Small size/small radar signature
B. Slow speed/ground clutter
C. Durable, difficult to destroy
D. RPV/SAM trade-off
VII. USMC RPV Program
A. USMC ROC
B. RPV Platoon Organization
C. RPV Platoon Mission
D. Current RPV Experience
VIII. The development of the RPV must not compromise the
weapon's inherent advantages if it is to enjoy
further success on the modern battlefield.
REMOTELY PILOTED VEHICLES:
A SENSIBLE APPROACH TO DEVELOPMENT AND UTILIZATION
Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) have become somewhat
of a "buzz" word since their successful use by the Israelis
in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It's as though a
revolutionary new weapons system sprang full grown from the
head of the magnificent Israeli war machine-not so. RPVs
have been around for years and have enjoyed a markedly
evolutionary development throughout this century. However,
only after successfully penetrating the Syrian air defense
network did the RPV finally penetrate the consciousness of
American military planners.
Typically, this sudden "discovery' of the RPV prompted
big expectations with big plans and bigger yet dollars
required to implement them. If we are to capitalize on the
RPV, we must clearly understand its advantages and carefully
base its development on practical operational requirements
and financial constraint.
The history of RPVs began soon after the first manned
flight. In 1917, G. H. Carliss contracted with the Navy to
produce a pilotless biplane. It was not controlled from the
ground and was intended as an aerial torpedo. The engine of
this "flying bomb" was preset to shut-down, based on a
time/distance estimate, over a given target. Simultan-
eously, the wings would fall away and the fuselage would
drop, like a torpedo, onto the target.1 The Kettering Bug,
developed during the same period, worked on the same
principle. Both designs proved highly inaccurate.
During WWII the Germans devoted much effort to unmanned
aircraft research. Their efforts produced the BV246,
Henschel 293D, and the Mistel. The BV246 was a glider
launched from a high-flying bomber. It was designed to
attack British navigational transmitters by utilizing its
on-board homing device and explosives.2 The Henschel 293D
was a rocket-propelled bomb with a TV camera. It was guided
onto target by a carrier/launcher aircraft utilizing the TV
camera.3 The Mistel was actually a JV-88 bomber with a
large warhead. It was launched from a carrier aircraft and
guided to a target by radio control. The American Aphrodite
Project in WWII was similar to these projects in that it
utilized remotely controlled B-17s packed with explosives
for "kamikaze" raids.4
Viet Nam demonstrated the reconnaissance capability of
the RPV. A wide range of prototype RPVs did an important,
but little known, job of enemy surveillance and bomb damage
assessment for U. S. air strikes. In fact, approximately
eighty percent of all reconnaissance pictures from Viet Nam
were taken by RPVs.5
In view of the foregoing historical retrospective, the
RPV is obviously not a revolutionary new weapon. It has
slowly, but persistently, evolved behind developments in
electronics and enemy air defense.
Enemy Air Defense Threat
To fully understand the uniqueness of the RPV on the
modern battlefield, one must realize the formidability of
the enemy's air defense network and its resultant small
window of vulnerability. For example, enroute to the FEBA
to strike an advancing enemy, an aircraft must run a lethal
gauntlet of air defense weapons. At medium altitude and
distances of forty, thirty, and ten kilometers before the
FEBA, it is within the engagement zone of the SA-6, SA-4,
and SA-8/SA-9 missiles, respectively. Once across the FEBA,
the aircraft is within the low altitude envelope of the
ubiquitous SA-7 and the dreaded ZSU-23/4. The medium to
high altitudes across the FEBA are guarded by the SA-2,
SA-3, and SA-11.6
To be more specific, if its target is part of a Soviet
Motorized Rifle Division (MRD), the aircraft must contend
with twenty SA-6 launchers with 60 missiles, 120 to 150
SA-7s, at least sixteen ZSU-23/4s, several hundred ground
and vehicle mounted machineguns, and finally the doctrinal
small arms anti-aircraft fire of each Soviet infantryman.7
Considering that the aircraft must run this gauntlet
again on egress, if he successfully ingresses, an aircraft-
loss probability between thirty and eighty percent is not
difficult to accept.8
Through a very small window of vulnerability in this
lethal air defense network, the RPV has emerged. As
mentioned earlier, this was demonstrated by Israeli RPVs
against Syrian air defenses in the Bekaa Valley. The
tactical aspects of this success will be discussed in a
following section. At this point, we are concerned with the
characteristics of the RPV which lend it to such tactics.
Basically, the key to its success lies in the RPV's
small infrared signature and its slow speed over the ground
which make it difficult to detect and to distinguish from
clutter, respectively. Furthermore, RPVs are very difficult
to disable or destroy. Trials have demonstrated the
ineffectiveness of gunfire against them; proximity-fused
missiles are effective but disproportionately expensive
which may limit their use.9
Thus, the very simplicity of the RPV enhances its
survivability by allowing it to "underwhelm" existing
complex air defenses.
It is important to note that within the context of this
discussion, "survivability" emphasizes the RPV's ability to
successfully penetrate enemy defenses and accomplish its
mission. Successful recovery after mision accomplishment is
considered less important herein.
The operational flexibility of the RPV is obvious in
the myriad of missions to which it lends itself. These
include reconnaissance, target acquisition, radio relay,
laser designation, NBC detection, electronic countermeasures
(ECM), electronic support measures (ESM), and harassment.
Undoubtedly many more missions could be imagined and therein
lies a possible pitfall for the effective utilization of the
RPV. For example, as the missionn increases so does the
size, complexity, and thus, the cost of the RPV. This
decreases its major tactical advantages: Small size/
survivability and low cost/expendability.
A possible solution to the dilemma of operational
flexibility versus tactical effectiveness was proposed by
Commander D. M. Parker in the August 1984 issue of
Proceedings. He envisioned a basic airframe with
interchangeable payloads for different missions. Each
vehicle might include the following capabilities:
Television and forward-looking infrared radar
Data link information exchange
Communications intelligence and signals
intelligence relay capability
Electronic support measures system
Explosive warhead ("Kamikaze")
Electronic Warfare Vehicle (Electronic
In the Intelligence/Reconnaissance configuration, the
RPV satisfies Wellington's " . . . guessing what I might
meet beyond the next hill or around the next corner." Thus,
the commander is capable of penetrating the fog of battle
with real-time information provided by on-board television
cameras, radars, and communication relays. In addition to
this configuration's role in target acquisition and laser
designation for M198 artillery, it can also be used for deep
air support. For example, the RPV can provide laser target
designation for smart bombs released from stand-off
aircraft. Subsequently, it can provide BDA for the target.
In the Harassment configuration, the RPV is concerned
with electronic warfare support measures (ESM) and/or
"kamikaze" attack missions with an on-board explosive
warhead. The Israelis were very successful with the RPV in
the ESM role in the Bekaa Valley. Beaming electronic
signals to simulate Israeli jets, the RPVs provoked the
Syrians into activating their SAM radars. These air defense
locations were then data-linked from the RPV to E-2C command
and control aircraft, which then relayed strike missions to
F-4 aircraft with anti-radiation missiles and bombs.10
A variation of this ESM mission is called SAM "soaking."
For example, a high altitude, high speed RPV carrying
several inexpensive, highly radar reflective gliders is
launched into enemy SAM coverage. Once on-board electronic
equipment detects SAM radars, the RPV releases one of
the gliders, simulating a strike aircraft. The glider, in a
shallow descent, can remain airborne about ten minutes or
until struck by a SAM. After "soaking" the
enemy radars with decoy gliders, a strike aircraft arrives
from the opposite direction as the SAM launchers are
Meanwhile, a "kamikaze" RPV with an on-board warhead
could simplify the above mission by eliminating the need for
a manned aircraft tasked with destroying the SAMs. Equipped
with a simple homing device, the "kamikaze" RPV could
identify and attack any radiating SAM site. Thus, the enemy
is forced into a disproportionate trade, i.e., SAM for RPV,
and in the process, becomes vulnerable to multiple RPV
attacks, especially when reloading his launchers.
In addition, the harassment vehicle with explosive
warhead could be used in a deep air support role. The RPV
would be tasked with attack of fixed or transient targets in
the rear zone of the battlefield or at even deeper
penetration ranges up to 150 kilometers beyond the FEBA.
Typical targets would include parked aircraft, communication
sites, service areas, and railroads. High quantity/low cost
RPVs particularly fit this "kamikaze" mission.
The electronic warfare configuration is primarily an
electronic countermeasures (ECM) platform. In this
configuration, the RPV is tasked with jamming and chaff-
laying missions. In the jamming role, the platform can
either spot jam, i.e., jam a single frequency, or barrage
jam, i.e., jam the entire frequency spectrum.
Since barrage jamming requires greater emitting power
than spot jamming, the RPV is useful in bringing the jammer
closer to the enemy receiver. This allows for a low power
and thus, a lost cost, system to disrupt the enemy.12
Tasked with chaff laying, the RPV can also be very useful.
This mission was described by Colonel Paul G. Fahlstrom in
the November 1984 issue of Amphibious Warfare Review.
Flying in front of an attacking force, perhaps
a few thousand meters, they could clear a corridor
for the passage of assault helicopters, or
neutralize run-in and run-out corridors for close
air support operations. To confuse the enemy and
allow our forces to operate within his observation-
decision-execution time, multiple SEAD missions
could be run simultaneously, some for real attacks
and others for feints.13
Obviously, the many missions to which the RPV lends
itself are a boon to operational flexibility. However, the
tactical effectiveness of the RPV, attributable in part to
size and cost, is the keystone of this flexibility and must
weigh appropriately in operational development.
In examining the economic practicality of the RPV, it
is important to realize that warfare reduced to its simplest
terms is basically applied economics. This is true in both
a strategic and tactical sense. Strategically, an opponent
loses when he can no longer support the economic effort
requried for war. For example, Germany in WWI was not
actually defeated on the battlefield, but instead was
undermined by civil unrest caused by the war's economic
pressure. A quick parallel can be drawn with today's rising
domestic dissent over the proposed U. S. defense budget.
Tactically, a commander may be defeated by the "cost"
of achieving a particular military goal. This was most
aptly described by Captain G. D. Williams in the Winter
83/84 issue of Canadian Defense Quarterly.
Why cannot our hypothetical NATO commander
afford to attack? Because he is equipped with
aircraft which cost twenty or more million
dollars each, and yet for any given attack he
can only hope to destroy one or two operational
tagets such as tanks, and in the attempt to do
so he has a measurable risk of losing his own
aircraft. It tanks cost roughly two million
dollars, he must destroy ten just to break even.
Can he do this, or will he lose his aircraft
before he reaches this "quota"? There is the
The RPV can obviously mitigate some of these problems. Cost
estimates for an RPV airframe vary from $85,000 to
$919,000 15, depending upon the on-board mission
configuration. This is considerably less than a twenty
million dollor aircraft and a million dollar pilot.
In addition to the one-time, single-unit cost advantage
of the RPV, its life cycle costs are also much less
expensive than that on manned vehicles. For example,
off-the-shelf technology coupled with a design which lends
itself to mass production makes the RPV comparatively
inexpensive to procure and produce. Also, long term fuel,
maintenance, and training costs are greatly reduced.
Design: Fixed Wing (FW) versus Rotary Wing (RW)16
The design question revolves around several primary
considerations: vulnerability, maintainability,
performance, ground support equipment (GSE), production
costs, and technical risk. For example, the RW vehicle,
because of its rotor disk, presents a much larger vulnerable
area than its FW counterpart. Also, the maintenance
requirements for a RW RPV is two to three times greater than
with an equivalent FW vehicle. Meanwhile, the performance
of the FW RPV in terms of payload is 8 to 10 percent greater
than the RW vehicle. Production costs are also greater with
the RW RPV.
The main advantage of RW design is its lack of
accompanying GSE. This is due to its vertical takeoff and
landing capability. In contrast, FW RPVs require a rail
system for launch and net system for recovery. The
support equipment comprising these FW launch and recovery
systems create a transportability and mobility problem not
found with the RW vehicle. Consequently, the higher
production cost of the RW design is neutralized by the GSE
costs associated with the FW RPV.
Finally, technical risk is a crtical design
consideration. Many FW vehicle designs under consideration
have already proven themselves in combat and are available
in current off-the-shelf technology. Meanwhile, a RW design
inherits the risk associated with immature technology that
has yet to produce off-the-shelf hardware.
Primary RPV Prototypes Under Consideration17
Scout. The Scout is a twin-boom fiberglass FW RPV which is
manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries and saw combat in
the Lebanon conflict. Typical of FW RPVs, a Scout unit
consists of four to six airframes, a launcher, a ground
control station, a retrieval net, and a crew of twelve.
Relatively unsophisticated by state-of-the-art standards,
the airframe is comparatively inexpensive and combat proven.
Mastiff. The Tadvian Mastiff, also a FW RPV combat proven
by Israel, has a two cylinder piston engine which drives a
two blade pusher propellor. The Mastiff can employ several
packages such as reconnaissance, target acquisition, and
Aquila. The Aquila, a FW RPV, is being developed by
Lockheed. It is a very sophisticated, state-of-the-art
system which is capable of all weather, day or night
operations. In addition, its sponsor, the U. S. Army,
envisions the Aquila as a multi-mission, single
configuration vehicle. As suggested earlier, this creates a
more expensive, less expendable, and less survivable
SkyEye. The SkyEye is a multi-purpose, yet low cost, FW RPV
produced by Developmental Sciences, Inc. This low cost is
accomplished, in part, by interchangeable payloads, i.e.,
different configurations for varying missions placed on a
basic airframe. A composite, twin-boom vehicle powered by a
40-horsepower, two-cycle engine, the SkyEye can be recovered
by net, parachute, or skids. Although less sophisticated
electronically than Aquila, SkyEye offers greater flight
endurance, greater payloads, and greater tolerance in center
of gravity. The latter allows it to fire 2.75 inch
rockets. This offensive capability enhances its capability
as a "harassment vehicle" and as a possible counter to the
Mi-8 "Hip" and Mi-24 "Hind." The SkyEye is also less
expensive per vehicle than the Aquila.
Canadian LTD Cl-227 (Peanut). The CL-227 is a RW RPV. Its
nickname "Peanut" comes from its shape. It has a flight
endurance of two to three hours and a maximum speed of 130
knots. Because of its easy launch and recovery character-
istics discussed earlier, the CL-227 could easily be adapted
for shipboard use. In addition, it is a single-purpose
platform with a very limited payload capacity. The CL-227
is not yet in full production and is still in the
Multi-Purpose Versus Single-Purpose Configuration
Presently, the multi-purpose configuration for the RPV
is in favor. This is evident, in part, by the Army's
sponsorship of the Aquila as well as a recent Army "Air
Vehicle Study" by Captain James Hesson, Jr. dated 19 March
The trend is toward more sophisticated, multi-purpose,
state-of-the-art vehicles. This also translates as more
expensive, less expendable, and less survivable vehicles.
These RPVs are less survivable due to larger payloads and
thus larger sizes and radar cross sections. In addition,
the cost of the multi-purpose vehicle makes them fewer in
number, less expendable, and thus, less flexible
The quality versus quantity argument is often applied
in favor of the multi-purpose RPV. However, in the modern
battlefield scenario, we might do well to recall our old
adversary, Lenin, who advised that, "Quantity has a quality
all its own." Also, the case for a high quantity,
single-purpose, low cost, expendable RPV gains perspective
when compared with the cost of today's artillery munitions
and air to ground missiles. For example, a single
Copperhead artillery round costs $30,000; a single TOW
missile is $5,000; a single I2R Maverick missile is
$129,000; and a single AIM-7M air to air missile is
$193,000. By comparison, an expandable RPV in the $100,000
cost range seems much more reasonable.
In this regard, only Marine Corps considerations will
be addressed. Current arguments for organizationally
locating a RPV platoon include placing them with a Marine
Air Support Squadron (MASS), with a Marine Aircraft Group
(MAG), with an artillery regiment, or with the headquarters
battalion of a division.
From an aviation command and control perspective, the
MASS location is logical. Through the Direct Air Support
Center (DASC), the RPV,could be effectively tasked and
subsequently monitored within controlled airspace. Assigned
to the MAG, perhaps as part of a fixed wing observation
(VMO) squadron, the RPV would be with an existing
reconnaissance and communication relay mission. In
addition, maintenance for the airframe and equipment such as
forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) would already be in
The artillery regiment also has a mission in common
with the RPV: target acquisition and destruction. As part
of the target acquisition battery (TAB), the RPV could
provide rapid, large scale target acquisition as well as
real-time damage assessment. The "kamikaze" mission of the
RPV would also be integral to the artillery mission of
target destruction/fire support.
Headquarters battalion of the division poses several
advantages for employment of the RPV. If utilized in a
general or direct support role, it would be close to the
user and could be employed throughout the range of missions
previously discussed. In addition, it could be deployed
nearer the FEBA, thus increasing its mission radius beyond
USMC RPV Program
On 1 October 1984, a joint Navy/Marine Corps program
office for remotely piloted vehicles was established. This
complemented earlier programs established by the U. S. Army
and Air Force.
On 27 March 1984, the Commandant of the Marine Corps
published the Required Operational Capability (ROC) for a
Remotely Piloted Vehicle. This document listed three
primary missions for the RPV: reconnaissance, surveillance/
target acquisition, and VHF/FM radio relay.
Furthermore, it envisioned a RPV platoon consisting of
a headquarters section, maintenance section, and three
flight sections, with each flight section having one ground
control station and four to six RPVs. For twenty-four hour
operation, each section would require twelve enlisted
Marines. The headquarters section would consist of two
officers and eight enlisted. In addition, eight enlisted
Marines would comprise the maintenance section.
One RPV platoon would support a MAF or two independent
MABs. Equipment requirements for organization, maintenance
float, and war reserve are estimated at eighteen ground
control stations and 108 air vehicles, with individual unit
prices beginning at $425,000 and $85,000, respectively.
Operationally, the ROC intends that the RPV be
centrally located in a single MAGTF unit and support its
users in a general/direct support role. Subsequent to the
ROC, the headquarters battalion of the division gas
been designated as the location for the RPV platoon.
Generally, the launch/recovery equipment would be located
with the supported unit. However, for tactical or
logistical considerations, the RPVs could be launched from a
central location within the MAGTF operational area and flown
to a control point where control is passed to a ground
control station operating from a forward position with a
maneuver element of the MAGTF.
Meanwhile, the Second Marine Division is presently
using the Mastiff RPV to expand its experience base.
Undoubtedly, tactical innovation and mission refinement will
come from this "hands-on" experience.
The RPV's time has come. The Israeli experience in the
Bekaa Valley provided current empirical evidence of its
usefulness. Consequently, United States efforts in RPV
development were revitalized. However, in our fervor to
develop this weapon, we must not lose sight of the key
characteristics which contribute to its success, i.e., high
survivability, low cost, and high operational flexibility.
Considering these parameters as amplifed in the
preceding discussion, a FW RPV in a low cost, variable
payload configuration seems ideal. Most importantly, this
RPV should be small and expendable. Small size enhances its
survivability. Expendability increases operational
flexibility by providing many low cost vehicles for a wide
range of very high-risk missions. In addition, logistical
requirements for an expendable RPV are greatly reduced.
This vehicle employed in a general or direct support role
from the headquarters battalion of a division would be most
effective. Presently, the Mastiff is the most effective RPV
in satisfyilng these requirements.
Research and development on more sophisticated RPVs
should be continued. However, until these vehicles can
comply with the criteria of high survivability, low cost,
and high operational flexibility, they should not be
considered for routine deployment with operational military
The utility of the RPV is effectively summarized in an
old maxim attributed to Sam Colt, 19th century inventor and
firearms expert, "Never send a man where you can send a
bullet." However, the development of this new "bullet" must
not compromise the weapon's inherent advantages if it is to
enjoy further success on the modern battlefield.
1Commander Daniel M. Parker, USN, "The Empty Cockpit,"
United States Naval Institute Proceeding, 110 (August
1984), p. 39.
2Major Tom L. Blickensderfer, USMC, "RPVs: An
Inexpensive Alternative," Marine Corps Gazette, 67 (Decmeber
1983), p. 52.
3Blickensderfer, p. 52.
4Blickensderfer, p. 52.
5Blickensderfer, p. 54.
6Captain J. D. Williams, Canadian Armed Forces, "Role
of the Fighter Aircraft on the Modern Battlefield," Canadian
Defense Quarterly, 32 (Winter 1983/84), p. 36.
7Williams, p. 36.
8Williams, p. 37.
9Pierre Condom, "Detecting Helicopters and RPVs,"
Interavia, 39 (July 1984), p. 667.
10Blickensderfer, p. 54.
11Blickensderfer, p. 55.
12Colonel Paul G. Fahlstrom, USMCR, "Remotely Piloted
Vehicles in Amphibious Operations," Amphibious Warfare
Review, 62 (November 1984), p. 44.
13Fahlstrom, p. 44.
14Williams, p. 37.
15U. S. Marine Corps, Required Operational Capability
(ROC) No. SPA-1.11 for Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV),
27 November 1984, p. 8.
16Army Development and Employment Agency Unmanned
Aerial Vehicle Program, Air Vehicle Study, 19 March 1984,
17Parker, p. 44.
Army Development and Employment Agency Unmanned Aerial
Vehicle Program. Air Vehicle Study. Fort Eustis, VA:
19 March 1984.
Blickensderfer, Tom L. Major, USMC. "RPVs: An Inexpensive
Alternative." Marine Corps Gazette, 67 (December 1983),
Condom, Pierre. "Detecting Helicopter and RPVs."
Interavia, 39 (July 1984), 665-667.
Fahlstrom, Paul G., Colonel, USMCR. "Remotely Piloted
Vehicles in Amphibious Operations." Amphibious Warfare
Review, 62 (November 1984), 42-45.
Fuchs, L. R., Major, USMC. "Unmanned Aircraft." Marine
Corps Gazette, 65 (October 1981), 61-66.
Parker, Daniel M., Commander, USN. "The Empty Cockpit."
United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 110 (August
Russell, David M. "Israeli RPVs." Defense Electronics,
15 (March 1983), 86.
Schemmer, Benjamin F. "Where Have All the RPVs Gone?" Armed
Forces Journal International, 119 (February 1982),
U. S. Marine Corps. Required Operational Capability (ROC)
No. SPA-1.11 for Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV),
27 November 1984.
Williams, J. D., Captain, Canadian Armed Forces. "Role of
the Fighter Aircraft on the Modern Battlefield."
Canadian Defense Quarterly, 32 (Winter 1983/84), 36.
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