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Document created: 1 March 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2005
Lt Gen Michael W. Wooley, USAF
Editorial Abstract: The commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses illustrations from recent operations to encapsulate AFSOC’s contributions to the global war on terrorism. He briefly explains where AFSOC is right now, how it got here, and where the command is going.
On the night of 17 June 2004, a coalition special operations team camped inside Afghanistan. One member of the team, an Air Force combat controller, was attacked while manning a security post. The initial enemy fire raked the position, destroyed one vehicle, and detonated the ammunition stored inside. The combat controller engaged the enemy as secondary explosions rocked the vehicle. He raced back to find two members of the team severely wounded. Grabbing a grenade launcher, he repelled the attackers. He then contacted command and control, and requested close air support (CAS) and medevac. His suppressive fire bought time for the team to defend themselves against the 15–20 anticoalition militia members. When a flight of AH-64 Apaches arrived, he controlled the scene, enabling their 30-millimeter cannons to find, fix, and target the enemy forces. Overwhelmed, the enemy withdrew, and the team then successfully medevaced.
I am very proud of all our military men and women. As the above story illustrates, they deploy in defense of America’s national security and willingly put their lives on the line for freedom. Every deployed Airman fighting this war knows why he or she is out there—they have not forgotten the 2,996 lives lost on 9/11. We are at war—and we will win.
This article briefly explains how Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) views where we are right now, how we got here, and where we are going.
AFSOC is composed of approximately 20,000 Airmen who provide the Air Force -special operations with combat power and combat search and rescue (CSAR). A common misconception is that special operations forces (SOF) replace conventional force capabilities—they do not. SOF units complement our conventional capabilities and are indispensable in meeting some of the toughest challenges the United States faces in fighting the global war on terrorism (GWOT).
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Because terrorist organizations often maintain a very fluid leadership structure, it is difficult to create a clear leadership picture for many of the terrorist organizations we are fighting. When we capture or kill one leader, another quickly takes his place.
Although the conventional Air Force does an outstanding job in finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing the fleeting-target set that is our terrorist adversary—creating a smoking crater has its drawbacks. SOF personnel can remove a terrorist threat very effectively by using AC-130 gunships; likewise, they provide the capability to pinpoint and capture the terrorists alive and search the location for sensitive information.
Make no mistake, creating a smoking crater is often the appropriate response. However, the ability to interrogate some terrorists is invaluable, and it is this ability that helps us determine and eradicate a terrorist organization’s leadership. For example, information acquired through a succession of SOF terrorist captures led us to Saddam Hussein.
We gain invaluable information on the capabilities of terrorist organizations by searching through the terrorists’ “stuff” at the hit location. Captured items can reveal the weapons terrorists have available and provide insight into future terrorist actions. For example, exploitations of SOF sites located videos in Afghanistan in 2001, positively connecting al-Qaeda to 9/11.
Kicking Down the Door
The GWOT requires high-fidelity and actionable intelligence. SOF units are specifically trained to acquire this information. Cable News Network and Fox News have shown numerous videos of US forces searching Iraqi homes. Although conventional forces can knock down a door as well as SOF personnel can—finding the right door is a mission they are trained and equipped to perform very well.
During the GWOT operations, our Battlefield Airmen were on the ground with the SOF units of our sister services, kicking down doors in nonpermissive territory. Those Airmen enabled airpower to support these operations by making calls for fire, providing emergency medical support, and producing tailored weather forecasts. Our special-operations MC-130 aircraft and MH-53 helicopters got SOF people to the right door—when they needed to be there. AFSOC’s AC-130 aircraft were overhead making sure all of the other doors stayed closed.
Teach a Man to Fish and He Eats for a Lifetime
There is more to special operations than the direct-attack missions mentioned above. They can also train some of our new coalition partners to fight the terrorist threat internally without US aid. This capability to engage with training is critical. AFSOC’s 6th Special Operations Squadron’s (SOS) combat aviation advisory (CAA) mission is essential to building strong coalitions. These special operators work closely with foreign air forces. The 6th SOS trains, advises, and aids our new coalition partners in integrating their forces into a US coalition.
The CAA mission is itself a microcosm of special operations—a few people working at the tactical level to create operational and strategic results. A recent trip to Colombia serves as an outstanding example of how our CAA Airmen work with our strategic partners. In the fall of 2003, Airmen from the 6th SOS trained Colombian air force UH-1 aircrews in daylight and night infiltration/exfiltration operations. Battlefield Airmen worked closely with Colombian police, training the Colombians in making calls for fire support to UH-1 and AC-47 gunships. They also trained the Colombians in CSAR operations. The 6th SOS did an outstanding job of training our new coalition partners in SOF and CSAR mission areas.
The following example of a tactical operation illustrates the strategic return. Operators from the 6th SOS were in Uzbekistan on 9/11 for language-immersion training. They used the relationships they had built to establish US basing rights, enabling SOF missions into Afghanistan within weeks instead of months. Coalition warfare requires creating relationships, and the 6th SOS personnel deployed now are strengthening relationships with our coalition partners.
Although today our counterterrorism efforts are concentrated within a particular region, we would be naïve to assume that today’s snapshot of terrorist concentration is also tomorrow’s. It would be strategically impossible and irresponsible to have a large US presence in all regions of the world. The United States simply does not have the armed forces or logistical infrastructure to support that magnitude of forward basing. Coalitions allow for a worldwide military and moral presence against the terrorists. Enabling our coalition partners to fight the GWOT within their borders, using their own forces, is critical. CAA is essential to make that possible.
Under the Radarscope
Some of our coalition partners must often quietly support our efforts in fighting the GWOT. Political realities in their country may demand that their activities occur without fanfare. AFSOC is uniquely capable of working with these coalition partners clandestinely. AFSOC often works with some of our coalition partners—although, no one knows we are there—fighting the GWOT and/or helping to train these countries to fight alongside us.
These Things We Do—That Others May Live
Our SOF people are doing a great job augmenting conventional forces, enabling the Air Force to meet the challenges the GWOT presents. However, AFSOC also includes approximately 8,000 Airmen who embody the above rescue motto.
We celebrated one year of rescue under AFSOC in October 2003. Moving rescue under AFSOC was the right move for rescue and the right move for the Air Force. Special operations and rescue are one family whose rich history goes back to World War II, when the First Air Commando Group operated in Burma. They flew some of the first special-operations and air-rescue missions, and they did it as one SOF/CSAR team. Air Force special operations and rescue forces were a team then, and we are a team now.
Every time an Air Force aircrew flies an operational sortie, the crew members know that rescue forces stand ready to recover them should something go wrong. Not only have our rescue forces recovered isolated Air Force personnel, they have also saved the lives of soldiers, sailors, and marines. During the course of the GWOT, rescue forces have saved not only Department of Defense (DOD) and coalition force members, but civilian lives as well. Two stories illustrate this point.
On 12 June 2002, rescue forces were sitting rescue alert, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). They launched in support of a possible aircraft crash. Initial information indicated that a C-130 had crashed near an Afghan airfield. Within 30 minutes, two HH-60G Pave Hawks launched. En route, the crews received reports of 30–40 Taliban in the area. The aircrews were challenged by high terrain and extremely low lunar illumination. Forty-five minutes into the flight, they were informed that an Army special forces team was on-site and reporting no survivors. Their spirits were lifted 20 minutes later when they were informed that seven survivors had been located. Upon arrival, an AFSOC AC-130 gunship provided overhead cover. The night vision goggles (NVG) landings were extremely challenging due to low lunar illumination and the flaming remains of the crashed aircraft. Both landings and takeoffs were made in brownout conditions. They recovered all seven survivors. Unfortunately, rescue forces were required to launch many times to save coalition lives in OEF and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), but our rescue forces completed every mission in an outstanding fashion.
On the other side of the world in the summer of 2004, rescue forces were preparing for local training at Moody Air Force Base (AFB), Georgia, when the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center called with a request for an immediate search-and-rescue launch. Approximately 24 hours earlier, a Chinese seaman had been hit in the chest by a pulley, breaking ribs and collapsing his right lung. He was in bad shape and nowhere near any medical support. Without urgent medical attention, he probably would not make it to port. Coincidentally, a rescue C-130 crew was preparing to fly a training exercise off the east coast of Georgia to train pararescuemen (PJ) in water-insertion operations.1 The crew quickly loaded the same equipment they had planned to use for training on board the C-130—1,200 miles and four and one-half hours later, the rescue C-130 was dropping the PJs into the water next to a Chinese vessel. The PJs spent the next 16 hours stabilizing the Chinese sailor. They kept him alive until a pair of Air Force Reserve rescue helicopters from Patrick AFB, Florida, arrived. The two HH-60s hoisted the four PJs and patient on board and flew them to a hospital in Puerto Rico. That Chinese sailor is alive today, thanks to the efforts of our rescue forces.
If It Quacks Like a Duck
Like special operations, CSAR can operate at night, under the radarscope, and, to a large extent, in adverse weather. Our rescue and SOF platforms have very similar capabilities. These similarities translate to synergy by putting the forces in one major command. The lists below show the similarity between our helicopters and helicopter-refueling C-130s.
The SOF MH-53M Pave Low and Rescue HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters can
1. fly at night using NVGs or a forward-looking infrared system,
2. defend themselves from surface-to-air missile launches,
3. defend themselves with either .50 caliber machine guns or 7.62 mm miniguns, and
4. receive near-real-time information updates on blue-force locations and adversary actions.
The SOF MC-130E/H/P and Rescue HC-130N/P aircraft can
1. execute modified-contour low-level flight,
2. fly NVG air and land missions,
3. conduct NVG helicopter air refueling,
4. perform NVG airdrop of personnel and equipment, and
5. receive near-real-time information updates on blue-force locations and adversary actions.
So where are we right now? We have consolidated like-capability aircraft into one major command, and we are beginning to see synergy from this merger. How did we get where we are today? Same as the rest of the Air Force, we implemented the Air Force core competencies.
In January of 2003, Secretary of the Air Force Dr. James G. Roche outlined three Air Force core competencies—developing Airmen, technology to warfighting, and integrating operations—in his inaugural Secretary’s Vector.2 As Secretary Roche said, these three core competencies are how we develop our capabili-ties for joint warfighting. Everything we do revolves around them, and AFSOC is implementing them in all facets of our operations.
Secretary Roche said in his vector that “from the moment they [Airmen] step into the Air Force, we are dedicated to ensuring they receive the education, training, and professional development necessary to provide a quality edge second to none.”3 In addition to the Air Force education and development programs such as Airmen Leadership or Squadron Officer Schools, AFSOC maintains a professional military education capability resident in the USAF Special Operations School (USAFSOS), located on Hurlburt Field, Florida. The USAFSOS provides 20 courses that truly embody the fundamental premise of force development. In fact, it shares the Air Force’s force-development concept with our sister services as well as other federal agencies.
Below are just a few examples of ways that the USAFSOS is developing Airmen. The school introduces the concept of special operations in a four-day Introduction to Special Operations Course that lays the foundation for working with SOF units. Another course, Dynamics of International Terrorism, is relevant and timely during the prosecution of this GWOT. The USAFSOS also regionally orients Airmen for operations in five theaters of operation, offering courses for Asia/Pacific, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Europe/Russia. The school is also developing Airmen to support the operational level of warfare with its Joint Special Operations Air Component (JSOAC) Course, JSOAC Commander Course, Special Operations Liaison Element Course, and Joint Search and Rescue Coordinator Course. The USAFSOS is just one way that we are developing Airmen.
Another developmental strategy that we are using is “cross-pollinating” with other major commands. We are exporting traditional SOF specialties such as combat controllers, PJs, and aviators (officer and enlisted) outside the command to the larger Air Force, taking the lessons learned in special operations and then bringing back another major command’s perspective. Also, AFSOC personnel have taken assignments with industry that help develop more effective program managers and procurement specialists.
Technology to Warfighting
Technology is a wonderful thing; however, technology has to get to the warfighter to be relevant. Although AFSOC is working hard to procure new technologies to enable our Airmen to better prosecute future operations, we do have some success stories to highlight from current operations.
We have put systems in our helicopters, C-130s, and even our Battlefield Airmen’s ruggedized laptops that enable them to receive near-real-time information updates on enemy activity and friendly locations—an amazing force multiplier. AFSOC forces have used this capability in combat to save lives and acquire “high value terrorist targets” in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, Army special forces operating in northern Iraq in April of 2003 requested an immediate exfiltration. As two AFSOC MH-53Ms launched, they lost all communications with the Green Beret team on the ground. Our Pave Lows got there on time, and they did so only because of our Blue Force Tracking system.4 The MH-53Ms flew to the location where their multimission advanced tactical terminal (MATT) radio indicated the special-forces team members would be found.
Intelligence collection often implies spy satellites, but we have gotten intelligence collection down to the “paper airplane level” in AFSOC. We have combat controllers who are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that weigh as little as two pounds and extend our Battlefield Airmen’s situational awareness up to three miles. Combat controllers are calling in air strikes on terrorist concentrations along the SOF team’s route of travel far enough in advance to remove the threat before a ground firefight occurs. These tiny eyes in the sky enable airpower to support our forces on the ground more responsively, and thereby save coalition lives. The following statistic from the six weeks of OIF major combat operations5 may seem surprising: not a single SOF unit in OIF with an AFSOC combat controller who had a small UAV was ambushed by enemy forces—and that is quite a testimony.
As the secretary said in his vector, “Effectively integrating the diverse capabilities found in all four service branches remains pivotal to successful joint warfighting.”6 Both the SOF and rescue missions are inherently joint. AFSOC mobility forces—MH-53s and MC-130s—infiltrate, resupply, and exfiltrate our sister services’ SOF personnel. Our Battlefield Airmen are embedded directly into sister services’ SOF teams, and our gunships provide CAS to ground forces from all services. Our rescue forces have rescued embers of all services during OEF/OIF.
The following story really shows the jointness of rescue. On 2 January 2004, Air Force PJs saved an injured US Army soldier’s life following an attack using an improvised explosive device in the Red Zone of Baghdad. The PJs sprung into action after receiving an urgent request from an Army UH-60 unit for a time-critical extrication and medevac. Traveling to the site with their Army comrades, the PJs worked rapidly to free a soldier pinned under a vehicle that came to rest on his leg following the explosion. Within minutes, the soldier was free, secured to a litter, and transported to an awaiting vehicle for transport to the air-evacuation landing zone. That story, while demonstrating exceptional courage and skills, was not itself the exception, since jointness is the rule in special operations and rescue.
As we look to the future, I see our combat capability increasing, and that is a bad thing for the terrorists. We are doing things in AFSOC to ensure that our special operations and rescue forces will help win this GWOT and be ready for the next OEF or OIF, whenever or wherever that occurs. As we have seen throughout history, warfighting is often a cata-lyst for technological advancement. The military is always looking for that “edge” in battle that leads to success. AFSOC is working diligently on air and ground systems that allow us to maintain the edge for future conflicts in the GWOT.
Lighter, Leaner, and More Lethal
AFSOC’s Battlefield Airmen, combat controllers, PJs, and special-operations weather forces enabled airpower to meet the requirements of the joint force commander. Combat controllers operated on 11,000-foot mountaintops in Afghanistan, carrying over 160 pounds of equipment. That is quite frankly too much to carry. Secretary Roche and Gen John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, have made it a priority to improve the combat capability of our Battlefield Airmen. AFSOC is working closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory and others to develop equipment that is less than half the weight of the tools it replaces, while increasing the system’s combat capability. Specifically, we are improving coordinate accuracy to provide truly precise targeting information, enabling airpower to support the ground component.
AFSOC is the Air Force’s lead for small UAVs. If the UAV is smaller than a Predator, AFSOC is the Air Force proponent. Today, we have about 150 small UAVs in the command, and we are aggressively pursuing the acquisition of more of these systems. In the future, I want every combat controller to deploy with a small UAV.
Small UAVs definitely increase the situational awareness of Battlefield Airmen. However, as our capacity increases, we also need to look toward integrating information collected by small UAVs into the larger Air Force intelligence-information dissemination system—the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) suite. An AFSOC DCGS will create a gateway to a greater array of critical intelligence and operational information for our Battlefield Airmen and special operators. It will also simultaneously allow the Air Force and the joint communities to leverage AFSOC’s currently uncollected and unexploited information.
With another initiative, which involves a machine-to-machine data link, combat controllers are closing in on the ability to pass target coordinates directly from their handheld target designator, through their laptop, to strike aircraft and command-and-control facilities. This will decrease the time required to get bombs on target from an average of 30 minutes to less than three.
The failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980 illustrated that the US military requires a special capability, not just a specially modified aircraft. SOF personnel need the capability to conduct deep-penetration opera-tions behind enemy lines under cover of one period of darkness. This requirement resulted in development of the CV-22 Osprey (tilt-rotor aircraft), and we are near to meeting this SOF necessity. The CV-22 can fly at speeds similar to those of a C-130 and then hover and land like a helicopter. This new capability, which will greatly increase AFSOC support to SOF operations, presents many exciting future possibilities.
AFSOC is also working to develop aircraft to meet the mobility requirement of the future. The Advanced Special Operations Air Mobility Platform (M-X) aircraft will meet the SOF insertion, resupply, and exfiltration missions and integrate many of Air Mobility Command’s (AMC) C-130 replacement capabilities. I see a bright future with AFSOC and AMC working together.
Along with the need to transform our C-130 mobility capability, we need to increase our persistent, precise, and danger-close CAS capacity. During OEF we increased the combat capability of every one of our gunships by integrating a real-time video feed from the Predator UAVs. This was the first time that we integrated an off-board sensor into the targeting process of our gunships, and it was a smashing success. Right now, we are in the process of increasing our gunship inventory from our current 21 to 25 by the summer of 2006. The gunship is an amazing aircraft; however, it cannot operate in high-threat environments—it’s still a C-130! For that reason, we need a transformational capability. We are currently researching a platform that will provide the same high-quality CAS but will also operate in all threat environments day or night.
The HH-60 Pave Hawk is a capable rescue platform, but an aging helicopter fleet, combined with increased threat capabilities, makes developing a new personnel-recovery vehicle a necessity. We have initiated a program to fill this capability shortfall and enable us to perform personnel recovery into the future. We are working hard to procure the right equipment; however, there are other ways we can improve tomorrow’s combat capability.
Some Thoughts on Combat Aviation Advisory
The Air Force needs to look hard at expanding CAA into something bigger in scope than it is today. CAA is an important facet of foreign internal defense, but our new coalition partners require training beyond specialized airpower. There is a growing need to conduct aircentric, postconflict stability operations—for example, rebuilding air force and civil air infrastructure. We see an increasing demand for conventional Air Force expertise in command and control, fighters, training and simulation, base setup and support, and information operations. This expertise is not resident in AFSOC—nor should it be. These interactions are worth expanding in the near future.
Some Thoughts on Synergy
A common tanker would truly allow us to increase synergy with the addition of rescue forces into AFSOC. Right now we have three different variants of C-130s that can refuel helicopters. Soon, we will have four variants when our MC-130H Talon II aircraft gain the MC-130H air-refueling system. Although we need more tankers, four different variants bring a whole different set of problems. There is a lot of value in a common tanker. Operationally and logistically speaking, one tanker instead of four makes a lot of sense. This is where we need to go.
Some Thoughts on Rescue
We must transform the way we do personnel recovery. As Mr. Jerry Jennings, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war/missing personnel affairs, recently stated at the DOD Worldwide Personnel Recovery Conference on 31 August 2004, “One of the primary goals of transforming personnel recovery is to continue your efforts to move from a service-centric function to one that is not only joint, but interoperable with our interagency and coalition partners,”7 Our AFSOC rescue forces are already trained and very capable of meeting the assistant secretary’s goals. All AFSOC forces, both special operations and CSAR, inherently operate in a joint environment. However, our personnel-recovery forces are not only participating with all of our personnel-recovery partners, they are ready and capable of taking the lead in developing common personnel-recovery tactics, techniques, and procedures.
We have made great strides over the last year in our efforts to get rescue to the fight sooner and with a much smaller logistical footprint. Historically, rescue required extensive strategic airlift as well as robust base-operational support. We are developing rescue Lightning Bolt deployment packages that transport three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters with personnel and supplies to sustain operations for two weeks, using two C-17 Globemaster IIIs.
AFSOC maintains administrative, not operational, control of its two overseas SOF units. We need to look seriously at mirroring this arrangement with our rescue forces as well. We have seen many good things come about because of the way we do business with our overseas SOF personnel. I think we could translate this into immediate advantages in the way we do business with our overseas rescue forces.
Humans Are More Important than Hardware
We spend billions of dollars every year upgrading our technology and improving our combat capability. However, as Gen George Patton said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.”8 That was true then and is still true for the men and women of today’s Air Force. The US military is fighting a GWOT that will continue into the foreseeable future. Have all the wild cards been dealt from this deadly deck? Probably not, but our military forces are adapting to its challenges. This war will not end soon, but it will end in victory. Whatever the future holds, we will be ready.
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1. The abbreviation PJ was for parajumpers during World War II. PJ was kept, but the term pararescuemen is currently used. United States Air Force, US Air Force Fact Sheet, Pararescuemen, April 2003, http://www.af.mil/ -factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=177.
2. Dr. James G. Roche, The Secretary’s Vector, 14 January 2003, http://www.af.mil/media/viewpoints/vector_core_ comps.html.
4. The Blue Force Tracking (BFT) system consists of a computer, satellite communications, and global positioning system (GPS). BFT displays the host-vehicle location on the computer’s terrain-map display along with other platforms in their respective locations. Timothy L. Rider, “Blue Force Tracking to Expand across Force,” Army News Service, 14 April 2004, http://www4.army.mil/ ocpa/read.php?story_id_key=5851.
5. OIF major combat operations are defined as beginning on 20 March 2003 when coalition forces invaded Iraq and concluding 1 May 2003 when President Bush announced the end of major combat operations from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Pres. George W. Bush, “President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended” (Washington, D.C.: US Department of State [Bureau of Public Affairs], 1 May 2003), http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/20203.htm.
6. Roche, The Secretary’s Vector.
7. Rudi Williams, “DoD Official Outlines Personnel-Recovery Work to Be Done,” American Forces Information Service, 1 December 2004, http://www.dod.mil/news/ Aug2004/n08312004_2004083109.html.
8. Gen George S. Patton Jr., “General George S. Patton, Jr. Quotations,” http://www.generalpatton.com/quotes. html.
||Lt Gen Michael W. Wooley (BBA, Northeast Louisiana State University; MS, Webster University) is commander, Air Force Special -Operations Command (AFSOC), Hurlburt Field, Florida. He is responsible for a major command of the US Air Force and the Air Force component of US Special Operations Command and leads approximately 20,000 active duty, Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian professionals. He has served as commander of Third Air Force, RAF Mildenhall, England, the 375th and 86th Airlift Wings, the Tanker Airlift Control Center, and the 17th Military Airlift Squadron. He also served as vice-commander of Air Force Special Operations Command and chief of Strategy and Policy, US Forces Korea. General Wooley received his commission from Officer Training School. A command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours, he is a distinguished graduate of undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma. General Wooley has piloted 10 aircraft types, to include fixed wing, helicopters, and VTOL, the latter the V-22 scheduled for future use in AFSOC. He completed the Executive Program for General Officers of the Russian Federation and the United States and the Black Sea Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.|
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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