HC Deb 01 August 1961 vol 645 cc1281-95

10.34 p.m.

Mr. John Cronin (Loughborough)

I propose to draw the attention of the House to certain inadequacies of the transport force of the Royal Air Force. I am afraid that it is a subject which may be a little dull and statistical, but it may be of some consolation to hon. Gentlemen who wish to raise other subjects that I hope that it will be a comparatively brief debate.

I want to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Air for coming to reply to this debate. I know that he had an important Royal Air Force engagement tonight, and it is good of him to miss it for this purpose. He is always helpful and courteous, and I know that he will give a full and helpful reply. The main purpose of my speech is to indicate that the transport force cannot carry heavy equipment long distances.

When I talk of the inadequacy of this force, I make it clear that this is no reflection whatever on its personnel. I have often travelled in their aircraft and have seen them at work, and I say without hesitation that the officers, N.C.Os. and men of the Royal Air Force are as efficient and as keen as those in any other branch of the Service—perhaps more so. But there can be little doubt that the force is inadequate from the point of view of carrying heavy equipment.

We have already heard earlier tonight how, on various operations, including the Kuwait operation, "Operation Starlight," the Ghana-Congo airlift, and the Jordan operation, heavy equipment was not carried long distances, and, in the case of Jordon, was carried only by borrowing aircraft not belonging to the transport force.

I intend to review as briefly as possible the aircraft which are available for the transport force. I am afraid that one has to speak about payloads and ranges, and, of course, these factors tend to merge with each other, and it is very difficult to talk about the payload or range alone, because the shorter the range the greater the payload and vice versa. The only device, short of a graph, is to refer to the constant payload. I will have to refer to a payload of 20,000 lbs. because that is the approximate weight of a tank or armoured car, or of ninety men.

The Beverley, with a payload of 20,000 lbs., can fly only 2,370 miles. The Argosy, with a payload of 20,000 lbs., can fly only 1,210 miles. The Comet IV, with the same payload, can fly only 2,590 miles. From the point of view of distance these aircraft are inadequate for carrying heavy equipment.

In addition, there is the difficulty of fitting heavy equipment into them. Hare, we must deal with another factor—cargo cross-section. Only the Beverley of these three aircraft has an adequate cross-section—10 ft. by 10 ft.—which will permit it to carry heavy and bulky equipment. The Argosy has a cross-section of 6 ft. by 8 ft., while the Comet has 6 ft. by 6 ft.

It is obvious to hon. Members who are familiar with even elementary equipment that even trucks will not get into these aircraft, except for the Beverley, which is a short-range, slow, piston-engined, rather old aircraft. Thus, we are left with the Britannia, which can carry a payload of 20,000 lbs. 5,500 miles. This aircraft would appear to be the answer from the point of view of strategic freightage in Transport Command. But the Britannia, unfortunately, has some serious defects.

First of all, it can only be loaded from a height of 10 ft. Anything driven into it has to be driven up a 10 ft. ramp. The fact that it can be loaded from the side only presents considerable difficulty if wheeled vehicles have to be moved into it and turned round inside the aircraft. It also has the rather serious defect of cargo cross-section. Its width is 11 ft. 5 in. and its height 6 ft. 8 in. So, once more, any item of equipment which is more than 6 ft. 8 in. in height cannot be put into the aircraft.

At present, therefore, it appears that the transport force has only one aircraft capable of carrying a payload of 20,000 lbs. farther than 3,000 miles, and that, of course, has the serious defects to which I have referred. It cannot be loaded adequately and its height is such that there is a strict limitation on the height of the equipment that can be put into it.

The only strategic transport aircraft cannot take a medium sized truck and it cannot take a light tank. Both the Crusader and the Valentine light tanks and armoured cars have a height of 7½ ft. It does not require much knowledge of cubic geometry to realise that equipment of that height cannot be fitted into an aircraft of a height of 6 ft. 8 in. It will not take the 8-in. howitzer, which is 7 ft. 8 in. high, or a 155 mm. gun, which is 7 ft. 10 in. high, so there is a very wide range of quite essential modern Army equipment which cannot be carried at all by the transport force except for short distances of substantially less than 3,000 miles.

I think that arising from the last debate we had this evening most hon. Members agree that there is danger of trouble arising anywhere between Hong Kong and British Honduras or between Persia and Central Africa, and the distances involved are very extensive indeed. The Middle East is 4,000 miles away from London, Central Africa is about 4,500 miles away, Singapore and Hong Kong are well over 7,000 miles away and the Caribbean Sea is over 5,000 miles away. All these places are potential trouble spots and we have no means of getting heavy equipment to those areas with the troops to be carried overland.

It may be suggested that these difficulties could be overcome by staging, but staging presents serious difficulties, particularly when there is nowhere to stage the aircraft en route. This applies particularly to the Atlantic and parts of Central Africa. The Under-Secretary may in reply point out that the present strategic concept is to have supply dumps near all the potential trouble spots in the world and to use short-haul transport to move the equipment from the supply dumps to the areas where it is required.

This argument may have been valid at one time, but its validity is rapidly decreasing. In the first place, these supply dumps, which are scattered all over the world, contain largely obsolete equipment—large quantities of surplus equipment from the last war—and they are rapidly becoming extremely obsolete. If this equipment is to be replaced, it is obviously both financially and economically a very difficult matter to replace it in adequate quantities in these various supply dumps. It is obviously much more sensible to use this equipment from a central supply dump in the United Kingdom and to fly it out to the places where it is wanted.

There is also, I think the Under-Secretary would have to agree, the political difficulty that many of these places which we have used up to now as supply dumps will eventually be no longer available to us as sites for military dumps. At present it seems that there is a good deal of potential danger in this situation. We cannot take heavy equipment more than 3,000 miles.

It has been said that the answer to all these difficulties is the Short and Harland Belfast aircraft. This in its conception is certainly a very fine aircraft. It can carry 83,000 lbs. for 1,000 miles. It can carry 25,000 lbs. a distance of 4,800 miles. It has a very adequate cargo cross-section of 12 ft. by 12 ft. The aircraft in its conception is certainly an excellent possibility for strategic freight for the transport force. The great difficulty is that we are not promised delivery until 1964. What is to happen until then? What will happen if trouble breaks out in a place like British Honduras or Hong Kong or Persia? How are we to get heavy equipment to our forces in a very short time? The year 1964 has been frequently mentioned in the House in this connection, but will the aircraft be delivered in 1964 and, if so, how many will be delivered? Is this merely to be a prototype of the Belfast aircraft, or is it to be in squadron service? I have received information, which I hope will prove to be erroneous, that it is probable that it will not be available in 1964. There is talk of it not being available for squadron service until 1965 or 1966.

Another difficulty is that the Belfast has not yet been assembled. Some metal has been cut from it, but there is no such thing as a Belfast aircraft at present. Therefore, we have no means of knowing how satisfactory it will be in practice. On many occasions in the past aircraft have proved on careful trial to be unsatisfactory. Both sides of the House have had their difficulties in this. Hon. Gentlemen who have been sailing at Cowes this week will have seen the spectre of the Brabazon in Cowes. That proved to be an unsuccessful large aircraft. The Belfast aircraft seems to be very much a bird in the bush instead of a bird in the hand.

I wonder to what extent the Government are influenced by the politics of Northern Ireland in being so insistent that this aircraft is the answer to our problems as regards strategic freight aircraft, even though it will not be in service for a long time. I hope that the Government will take a realistic view. We certainly want the citizens of Belfast to have as much employment as possible, but if it means denuding our strategic force for several years of the ability to carry heavy equipment long distances we are paying a very high price in the security of this country.

The question I want to ask the Under-Secretary is whether the Belfast will be available in 1964 in squadron strength. If not, when will it be available? The most important question of all is this: what will the Air Ministry do about carrying heavy equipment long distances between now and when the Belfast is available? There is no escape from the fact that at present our troops cannot go round the world with their heavy equipment. They travel to a large extent like tourists on a Cook's holiday with light luggage. This is a lamentable state of affairs.

Is there any other aircraft which could be obtained in a short time. The only one of which I know, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will agree about this, is the Lockheed C130E. I think that one has to be rather careful about talking about the Lockheed Company, or about any other aircraft company for that matter. I think that the proper attitude to be adopted by the Minister, or a private Member, when dealing with aircraft companies is that of a millionaire talking to an adventuress. He must be polite but cautious.

We have to consider that this company may well have the answer to this problem. The Lockheed Company has a very highly developed sales technique, which has certainly not been absent in this House. Certain Members have been invited to Atlanta, and other Members have had other inducements to become interested in the affairs of the Lockheed Company. I have taken no part in any of these agreeable occasions, so I can declare a complete lack of interest.

We have to face the situation that the Lockheed C130E is the only aircraft, until the Belfast arrives, which can satisfy the wants of strategic freightage and carry heavy equipment over long distances. Going back to the payload, it can carry 20,000 lbs. 4,030 miles. It has an adequate cargo cross-section of 10 ft. 3 ins. by 9 ft. 1 in. It can carry medium-sized vehicles, light tanks, bulldozers, any kind of missile, or medium artillery, and, furthermore, these things can be loaded on pallets so that loading takes a couple of minutes and the aircraft can be turned round rapidly. Its capabilities have been proved. The Military Air Transport Service of the United States Army has 350 of them in service. It is the standard transport aircraft not only of the United States Army, but of the Canadian and Australian Armies.

The other important factor is its early availability. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm this. I think that the first aircraft would be available within twelve months of a firm order, and then two aircraft every month after that. The problems of the transport force could be greatly reduced within a year or eighteen months from today if a decision were made about this now. It is far from my business to attempt to sell Lockhead aircraft to the House, but is there any other aircraft which is available so soon, or which can do the job as this aircraft can? I do not think that there is.

There are certain arguments against the C130E. One is the widespread view that the heavy equipment of the Army and Royal Air Force can be carried only in a Belfast. That was said last Wednesday by the Secretary of State for Air, and it has been said many times by Government spokesmen. This puzzles me. If the C130E is the standard aircraft of the United States, Canadian and Australian Armies, what is this mysterious bulky equipment which the British Army has which will not fit into it? Why is ours the odd Army which has bigger and bulkier equipment?

It does not sound a convincing argument. Admittedly this aircraft has not the large cross-section of 12 ft. by 12 ft. which the Belfast has, but if it is standard equipment with those other armies, why is it that we are so concerned to wait for the Belfast? There are, of course, financial and economic arguments. This aircraft costs £993,000. We have a balance of payments problem and dollar difficulties. But £993,000 is a small part of last year's bill for imports from the United States. It came to £567 million. Last year we increased our import bill from the United States by £29 million which we paid for Boeing 707s for B.O.A.C., so that I do not think that it would be a serious financial blow for us to equip ourselves with some C130s.

We could build them in this country under licence, which would mean that they would cost 20 per cent. of the dollar figure which I have mentioned. That would bring employment to this country and provide a great economic benefit to the aircraft industry as well. It would carry the penalty that the delivery period would be eighteen months instead of twelve but that would be a very big improvement on the period of three, four or five years that we should have to wait before we can get the Belfast as a transport aircraft.

The Air Ministry may well have an ostensible argument that it does not want to buy C130s, because shortly there will be available a C130 with short take-off and landing capabilities which would be a more useful aircraft. But this S.T.O.L. aircraft will not be available for another three-and-a-half years, so that whatever happens we should still be confronted with the difficulty that if we do not equip ourselves with some C130s, we shall be without an adequate transport aircraft for the long-distance haulage of heavy military freight.

I see no alternative to the purchase of at least a few of these aircraft and I should like the Under-Secretary of State to address himself to that matter. If he says that we should not purchase them, I should like to know what we are to do until the Belfast comes into squadron service. We do not know when a brush fire type of war might break out in any part of the world which might necessitate our flying heavy military equipment long distances at short notice. If we are unable to do that, we may be faced with a disagreeable humiliation from the point of view of foreign policy. We may also find that what started out as a small brush fire war might turn into something very different. If we cannot fly the Army's heavy equipment with the men it may be that many lives will be lost. So, if this big gap in the capabilities of the transport force is not removed before we get the Belfast aircraft, there may be dire danger.

I should like the Under-Secretary to bear in mind that we on this side of the House will continue to press this matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take offence if I remind him that we are dealing with a dying Government, but with one which may not die completely for several years, and so it is the bounden duty of hon. Members on this side of the House to ensure that during that time we maintain the military efficiency of our Armed Forces.

10.59 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. W. J. Taylor)

I am glad to hear that the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) takes such a long-term view of the life of the Government I can assure him that we shall be here to torment him for a good many years to come, but in the meantime I will try to answer some of the points which he raised. The hon. Gentleman went into a great deal of detail about the ranges and payloads of various types of transport aircraft. I did not recognise some of the figures which he quoted.

It is mistaken to criticise the Comet as a freighter; it is not, and was never intended to be, a freighter, and we do not use it as a freighter. Secondly, it seemed odd to me to ignore ranges of 2,000 miles or under and to treat such ranges as though they were not worth discussing. There are one or two Questions on the Order Paper for tomorrow to my right hon. Friend on these matters, to which replies will be given, and the House will understand that I do not want to anticipate in too great detail what my right hon. Friend will say in his replies.

I should like, however, to refer to the build-up of Transport Command, to which my right hon. Friend referred in some detail in the Air Estimates Memorandum for this year. In it there was an illuminating diagram showing the present transport force and the additions to be made to it during the present financial year. In presenting the Estimates my right hon. Friend explained that in the last four or five years the load-carrying capacity of Transport Command had trebled. At normal rates of effort we have a capacity of 150 million passenger-miles per month. In the next three years this will be increased to 200 million passenger-miles per month. In emergencies the rate of effort can be doubled for a limited period. Our present capacity is therefore 300 million passenger-miles per month. As for freight, the carrying capacity of Transport Command normally is 20 million ton-miles a month and in an emergency it can be doubled to 40 million ton-miles a month.

As the hon. Member said in his opening sentence, figures are somewhat dull, but at any rate they tell a very impressive story in this context and they show that Transport Command is a very potent force in its capacity, speed and range, and in all those capacities there will be a great increase in the next few years.

The hon. Member went into some detail about various types of aircraft, in the main critically. I want to reply to him in a little detail. If he refers to the Air Estimates Memorandum he will see that the Britannia is our main strategic transport at present. It is capable of carrying almost a company of troops over ranges up to 2,500 miles. I have been happy to make arrangements for hon. Members to pay a visit to the Royal Air Force at Singapore during the Recess, and they will be conveyed in a Britannia. I hope that they will have the personal experience of travelling that great distance in thirty-two hours, including all stops. They will see what a wonderful aircraft the Britannia is. We have twenty-three of these in the service.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

How many hon. Members are going on that trip?

Mr. Taylor

I think that eleven Members, including three from another place, are to make the trip, but there will be others in the aircraft.

Mr. Cronin

The hon. Member is digressing in a most engaging manner about this pleasant trip which he is arranging for hon. Members, but he should make it clear to the House that the Britannia, although an admirable aeroplane, will not take any heavy equipment, or any equipment at all higher than 6ft. 8in., and for that reason its use is severely limited.

Mr. Taylor

We have twenty-three Britannias in service at present, and this aircraft is capable of doing a very useful job in the Royal Air Force. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity of examining it and forming a view from a practical standpoint when he goes.

I shall not go into great detail in this debate. It would take too long. I should have to go into about twenty different types of aircraft and measure the holds and the equipment put into them, which would be very dull and not very helpful at this time of night.

The Argosy aeroplane has been referred to in some detail in previous debates. It will carry seventy troops or 30,000 lbs. of freight over considerable distances. Its rear-loading doors enable the Argosy to carry heavy equipment such as an armoured car, field artillery or an anti-tank weapon. We plan to buy fifty-six of these.

The hon. Member for Loughborough and his hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) spoke about the Kuwait operation. I cannot accept their argument that the Air Force was unable to move heavy equipment in that operation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House on 19th July that in the first six days of the Kuwait operation 7,000 men and 700 tons of stores were moved to airfields in the Persian Gulf and Aden. Most of this was done in the first forty-eight hours by about seventy transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force.

The Beverley, Which is our medium-range transport aircraft, is capable of carrying, and did carry, armoured ears or field artillery over ranges of up to 1,500 miles. I have here a table showing the capacity of the Beverley. Three interesting examples are given. The Beverley can carry at 5,000 ft. over a distance of 1,680 nautical miles two Ferret scout cars weighing 19,000 lbs. It can carry one Saracen armoured personnel carrier weighing 22,400 lbs. a distance of 1,500 miles at that altitude. It can carry one Saladin armoured oar weighing 23,520 lbs. 1.430 nautical miles. These figures seem to refute in a remarkable way the argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Cronin

I think the hon. Gentleman is missing the point of the debate. The Beverley and the Argosy are admirable aircraft, and I agree with what he says about them, but what they cannot do is carry the equipment he referred to over really long distances in excess of 3,000 miles. We have no aircraft which can do it.

Mr. Taylor

I shall have something more to say in a few minutes about long-distance freighters.

The hon. Member for Dudley said that we had not in the Royal Air Force an aircraft capable of carrying a heavy tank. That is quite true, but I know of no aircraft in the world today which will carry a heavy tank. It is unrealistic to put a point like that.

The hon Member for Loughborough spoke about stockpiles. If we accepted his argument and abandoned any attempt to stockpile equipment overseas, the demands on our air transport capacity would virtually be limitless. That, however, is not the Government's policy. It does not make sense to build up an enormous capacity of expensive, long-range aircraft to transport comparatively cheap items of equipment which can just as easily be stockpiled much nearer to likely trouble centres. Purely as a matter of economics, the use of a £1 million aircraft like the Britannia to move stores costing only a few thousand pounds, such as light trucks and trailers, is a practice which should, as far as possible, be avoided.

The hon. Member went into critical detail about the Belfast. The main purpose of this aircraft is to carry bulky and expensive items which cannot economically be stockpiled. A good example is provided by the transport of surface-to-air missile systems, which are exceedingly expensive. It would be uneconomic to keep these in overseas stockpiles. They need servicing and air conditioning, their working parts must be kept right and we could not reasonably store them in some climates. When the Belfast comes into service in 1964, it will not be too late to transport this type of missile.

I do not think it right for me to anticipate the Answer which my right hon. Friend will give tomorrow about the phasing-in dates of this aircraft for service or about the rate of build-up, to which the hon. Member referred.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

On a point of order. Is it the case, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that the Minister cannot give a reply because there is a Question on the Paper dealing with this matter? If that is so, it seems that if the rule concerning anticipation extends so far, there would be nothing to prevent an hon. Member from making debates pointless by putting down Questions at a subsequent date referring to the matters which are to be debated.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

I do not think that it is out of order to anticipate an Answer to a Question.

Mr. Cronin

Further to that point of order. I am quite agreeable not to press the Under-Secretary to give the information if he feels that it can be more happily and usefully given tomorrow by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Taylor

Thank you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for what you have said, and I thank the hon. Member for his accommodation. I have taken advice about this. The plain fact is that I am reluctant to anticipate a reply which my right hon. Friend will be asked to give tomorrow. It is as simple as that. It is not a question of anticipation or the rule extending this far.

The hon. Member for Loughborough compared the Lockheed C130 with the Belfast. I have some interesting figures. The Lockheed C130B will carry 22,500 lb., or about 75 troops, over a range of 3,300 miles. The Belfast will carry 25,000 lb., or 83 troops, 4,000 miles. That clearly demonstrates that the Belfast will be a superior aircraft, both in range and in freight-carrying capacity.

Mr. Cronin

indicated assent.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Member talked about a few pieces of metal being cut up. I have on two or three occasions, both while I was at the Ministry of Supply and in my present office, paid visits to Queen's Island to see how this aircraft was progressing. It is getting along well, but it is a very big aircraft. Quite new techniques are being introduced into it in design and in manufacture, and it is taking time to get the prototype into the air. I have no doubt that when the day comes for the Belfast to be brought into service it will be a first-class aircraft which will fulfil the operational requirements expected of it.

Mr. Cronin

When the day comes.

Mr. Taylor

Yes, when the day comes. The hon. Gentleman also talked of the items of equipment to be carried by the Belfast and the Lockheed C130. There is a large number of such items and I cannot describe them in detail at this stage, but the Belfast will enable us to move Bloodhound or Thunderbird Mark 11 by air. It will have a load capacity of 35 tons.

The Lockheed C130, although an admirable aeroplane, does not approach this capacity, and there are items of engineering stores which the Belfast can, and the Lockheed C130 cannot, carry. I do not think that it is reasonable to compare these two aircraft. The Lockheed, in extensive use with the United States Air Force, is really a tactical freighter and not in the same category as the Belfast.

The hon. Member also made no reference at all to the short-range transport force, but that is a part of Transport Command and certainly worthy of honourable mention, so to speak, in this debate.

If he will refer to the chart in the Air Estimates Memorandum he will see that we plan to increase substantially the number of Whirlwinds in service, and to buy Belvederes and twin-rotor helicopters, of which we have three in service. It must be remembered that aircraft may well have to operate from forward positions, possibly on hastily prepared airstrips, and the helicopter is at a great advantage in this rôle.

We are going very thoroughly into the question of short take-off and landing aircraft and I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that these points are relevant. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for War who, earlier this evening in the latter part of his speech, paid a tribute to the work of the Royal Air Force in the Kuwait operation. I was, however, a little disturbed and, indeed, disappointed with the criticisms of the hon. Member for Dudley in that preceding debate. I must say that he reminded me somewhat of the High Court judge who, when asked what he thought of a particular counsel for whom he had no great regard, replied, "He was disappointingly good." That, I think, would sum up the criticisms of the hon. Member for Dudley who really indicated in his speech that the operation had gone so well that he felt bound to criticise it willy-nilly.

Mr. Willey

Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to reply to what my hon. Friend said in another debate some hours ago? I raise that point because I have concern with the last subject down for discussion tonight, and that might not be replied to because there will not be a Minister to speak on the subject after that.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The House is considering the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill and so this is all one debate.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

Mr. Taylor

I was just about to say when we had that interruption that, as we all know, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) has just come in from the night shift. He has not been here at all during these two debates which started at or just after 7 o'clock. In winding up the previous debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War asked the indulgence of the House for me to reply to questions affecting the Royal Air Force which had been raised in that debate, and this was generally accepted. I give the hon. Gentleman that information just to assure him that I am not out of order and that I am being courteous to his hon. Friend the Member for Dudley.

His hon. Friend—I realise I must come to this now, although I did not intend to mention it—denigrated not only Transport Command of the Royal Air Force but other arms of the Service, too. He ranged, as is his fashion, very widely, and he cast at me a lot of attractive propositions which I do not propose to reply to now, particularly as he is not here, but he made some very sweeping allegations denigrating the Lightning fighter, which is just coming into squadron service in the Royal Air Force. I am not prepared to bandy arguments with him or anyone else about the performance characteristics of this aeroplane. In any case, I am inhibited from doing so by reasons of security and responsibility, but I want to make it clear to the House that the Lightning fighter with its air-to-air missiles and backed by an air defence and radar system second to none is today an operational weapon system able to deal effectively with any bomber which the Russians have in service.

I mention this in conclusion because I deprecate hon. Members in their speeches giving the impression that the Royal Air Force is an obsolescent Service. It is nothing of the kind. Time after time the Royal Air Force gives a good account of itself and always fulfils more than adequately the tasks imposed upon it. I hope that the House will feel as a result of this short debate that the Royal Air Force is going on business as usual and that we can rely upon it in the future as in the past.

Mr. Cronin

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down—and I shall be out of order if I do not say this before he sits down—I should like to thank him for the very agreeable and interesting speech, and it is only with great reluctance that I point out that nothing he has said in any way answered our charge that the transport force is quite incapable of shifting the heavy equipment of troops over very long distances, over 3,000 miles.

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