Read the full TomDispatch at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175029
Like much of the rest of the world, Americans know that the U.S.
automotive industry is in the grips of what may be a fatal decline.
Unless it receives emergency financing and
undergoes significant reform, it is undoubtedly headed for the
graveyard in which many American industries are already buried,
including those that made televisions and other consumer electronics,
many types of scientific and medical equipment, machine tools,
textiles, and much earth-moving equipment -- and that's to name only
the most obvious candidates. They all lost their competitiveness to
newly emerging economies that were able to outpace them in innovative
design, price, quality, service, and fuel economy, among other things.
A similar, if far less well known, crisis exists when it comes to
the military-industrial complex. That crisis has its roots in the
corrupt and deceitful practices that have long characterized the high
command of the Armed Forces, civilian executives of the armaments
industries, and Congressional opportunists and criminals looking for
pork-barrel projects, defense installations for their districts, or
even bribes for votes.
Given our economic crisis, the estimated trillion dollars
we spend each year on the military and its weaponry is simply
unsustainable. Even if present fiscal constraints no longer existed, we
would still have misspent too much of our tax revenues on too few,
overly expensive, overly complex weapons systems that leave us
ill-prepared to defend the country in a real military emergency. We
face a double crisis at the Pentagon: we can no longer afford the
pretense of being the Earth's sole superpower, and we cannot afford to
perpetuate a system in which the military-industrial complex makes its
fortune off inferior, poorly designed weapons.
Double Crisis at the Pentagon
This self-destructive system of bloated budgets and purchases of the
wrong weapons has persisted for so long thanks to the aura of
invincibility surrounding the Armed Forces and a mistaken belief that
jobs in the arms industry are as valuable to the economy as jobs in the
Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen began to advocate
nothing less than protecting the Pentagon budget by pegging defense
spending to a fixed percentage of gross domestic product (GDP, the
total value of goods and services produced by the economy). This would,
of course, mean simply throwing out serious strategic analysis of what
is actually needed for national defense. Mullen wants, instead, to
raise the annual defense budget in the worst of times to at least 4% of
GDP. Such a policy is clearly designed to deceive the public about
ludicrously wasteful spending on weapons systems which has gone on for
It is hard to imagine any sector of the American economy more driven
by ideology, delusion, and propaganda than the armed services. Many
people believe that our military is the largest, best equipped, and
most invincible among the world's armed forces. None of these things is
true, but our military is, without a doubt, the most expensive to
maintain. Each year, we Americans account for nearly half of all global military spending, an amount larger than the next 45 nations together spend on their militaries annually.
Equally striking, the military seems increasingly ill-adapted to the
types of wars that Pentagon strategists agree the United States is most
likely to fight in the future, and is, in fact, already fighting in
Afghanistan -- insurgencies led by non-state actors. While the
Department of Defense produces weaponry meant for such wars, it is also
squandering staggering levels of defense appropriations on aircraft,
ships, and futuristic weapons systems that fascinate generals and
admirals, and are beloved by military contractors mainly because their
complexity runs up their cost to astronomical levels.
That most of these will actually prove irrelevant to the world in which
we live matters not a whit to their makers or purchasers. Thought of
another way, the stressed out American taxpayer, already supporting two
disastrous wars and the weapons systems that go with them, is also
paying good money for weapons that are meant for fantasy wars, for wars
that will only be fought in the battlescapes and war-gaming
imaginations of Defense Department "planners."
Air Force and the Army are still planning as if, in the reasonably near
future, they were going to fight an old-fashioned war of attrition
against the Soviet Union, which disappeared in 1991; while the Navy,
with its eleven large aircraft-carrier battle groups, is, as William S.
Lind has written, "still structured to fight the Imperial Japanese
Navy." Lind, a prominent theorist of so-called fourth-generation
warfare (insurgencies carried out by groups such as al-Qaeda), argues
that "the Navy's aircraft-carrier battle groups have cruised on
mindlessly for more than half a century, waiting for those Japanese
carriers to turn up. They are still cruising today, into, if not
beyond, irrelevance… Submarines are today's and tomorrow's capital ships; the ships that most directly determine control of blue waters."
In December 2008, Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, a former high-ranking
civilian in the Pentagon's Office of Systems Analysis (set up in 1961
to make independent evaluations of Pentagon policy) and a charter
member of the "Fighter Mafia" of the 1980s and 1990s, wrote,
"As has been documented for at least twenty years, patterns of
repetitive habitual behavior in the Pentagon have created a
self-destructive decision-making process. This process has produced a
As a result, concluded Spinney, inadequate amounts of wildly overpriced
equipment are purchased, "new weapons [that] do not replace old ones on
a one for one basis." There is also "continual pressure to reduce
combat readiness," a "corrupt accounting system" that "makes it
impossible to sort out the priorities," and a readiness to believe that
old solutions will work for the current crisis.
Failed Reform Efforts
There's no great mystery about the causes of the deep dysfunction
that has long characterized the Pentagon's weapons procurement system.
In 2006, Thomas Christie, former head of Operational Test and
Evaluation, the most senior official at the Department of Defense for
testing weapons and a Pentagon veteran of half a century, detailed
more than 35 years of efforts to reform the weapons acquisition system.
These included the 1971 Fitzhugh (or Blue Ribbon) Commission, the 1977
Steadman Review, the 1981 Carlucci Acquisition Initiatives, the 1986
Packard Commission, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense
Reorganization Act, the 1989 Defense Management Review, the 1990
"Streamlining Review" of the Defense Science Board, the 1993-1994
report of the Acquisition Streamlining Task Force and of the Defense
Science Board, the late 1990s Total System Performance Responsibility
initiative of the Air Force, and the Capabilities-Based Acquisition
approach of the Missile Defense Agency of the first years of this
Christie concluded: "After all these years of repeated reform efforts,
major defense programs are taking 20 to 30 years to deliver less
capability than planned, very often at two to three times the costs and
schedules planned." He also added the following observations:
"Launching into major developments without
understanding key technical issues is the root cause of major cost and
schedule problems… Costs, schedules, and technical risks are often
grossly understated at the outset… There are more acquisition programs
being pursued than DoD [the Department of Defense] can possibly afford
in the long term…
"By the time these problems are acknowledged, the political
penalties incurred in enforcing any major restructuring of a program,
much less its cancellation, are too painful to bear. Unless someone is
willing to stand up and point out that the emperor has no clothes, the
U.S. military will continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars and critical
years while acquiring equipment that falls short of meeting the needs
of troops in the field."
The inevitable day of reckoning, long predicted by Pentagon critics,
has, I believe, finally arrived. Our problems are those of a very rich
country which has become accustomed over the years to defense budgets
that are actually jobs programs and also a major source of pork for the
use of politicians in their reelection campaigns.
Given the present major recession, whose depths remain unknown, the
United States has better things to spend its money on than Nimitz-class
aircraft carriers at a price of $6.2 billion each (the cost of the USS George H. W. Bush, launched in January 2009, our tenth such ship) or aircraft that can cruise at a speed of Mach 2 (1,352 miles per hour).
However, don't wait for the Pentagon to sort out such matters. If it
has proven one thing over the last decades, it's that it is thoroughly
incapable of reforming itself. According to Christie, "Over the past 20
or so years, the DoD and its components have deliberately and
systematically decimated their in-house technical capabilities to the
point where there is little, if any, competence or initiative left in
the various organizations tasked with planning and executing its budget
and acquisition programs."
Gunning for the Air Force
President Obama has almost certainly retained Robert M. Gates as
Secretary of Defense in part to give himself some bipartisan cover as
he tries to come to grips with the bloated defense budget. Gates is
also sympathetic to the desire of a few reformers in the Pentagon to
dump the Lockheed-Martin F-22 "Raptor" supersonic stealth fighter, a
plane designed to meet the Soviet Union's last proposed, but never
The Air Force's old guard and its allies in Congress are already
fighting back aggressively. In June 2008, Gates fired Secretary of the
Air Force Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff General T.
Michael Moseley. Though he was undoubtedly responding to their fervent
support for the F-22, his cover explanation was their visible failure
to adequately supervise the accounting and control of nuclear weapons.
In 2006, the Air Force had managed to ship to Taiwan four high-tech
nose cone fuses for Minutemen ICBM warheads instead of promised
helicopter batteries, an error that went blissfully undetected until
March 2008. Then, in August 2007, a B-52 bomber carrying six armed
nuclear cruise missiles flew across much of the country from Minot Air
Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
This was in direct violation of standing orders against such flights
over the United States.
As Julian Barnes and Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times noted
in June 2008, "Tensions between the Air Force and Gates have been
growing for months," mainly over Gates's frustration about the F-22 and
his inability to get the Air Force to deploy more pilotless aircraft to
the various war zones. They were certainly not improved when Wynne, a
former senior vice president of General Dynamics, went out of his way
to cross Gates, arguing publicly
that "any president would be damn happy to have more F-22s around if we
had to get into a fight with China." It catches something of the power
of the military-industrial complex that, despite his clear desire on
the subject, Gates has not yet found the nerve -- or the political
backing -- to pull the plug
on the F-22; nor has he even dared to bring up the subject of canceling
its more expensive and technically complicated successor, the F-35
"Joint Strike Fighter."
More than 20 years ago, Chuck Spinney wrote a classic account of the
now-routine bureaucratic scams practiced within the Pentagon to ensure
that Congress will appropriate funds for dishonestly advertised and
promoted weapons systems and then prevent their cancellation when the
fraud comes to light. In a paper he entitled "Defense Power Games,"
of which his superiors deeply disapproved, Spinney outlined two crucial
Pentagon gambits meant to lock in such weaponry: "front-loading" and
It should be understood at the outset that all actors involved,
including the military officers in charge of projects, the members of
Congress who use defense appropriations to buy votes within their
districts, and the contractors who live off the ensuing lucrative
contracts, utilize these two scams. It is also important to understand
that neither front-loading nor political engineering is an innocent or
morally neutral maneuver. They both involve criminal intent to turn on
the spigot of taxpayer money and then to jam it so that it cannot be
turned off. They are de rigueur practices of our military-industrial complex.
Front-loading is the practice of appropriating funds for a new weapons
project based solely on assurances by its official sponsors about what
it can do. This happens long before a prototype has been built or
tested, and invariably involves the quoting of unrealistically low unit
costs for a sizeable order. Assurances are always given that the
system's technical requirements will be simple or have already been
met. Low-balling future costs, an intrinsic aspect of front-loading, is
an old Defense Department trick, a governmental version of
bait-and-switch. (What is introduced as a great bargain regularly turns
out to be a grossly expensive lemon.)
Political engineering is the strategy of awarding contracts in as
many different Congressional districts as possible. By making voters
and Congressional incumbents dependent on military money, the
Pentagon's political engineers put pressure on them to continue
supporting front-loaded programs even after their true costs become
Front-loading and political engineering generate several typical
features in the weapons that the Pentagon then buys for its arsenal.
These continually prove unnecessarily expensive, are prone to break
down easily, and are often unworkably complex. They tend to come with
inadequate supplies of spare parts and ammunition, since there is not
enough money to buy the numbers that are needed. They also force the
services to repair older weapons and keep them in service much longer
than is normal or wise. (For example, the B-52 bomber, which went into
service in 1955, is still on active duty.)
Even though extended training would seem to be a necessary corollary of
the complexity of such weapons systems, the excessive cost actually
leads to reductions in training time for pilots and others. In the long
run, it is because of such expedients and short-term fixes that
American casualties may increase and, sooner or later, battles or wars
may be lost.
For example, Northrop-Grumman's much touted B-2 stealth bomber has
proven to be almost totally worthless. It is too delicate to deploy to
harsh climates without special hangars first being built to protect it
at ridiculous expense; it cannot fulfill any combat missions that older
designs were not fully adequate to perform; and -- at a total cost of
$44.75 billion for only 21 bombers -- it wastes resources needed for
real combat situations.
Instead, in military terms, the most unexpectedly successful
post-Vietnam aircraft has been the Fairchild A-10, unflatteringly
nicknamed the "Warthog." It is the only close-support aircraft ever
developed by the U.S. Air Force. Its task is to loiter over
battlefields and assist ground forces in disposing of obstinate or
formidable targets, which is not something that fits comfortably with
the Air Force's hot-shot self-image.
Some 715 A-10s were produced and they served with great
effectiveness in the first Persian Gulf War. All 715 cumulatively cost
less than three B-2 bombers. The A-10 is now out of production because
the Air Force establishment favors extremely fast aircraft that fly in
straight lines at high altitudes rather than aircraft that are useful
in battle. In the Afghan war, the Air Force has regularly inflicted
heavy casualties on innocent civilians at least in part because it
tries to attack ground targets from the air with inappropriately
Using the F-22 to Fight the F-16
The military-industrial complex is today so confident of its skills
in gaming the system that it does not hesitate to publicize how many
workers in a particular district will lose their jobs if a particular
project is cancelled. Threats are also made -- and put into effect --
to withhold political contributions from uncooperative congressional
As Spinney recalls, "In July 1989, when some members of Congress began
to build a coalition aimed at canceling the B-2, Northrop Corporation,
the B-2's prime contractor, retaliated by releasing data which had
previously been classified showing that tens of thousands of jobs and
hundreds of millions in profits were at risk in 46 states and 383
congressional districts." The B-2 was not cancelled.
Southern California's biggest private employers are Boeing Corporation and Northrop-Grumman. They are said to employ
more than 58,000 workers in well-paying jobs, a major political
obstacle to rationalizing defense expenditures even as recession is
making such steps all but unavoidable.
Both front-loading and political engineering are alive and well in
2009. They are, in fact, now at the center of fierce controversies
surrounding the extreme age of the present fleet of Air Force fighter
aircraft, most of which date from the 1980s. Meanwhile the costs of the
two most likely successors to the workhorse F-16 -- the F-22 Raptor and
the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- have run up so high that the
government cannot afford to purchase significant numbers of either of
The F-16 made its first flight in December 1976, and a total of
4,400 have been built. They have been sold, or given away, all over the
world. Planning for the F-22 began in 1986, when the Cold War was still
alive (even if on life support), and the Air Force was trumpeting its
fears that the other superpower, the USSR, was planning a new,
ultra-fast, highly maneuverable fighter.
By the time the prototype F-22 had its roll-out on May 11, 1997, the
Cold War was nearly a decade in its grave, and it was perfectly
apparent that the Soviet aircraft it was intended to match would never
be built. Lockheed Martin, the F-22's prime contractor, naturally
argued that we needed it anyway and made plans to sell some 438
airplanes for a total tab of $70 billion. By mid-2008, only 183 F-22s
were on order, 122 of which had been delivered. The numbers had been
reduced due to cost overruns. The Air Force still wants to buy an additional 198 planes, but Secretary Gates and his leading assistants have balked. No wonder. According to arms experts
Bill Hartung and Christopher Preble, at more than $350 million each,
the F-22 is "the most expensive fighter plane ever built."
The F-22 has several strikingly expensive characteristics which
actually limit its usefulness. It is allegedly a stealth fighter --
that is, an airplane with a shape that reduces its visibility on radar
-- but there is no such thing as an airplane completely invisible to
all radar. In any case, once it turns on its own fire-control radar,
which it must do in combat, it becomes fully visible to an enemy.
The F-22 is able to maneuver at very high altitudes, but this is of
limited value since there are no other airplanes in service anywhere
that can engage in combat at such heights. It can cruise at twice the
speed of sound in level flight without the use of its afterburners
(which consume fuel at an accelerated rate), but there are no potential
adversaries for which these capabilities are relevant. The plane is
obviously blindingly irrelevant to "fourth-generation wars" like that
with the Taliban in Afghanistan -- the sorts of conflicts for which
American strategists inside the Pentagon and out believe the United
States should be preparing.
Actually, the U.S. ought not to be engaged in fourth-generation wars at
all, whatever planes are in its fleet. Outside powers normally find
such wars unwinnable, as the history of Afghanistan, that "graveyard of
empires" going back to Alexander the Great, illustrates so well.
Unfortunately, President Obama's approach to the Bush administration's
Afghan War remains deeply flawed and will only entrap us in another
quagmire, whatever planes we put in the skies over that country.
Nonetheless, the F-22 is still being promoted as the plane to buy
almost entirely through front-loading and political engineering. Some
apologists for the Air Force also claim
that we need the F-22 to face the F-16. Their argument goes this way:
We have sold so many F-16s to allies and Third World customers that, if
we ever had to fight one of them, that country might prevail using our
own equipment against us. Some foreign air forces like Israel's are
fully equipped with F-16s and their pilots actually receive more
training and monthly practice hours than ours do.
This, however, seems a trivial reason for funding more F-22s. We
should instead simply not get involved in wars with former allies we
have armed, although this is why Congress prohibited Lockheed from
selling the F-22 abroad. Some Pentagon critics contend that the Air
Force and prime contractors lobby for arms sales abroad because they
artificially generate a demand for new weapons at home that are
"better" than the ones we've sold elsewhere.
Thanks to political engineering, the F-22 has parts suppliers in 44
states, and some 25,000 people have well-paying jobs building it.
Lockheed Martin and some in the Defense Department have therefore
proposed that, if the F-22 is cancelled, it should be replaced by the
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also built by Lockheed Martin.
Most serious observers believe that this would only make a bad
situation worse. So far the F-35 shows every sign of being, in Chuck
Spinney's words, "a far more costly and more troubled turkey" than the
F-22, "even though it has a distinction that even the F-22 cannot
claim, namely it is tailored to meet the same threat that… ceased to
exist at least three years before the F-35 R&D [research and
development] program began in 1994."
The F-35 is considerably more complex than the F-22, meaning that it
will undoubtedly be even more expensive to repair and will break down
even more easily. Its cost per plane is guaranteed to continue to
spiral upwards. The design of the F-22 involves 4 million lines of
computer code; the F-35, 19 million lines. The Pentagon sold the F-35
to Congress in 1998 with the promise of a unit cost of $184 million per
aircraft. By 2008, that had risen to $355 million per aircraft and the
plane was already two years behind schedule.
According to Pierre M. Sprey, one of the original sponsors of the
F-16, and Winslow T. Wheeler, a 31-year veteran staff official on
Senate defense committees, the F-35 is overweight,
underpowered, and "less maneuverable than the appallingly vulnerable
F-105 'lead sled' that got wiped out over North Vietnam in the
Indochina War." Its makers claim that it will be a bomber as well as a
fighter, but it will have a payload of only two 2,000-pound bombs, far
less than American fighters of the Vietnam era. Although the Air Force
praises its stealth features, it will lose these as soon as it mounts
bombs under its wings, which will alter its shape most un-stealthily.
It is a non-starter for close-air-support missions because it is too
fast for a pilot to be able to spot tactical targets. It is too
delicate and potentially flammable to be able to withstand ground fire.
If built, it will end up as the most expensive defense contract in
history without offering a serious replacement for any of the fighters
or fighter-bombers currently in service.
The Fighter Mafia
Every branch of the American armed forces suffers from similar
"defense power games." For example, the new Virginia-class fast-attack
submarines are expensive and not needed. As the New York Times wrote editorially,
"The program is little more than a public works project to keep the
Newport News, Va., and Groton, Conn., naval shipyards in business."
I have, however, concentrated on the Air Force because the collapse of
internal controls over acquisitions is most obvious, as well as
farthest advanced, there -- and because the Air Force has a history of
conflict over going along with politically easy decisions that was
recently hailed by Secretary of Defense Gates as deserving of emulation
by the other services. The pointed attack Gates launched on
bureaucratism was, paradoxically, one of the few optimistic
developments in Pentagon politics in recent times.
On April 21, 2008, the Secretary of Defense caused a storm of controversy by giving a speech
to the officers of the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base,
Alabama. In it, he singled out for praise and emulation an Air Force
officer who had inspired many of that service's innovators over the
past couple of generations, while being truly despised by an
establishment and an old guard who viewed him as an open threat to
Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997) was a significant military strategist,
an exceptionally talented fighter pilot in both the Korean and
Vietnamese war eras, and for six years the chief instructor at the
Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
"Forty-Second Boyd" became a legend in the Air Force because of his
standing claim that he could defeat any pilot, foreign or domestic, in
simulated air-to-air combat within 40 seconds, a bet he never lost even
though he was continuously challenged.
Last April, Gates said, in part:
"As this new era continues to unfold before us, the
challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer
who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic
environment characterized by persistent conflict.
"Let me illustrate by using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force
Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for
air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on
to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he
would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by
a former Marine Corps Commandant [General Charles C. Krulak] and a
Secretary of Defense [Dick Cheney] for the lightning victory of the
first Gulf War….
"In accomplishing all these things, Boyd -- a brilliant, eccentric,
and stubborn character -- had to overcome a large measure of
bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice
that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is
worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: 'One day you will
take a fork in the road, and you're going to have to make a decision
about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be
somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn
your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you
will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way
and you can do something -- something for your country and for your Air
Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get
promoted and get good assignments and you certainly will not be a
favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself.
To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call.
That's when you have to make a decision. To be or to do'… We must heed
John Boyd's advice by asking if the ways we do business make sense."
Boyd's many accomplishments are documented in Robert Coram's excellent biography, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.
They need not be retold here. It was, however, the spirit of Boyd and
"the reformers he inspired," a group within Air Force headquarters who
came to be called the "Fighter Mafia," that launched the defense reform
movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their objectives were to stop the
acquisition of unnecessarily complex and expensive weapons, cause the
Air Force to take seriously the idea of a fourth generation of warfare,
end its reliance on a strategy of attrition, and expose to criticism an
officer's corps focused on careerist standards.
Unless Secretary Gates succeeds in reviving it, their lingering
influence in the Pentagon is just about exhausted today. We await the
leadership of the Obama administration to see which way the Air Force
and the rest of the American defense establishment evolves.
Despite Gates's praise of Boyd, one should not underestimate the
formidable obstacles to Pentagon reform. Over a quarter-century ago,
back in 1982, journalist James Fallows outlined the most serious
structural obstacle to any genuine reform in his National Book
Award-winning study, National Defense.
The book was so influential that at least one commentator includes
Fallows as a non-Pentagon member of Boyd's "Fighter Mafia."
As Fallows then observed (pp. 64-65):
"The culture of procurement teaches officers that there
are two paths to personal survival. One is to bring home the bacon for
the service as the manager of a program that gets its full funding.
'Procurement management is more and more the surest path to
advancement' within the military, says John Morse, who retired as a
Navy captain after twenty-eight years in the service….
"The other path that procurement opens leads outside the military,
toward the contracting firms. To know even a handful of professional
soldiers above the age of forty and the rank of major is to keep
hearing, in the usual catalogue of life changes, that many have
resigned from the service and gone to the contractors: to Martin
Marietta, Northrop, Lockheed, to the scores of consulting firms and
middlemen, whose offices fill the skyscrapers of Rosslyn, Virginia,
across the river from the capital. In 1959, Senator Paul Douglas of
Illinois reported that 768 retired senior officers (generals, admirals,
colonels, and Navy captains) worked for defense contractors. Ten years
later Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin said that the number had
increased to 2,072."
Almost 30 years after those words were written, the situation has grown far worse. Until we decide (or are forced) to dismantle our empire, sell off
most of our 761 military bases (according to official statistics for
fiscal year 2008) in other people's countries, and bring our military
expenditures into line with those of the rest of the world, we are
destined to go bankrupt in the name of national defense. As of this
moment, we are well on our way, which is why the Obama administration
will face such critical -- and difficult -- decisions when it comes to
the Pentagon budget.
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