Underway Arihant SSBN

My usually reliable source was misinformed about the dateline of the Arihant going out on sea trials, but by about only three-quarters of a day! — whence this blog was originally posted late morning yesterday (Dec 15). It turned out the SSBN got going in the early afternoon. The Strategic Forces Command controlling this asset received the message from the Commander Arihant — ‘Underway on nuclear power’!

An important thing to note is that other than an ASW helicopter it had no escort vessels, leading one to believe that because the Arihant is built on modular design as per other Russian nuclear-powered submersibles, the forward compartment, able to accommodate the entire crew and equipped with survival materials for eight hours, can be detached from the rest of the body in case of mishap or gravest emergency and float to the top.
The original blog:
The 1st of the Arihant-class SSBNs after long and thorough harbor trials, and with its 80MW nuclear power plant going critical a couple of months back, will now head out to sea from Vizag tomorrow, December 16, 2014. It will be put though its paces and will pull a list of manoeuvres to see how the boat behaves. A real big feather in the cap for the private sector Larsen & Toubro Company, which built this submarine. The expectation in naval circles is high that these should go off well, preparing the vessel for induction into the fleet by Autumn-Winter 2015. It will finally afford the country, other than the Agni-5, with genuine strategic options. Underway Arihant!

Posted in Asian geopolitics, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Military Acquisitions, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command | 11 Comments

Russian Ties at Inflection Point

India’s relations with Russia are at a point where they could soar, or plummet. Minus the celebratory pomp and circumstance likely attending on the January jaunt by US president Barack Obama, president Vladimir Putin’s seemingly perfunctory visit may actually turn out to be more consequential for this country, depending on how certain issues simmering for years get sorted out.

There’s solid geostrategic grounding for Indo-Russian relations that is valuable in the new millennium when Russia is crucial along with other Asian countries and the United States to contain China. Except India has a heftier economy, packs a bigger punch, and has brighter prospects than Russia which, in the wake of its annexation of Crimea, has been economically isolated by America and the West.

The P V Narasimha Rao government helped the Russian economy during its Boris Yeltsin years of diminishment by injecting Rs 6,000 crore to keep the Sukhoi aircraft production plants afloat, for instance, without asking for sharing the intellectual property rights on the Su-30 MKI technologies developed with these monies—a big mistake. And, it was over-generous in working the Indian rupee debt with regard to the diving rouble. Russia is again in difficulty and in need of Indian financial support for that country’s economic bellwether energy sector.

The trouble is New Delhi seems uncertain about what it wants and how to play Putin without upsetting the Washington establishment—the external affairs ministry’s default condition. The MEA description of the strategic partnership with Russia as “special and privileged” was nice but couldn’t have tempered Moscow’s hurt feelings about India accommodating the West at its expense just when another Cold War is brewing.

Russia remains the sole source of sophisticated military technology and assistance without which India’s most critical strategic technology programmes would have floundered. Projects such as the Arihant-class SSBN (nuclear-powered ballistic missile firing submarine) and the gas-boost technology permitting a missile to be fired from a submerged submarine to break water, fire the cap, and ignite the rocket engine, would have taken far longer indigenously to develop. More aware of India’s strategic needs than New Delhi itself, Moscow offered the Tu-22 Backfire long-range bomber as far back as 1971, which the Indian Air Force, in its enormous strategic wisdom, declined. Recently, the entire production line of the latest Tu-22M3M was bought off by China. Russia always hoped its sympathetic understanding of India’s aspirations and its timely and sustained help over the years to surmount technology denial policies of the West would count for something. But it finds Western companies favoured in military deals.

So Putin, it is said, has conceived of two litmus tests: Whether New Delhi will invest, besides the Central Siberian oilfields (up to 10% in Vankov, 49% in Yurubcheno-Tokhomskoye) and the Sakhalin region (from where ExxonMobil with 40% equity could pull out), in drilling for offshore oil in the Arctic and to jointly extract oil from shale available in that area. So far, the Indian response seems keyed to the US environmental concerns which cannot be detached from the latter’s strategic objective to choke Russia economically. India desperately needs energy and more of it from anywhere, so what’s wrong with the Russian Arctic? On the other hand, Moscow sees energy contracts with India and China as revenue earners to ease its economic situation.

The other test relates to Moscow’s unease with India’s favouring Western companies for weapons systems. Thus, the Rafale combat aircraft sale is on (after French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s flying visit last week) even when it is evident that as a 1980s-vintage museum piece it cannot survive in the air warfare environment of the 2020s and beyond, but it is $30 billion worth of rich pickings for the French aviation industry—the classic game by Paris to divest a not very bright Third World nation of its resources! Equally galling to the Russians is the underway effort to convert the Project 75i conventional submarine project into a Scorpene extension—six more of these French boats but with air-independent propulsion. Then there are the delays in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme caused at the Indian end by the quixotic insistence of the air force under Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne on a two-pilot version of this aircraft even if it hugely compromised its low observable or stealth feature. This specification has since been revoked, leading many to suspect that it was a ruse to gut the FGFA programme and shift the funds to acquiring the Rafale.

Of course, Russia is motivated by its national self-interest—when have international relations ever been charity?—and wants to remain the premier purveyor of defence goods to India. The question, however, is which country has been more forthcoming with the more advanced technology? Certainly none of the Western countries who sell dated stuff and disregard offset obligations to build the Indian technological and defence industrial base. Thus, notwithstanding the big talk about co-developing high-tech weapons systems, the US has proposed collaborations on an anti-tank missile and batteries. And the US aerospace major, Lockheed Martin, used the 50% offsets clause in the multi-billion dollar contract for the C-17 airlifters to sell IAF flight simulators and training aids.

Russia has apparently had enough of such tilts against it and wants a comprehensive energy agreement including Arctic oil and, with its advanced Amur diesel submarine design and technologies, partnership in building the 75i submarine. The additional tranche of $5-$8 billion sought by Putin for the FGFA development is nothing considering an entirely new generation of combat aircraft will take to the Indian skies by 2022. Russia, moreover, has long permitted Indian designers the use of its Inertial Confinement Fusion facility in Troitsk, outside Moscow, to rectify the flaws in the Indian thermonuclear weapons. This latter access can be regularised.

Any show of reluctance could sour the Kremlin towards India. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoygu, visiting Pakistan last month, offered a defence pact and arms, for starters the Mi-35M attack helicopter—more advanced than the version with the IAF. Whatever the Russian ambassador Alexander Kadakin may say, that was a clear signal.

Published in the New Indian Express, December 11, 2014,


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Modi, US and Indian Interests

Banner headlines and over-the-top television anchors gushing about US president Barack Obama accepting prime minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to be chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations and frenzied prognostications of what this means for bilateral relations, etc. reveals the Indian media’s and the middle class’ gaga attitude to anything American and, in a nutshell, the problem India has in dealing with the United States. Circus is not conducive to diplomacy, which is precisely what visits by US presidents to this country turn out to be when not diplomatic eye candy.

It is usually domestically beleaguered US presidents who jump at such visits. George W Bush came hither in March 2006 when his star was on the wane, his failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan daily eroding his political standing in Washington. With a resurgent Republican Party and the Obama administration in second term funk, the US president needs a foreign policy bump to up his domestic ratings. So, what’s better than visiting “extraordinary” India guaranteed to capture the eyeballs at home?

Modi showed during his Madison Square Garden show that he had the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the US massively behind him and can, if he chooses to, influence their vote for the Democratic or Republican Party in US elections. This is a completely new phenomenon—the power of the NRIs to push Indian national interest in Western countries, something Modi long ago discovered as Gujarat chief minister. Foreign leaders such as Tony Abbott in Australia are however only now beginning to grasp the importance of cultivating Modi, as did the phalanx of American legislators lining the stage at the New York event that it is not just good foreign policy theatre but courting the wealthy Indian-origin community makes domestic electoral sense.

What was most evident during Modi’s recent travels abroad was the steel in his eye, the no-nonsense look of a man, unswayed by the hoopla around him, who was there to do the nation’s business. He partook of diplomatic niceties and got his way in advancing the national interest (on agricultural subsidies at the summit, for example). Combined with his bonhomie unrestrained by convention, seen in his embracing Abbott on the Brisbane stage even as the rest of that select crowd had stilted smiles and handshakes with a buttoned-up host, it was a one-two punch. Plainly, a bowled-over Abbott (or any of the US lawmakers, for that matter) can’t wait to be India’s best friend!

That hint of steel in Modi has plainly escaped Indian commentators—the same lot who have long pitched for India to be part of the “political West”, and who, because the invitation has been accepted, now expect the Indian prime minister to clamber on to the Obama bandwagon when, in truth, it is the US president who is hitching his horse to Modi’s post.

In any case, for Obama his India visit will be win-win for the simple reason that the attention span of the American public is short, with people being swayed by the diplomatic flash and fandango of the moment featured on their television screens. The US media horde descending on Delhi will ensure he will be in the public eye. Fawning Indians, colour, pageantry, marching columns in brass and buckle dazzle, gaily caparisoned elephants and camels, and the imposing colonial-era buildings on Raisina Hill will complete the exotic backdrop for talks between the two principals. The question is whether the Modi-Obama meeting will produce anything solid.

The growing military links between India and the US is, as former US under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns said, “the glue’’ that is bonding the two countries in their quest to keep an aggressive China in check. Washington would like to cement such security cooperation by getting the Indian government to sign what it refers to as “foundational” agreements. Among the more problematic such accords is the Logistics Support Agreement, for instance, to permit American warships, US Army units, and US Air Force transport and combat planes to stage out of Indian ports and air bases for operations in the Indian Ocean basin and landward.

It is the sort of arrangement during the Cold War that enabled American U-2 spy planes to conduct sorties out of the Bareder air base outside Peshawar to monitor Russian underground nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk-21 testing site in Kazakhstan, and now permits US drone strikes against Taliban targets from the Jacobabad air base in Pakistani Punjab. An LSA once signed will be used by the US for its own purposes which may not always resonate with Indian policies and interest. It will, moreover, mean the US carving out parts of Indian ports and air bases for exclusive use to service their fighting assets deployed in this region. This was not acceptable to the Manmohan Singh government. The nationalist BJP government will be even less amenable to such demands.

India’s requirement of American capital and technology will automatically follow once the Modi government removes the structural and procedural impediments erected by the socialist state of Nehruvian provenance that Indira Gandhi consolidated. This dismantling is what the Indian people and the US are waiting to see happen. Advanced military technology transfer, likewise, should be left to the commercially-minded US defence companies to manage. All the Manohar Parrikar-led defence ministry needs to do is lay down the iron rule that all procurement by the armed services will hereafter only be sourced to Indian companies producing weapons systems and other hardware in toto in-country, as has been decided in flagship programmes such as Project 75i conventional submarine and the Avro 748 airlifter replacement.

The American companies will then fight with their government to release them from technology transfer constraints to enable them to better compete with other foreign firms to partner Indian companies, in the initial stage, to produce the desired items—design to delivery—in India. That’s the way to progress self-reliance in armaments, Modi’s “Make in India” policy and the manufacturing sector, vastly increase opportunities for the youthful demographic bulge to be upskilled and gainfully employed, and cement India-US relations (in that order).

[Published in New Indian Express, Nov 28, 2014, http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/2014/11/28/Modi-US-and-Indian-Interests/article2543859.ece

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Investigate Air Cmde Khokhar’s death

Air Cmde Pervez Hamilton Khokhar’s gruesome death in a gated community in Bangalore is not some off-way crime, but may be something lot more sinister. This stalwart of the Tejas LCA programme — its former director — was still helping out, his expert advice sought to fine tune the design and in its translation to production. Those in the know say his murderers were after documents they thought he might have at his home or for information he was unwilling to part with. There have been other such incidents in the past. Such as the murder in suspicious circumstances some years back of the chief engineer as also the chief artificer in the submarine building group at Vizag, who were then involved in constructing the Arihant SSBN. The fact is a lot of engineers and scientists working on sensitive projects have been bumped off, and there’s not a murmur out of government circles. This is not the stuff for the local police to investigate but murder for the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to take up. Why are our people such as Khokar left vulnerable, why is there no NIA team attached to sensitive projects? Attachment of FBI agents to highly-sensitive US projects is the norm. In the UK, Special Branch agents cover critical projects. Why is there no such arrangement in India? Shouldn’t NIA be tasked with the protection of prized Indian talent? One way to cripple a country’s advance is, quite literally, to kill off its talent. The Indian Govt and NIA better get on, and stay on, the job, fast.

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Parrikar’s Priority

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has three things going for him. First, he has prime minister Narendra Modi’s confidence. Two, he is an IIT engineer and able to digest the technical aspects and imperatives of national security better than the generalist civil servants in the ministry of defence (MoD). And three, he may have an instinctive understanding of national security considering he was chief minister of a small coastal state with big naval presence (which, after mining and tourism, perhaps, pumps in the most money into Goa’s economy).

There are many issues he will have to deal with on an urgent basis. But nothing is more important than for this country to produce the weapons it needs. Self-sufficiency in arms has to date been mostly political rhetoric and indigenisation is reduced to passing off licence manufacture of foreign weapons systems by defence public sector units (DPSUs) as a great leap in self-reliance. Instead of the government insisting that the military assist the Indian defence industry to obtain its requirements at home, it has left it to individual services to decide whether to participate in indigenous design, development, and production schemes. Navy showed its earnest long ago with a warship and submarine design directorate.

The air force and army are way behind, with the former displaying distrust in extremis of home-made aircraft even after the Marut HF-24 showed it could be done 50 years back, and the Tejas light combat aircraft is a beautiful fighter plane. According to Pushpindar Singh, agent for Dornier, the German aviation sector was so impressed it offered to jointly develop the latter aircraft. With the lack of foresight the Indian government is known for the MoD, of course, declined just as it had done the offer by Bonn in the Sixties to co-develop the Marut! The import option has proved a bonanza for foreign defence suppliers, providing foreign countries the handle to influence Indian foreign and military policies by manipulating, especially during crises, the supply of spares.

Parrikar’s predecessor, Arun Jaitley, decided boldly on the indigenous manufacture of the Project 75i conventional submarine, rejecting MoD’s attempt to take the private sector major, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), out of the running by suggesting it move its main production base to Hazira—a techno-economic decision it was incompetent to make, had no business to try imposing on L&T, and was plainly designed to favour the low-productivity DPSU Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd (MDL), which has huffed and puffed and run up huge cost and time over-runs in assembling the French Scorpene submarine. It is hardly to be wondered that the ideologically blinkered Congress defence minister, A K Antony, didn’t see the logic of entrusting L&T producing the technically challenging Arihant-class nuclear-powered nuclear ballistic missile-firing submarine (SSBN) with the manufacture of the far simpler diesel submarine!

In any case, Jaitley’s decision to have DPSUs compete with L&T and Pipavav Shipyard, and give the winning bidder the full contract for six submarines and the freedom to choose a foreign partner (because the navy’s diffident submarine design group needs hand-holding) can be the model for Parrikar deciding to produce the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) at home and give a fillip to India’s aircraft industry. Such an industry has been prevented from emerging by the IAF preferring imported fighter planes and, another DPSU, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, like MDL, specialising in screwdriver technology, manufacturing them under licence.

Parrikar will, however, have to first terminate the negotiations for Rafale. It is a buyer’s market and Paris can ill-afford anger and damage the prospects of French firms losing out on potential partnerships with Indian companies to produce weapons systems in toto in India. Such a decision will oxygenate the Tejas light combat aircraft programme, particularly if it is combined with the speedy approval of the upscaled Tejas Mk-II design—the Advanced MMRCA (AMMRCA) project, which has been finalised by the Aircraft Development Agency (ADA).

As in the case of the 75i submarine, it is the more efficient and capable private sector who should be lead contractor and prime integrator on the AMMRCA with ADA design and production technologies transferred to it, so that the 15-year timeline for induction is met. Indeed, the country is farther ahead in the realm of combat plane production than of diesel submarines, considering the technology is indigenous and ingested, the design is ready as are the tooling and manufacturing processes for the Tejas series. To ensure success, however, Parrikar will have to make the IAF responsible for the success of the project and bringing the AMMRCA in on time and within cost. This is a larger, truly 5th generation, warplane with the fully composite fuselage and leading edges, higher ordnance-carrying capacity, and more advanced avionics compared to the Rafale straddling the 3rd and 4th generations of fighter aircraft dating to the 1980s.

That India even shortlisted Rafale, a day-before-yesterday’s plane for tomorrow’s needs, and has made ready to spend in excess of $30 billion over the next 30 years when a home-grown alternative is available, shows how skewed the procurement system has become and which Parrikar will have to right on a war footing. He can show India’s resolve to be self-sufficient in arms and invest such vast sums, in line with Modi’s “Make in India” policy, with a design-to-delivery AMMRCA product and thus power the Indian aviation sector with private companies permitted to utilise the under-used wherewithal of the DPSUs. Or, Parrikar can funnel the `1,80,000 crore into helping Paris recover its investment in the prohibitively expensive Rafale programme that has found no other buyers and keeping the French company, Dassault, financially afloat. What makes more sense doing?

Parrikar should not be intimidated by IAF’s media orchestrated squawking about depleted combat aircraft strength, especially when there’s a ready solution the IAF is loath to pursue to meet short-term needs, namely, buying more Su-30s, MiG-29Ms, and sprucing up their spares situation. The AMMRCA at the top end and the Avro 748 medium transport replacement and the army’s requirement for 197 light helicopters in its train will help consolidate a strong aerospace sector that India has waited too long for.

[Published in New Indian Express, Nov 14, 2014,http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Parrikars-Priority/2014/11/14/article2521690.ece

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Crisis of State — External Security

I was invited to deliver the 6th PA Ramakrishnan Lecture at the Bhatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore, Chennai, Oct 5, 2014. For those who are interested, the talk and the interaction following was videographed and uploaded to Youtube and may be accessed as below:

Bharat Karnad on “Crisis of the State – India’s External Security” – 1

Bharat Karnad on “Crisis of the State – India’s External Security” – 2

Bharat Karnad on “Crisis of the State – India’s External Security” – 3

Bharat Karnad on “Crisis of the State – India’s External Security” – 4

Bharat Karnad on “Crisis of the State – India’s External Security” – 5

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Vietnam as India’s Pivot

Vietnam prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit has just ended with a sealing of a defence pact. That this significant accord was readied as a follow-up to the defence Memorandum of Understanding signed a scant month and half after president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi suggests New Delhi has finally woken up to Vietnam’s seminal importance to India’s strategic well-being.

This special standing of Vietnam in India’s geopolitics, incidentally, took the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Indian government more than a decade to appreciate—from the articulation by then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in 1992-93 of the “Look East” policy to when his successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, betook himself to Hanoi in 2003 which produced the agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Another 11 years elapsed before the advent of the Narendra Modi government and this appreciation growing teeth.

Since 2005, I have been advocating the transfer of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile—the only one of its kind in the world—to Vietnam. In 2007, Hanoi for the first time expressed its keen interest in securing this singularly accurate and lethal weapon to defend itself and deter China from having its way in the disputed sea territories in the South China Sea—almost the whole of which Beijing claims as its own in a brazen bid for a maritime lebensraum. Lebensraum is the concept the Nazi geographer and geopolitical strategist Karl Haushofer coined in the 1930s to justify Germany’s policy of territorial aggrandisement at the expense of the Central European states, Poland and Russia. It refers to the “living space” Haushofer said a vigorous Germany needed legitimately to expand in order to increase its resources base, consolidate its strength, and realise its grand ambition. China is the Germany of the 21st Century and it has got to be stopped.

The case that China is India’s biggest challenge (not Pakistan that Indians and their government get mightily exercised about) and Vietnam is the pivotal state around which New Delhi can obtain a coalition of Asian rimland and offshore countries to ringfence China was a geostrategic scheme first articulated in my 1994 book “Future Imperilled”. So, when the newly founded National Security Advisory Board constituted during Vajpayee’s time met with MEA in the autumn of 1998 and I as member of the board, assuming the Indian diplomats were clued into the theories and practice of geopolitics, asked then foreign secretary K Raghunath why India had failed to respond to Beijing’s calculated policy of nuclear missile-arming Pakistan over the previous decade with a tit-for-tat gesture and a policy of imposing costs on China, by transferring easily nuclearisable missiles to Vietnam, Raghunath replied with practised certitude. “It is not practicable,” he said.

Fast forward 16 years and the impracticable has become Indian policy—the Modi government has decided to pass on the Brahmos missile to Hanoi which, appropriately, finds no mention in the Joint Statement issued by prime ministers Modi and Dung. These anti-ship weapons, for which there’s no counter, will be installed in shore batteries along the Vietnamese coast fronting on the Hainan Island, to deter the Chinese South Seas Fleet based there, and as sentinels for that country’s offshore claims and oil and gas exploration and drilling assets in the South China Sea, and to dissuade the Chinese navy from capturing disputed sea territories as happened in the case of the Paracel Islands.

The MEA during Manmohan Singh’s time turned aside repeated Vietnamese requests for the Brahmos by asserting that the Russian partner company in this project, NPO Maschinostroeyenia was against any such deal. It lost India traction with a strategic partner Indonesia as well, which too had asked for the Brahmos. Denied by New Delhi, Jakarta directly approached Moscow and secured the slightly derated version of the Brahmos, the Ramos. The difference with the onset of the Modi dispensation was that India rather than merely seeking Russian assent for the transfer of this cruise missile to Vietnam pushed for it.

Indeed, the MEA and the ministry of defence (MoD) bureaucrats, who in line with the Congress government’s instincts for kowtowing to Beijing routinely vetoed initiatives over the past decade by the armed forces to improve India’s relative security position vis-a-vis China by using transfers of armaments and forging military-to-military links, are now more receptive.

With the first stirrings of geopolitical common sense in the fusty corridors of the MEA and MoD, New Delhi will hopefully begin to see that Vietnam can be to India what Pakistan is to China. A Chinese nuclear missile-armed Pakistan, enabled by Beijing to grow its indigenous defence industry beyond the screwdriver technology the Indian defence PSUs are stuck at, and thus to acquire a measure of genuine self-reliance has, as per Beijing’s design, contained India to the subcontinent. India, in similar fashion, can prioritise the military build-up of Vietnam (and the Philippines, and Indonesia) as the first tier of India’s distant defence with a view to restricting Chinese options east of the Malacca Strait.

The logic behind such a policy, as I keep repeating in my writings, is that if we don’t have the stomach for a fight with China and cannot muster the will to stand up to Beijing, let’s at least arm the Vietnamese who over a thousand years have bloodied Chinese forces intruding into their country, and never shied away from a fight. It is a cost-effective means of diminishing India’s primary security threat and military challenge and, equally important, of paying Beijing back in its own coin.

India also needs to capitalise on the opportunity to distance Vietnam economically from China, incentivising it with lines of credit and Indian investment to plug into the Indian economy instead. In this respect, the business delegation with Dung, hopefully, returned home with a bag full of deals. A more telling measure would be to increase manifold the Indian stake in Vietnam’s security by investing in its energy resource sector. ONGC Videsh should act quickly on Dung’s offer of new oil blocks inside the Vietnamese claimline in the South China Sea.

[Published in the New Indian Express, Oct 30, 2014 and is at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Vietnam-as-Indias-Pivot/2014/10/31/article2500503.ece

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