Based on the answers and the extended comments on a question about whether aircraft can make sense in an environment of fast rate-of-traverse, cheap, powerful, quick-fire lasers, I am instead starting to doubt the survivability of surface ships in near-future combat situations.

We are looking at a world of miniaturized drone sensing platforms, ground-hugging stealth drone attack aircraft and other small sentinels that can launch swarm hypersonic missile attacks, superheavy over-the-horizon rail-gun kinetic weapons, surface-fire-and-hide stealth subs.

Do surface warships have a future in such a world? Or are they relegated to playing cop during peacetime, only to hide in safe ports during actual conflicts?

  • $\begingroup$ Where do you think those drones will start from? Or are you expecting them to fly all across the world? $\endgroup$
    – Euphoric
    Sep 22, 2015 at 13:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Euphoric, something less target-like, such as a sub, maybe? Or a hardened airbase bunker? $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Drone control signals can be jammed. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Sep 22, 2015 at 16:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ AGM-158C is terrifying! And this "just" a missile. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Sep 22, 2015 at 17:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat, relevant only so long as the drone does not act autonomously. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 22:32

12 Answers 12


I am a veteran submariner from the US Navy - some of this will be conjecture based on anticipated technology, but the science should be fairly intact.

I do not anticipate that anyone will successfully design an atmospheric drone that can successfully, as a single unit, disable a modern destroyer. Understand that I mean a drone in the sense as they exist now - a remotely piloted fighter/bomber is potentially just as deadly as its manned counterparts. But the physical size of the aircraft is important, as it ultimately limits the size and muzzle velocity of projectiles - the Avenger gatling gun mounted on an A-10 can already stall the aircraft in flight. Hypervelocity means buggerall if the platform can't bring the weapon to bear and fire it successfully.

Lasers do change the game, but there is a power density issue. If you have a laser that you can mount to an aircraft and fire repeatedly, then the warship can easily mount one that is much larger and fires much faster. For instance, the Phalanx CIWS on US ships today makes the Avenger cannon look like a water pistol. Anything you can put in the air can be put in the water (in a much deadlier format) to destroy the thing in the air.

The real issue with drones is that we will not field them against an enemy who stands even a remote chance of being able to jam the telemetry. Drone strikes are a valuable tool that have changed air support forever, but radio is always radio, and sometimes you need someone to make a decision at the last possible second, or defy orders that should be defied. Command abort authority exists for a reason.

Submarines - while I understand them intimately - can not ever remove the need for a surface fleet. Active sonar will spot you every time - submarines just don't use it in combat against each other because it gives your exact location to the enemy submarine. But sonar buoys will always find it, and despite what you may have heard, they are slow. You can understand this almost instinctively - the surface ship can be bigger and have larger engines, but not have to face the sheer friction of solid water. Aircraft carriers can always outpace everything else in the fleet, simply because of engine size.

So the surface fleet will continue, in some form, until there is either no need for aggression, or we find a more effective heavy weapons platform.


I feel the need to clear up something about how target locking systems work, which works out to a game of planning ahead.

First of all, in order to achieve target lock, you need radar. When you point radar at a modern weapons system like a destroyer or a fighter jet, it immediately knows that it's in target lock and from what direction; it can also tell which kind of radar is pointed at it, and sometimes the exact model in use.

There's a sweep beam that finds targets, and a pencil beam that maintains a lock on the point of interest.

Now, on an Aegis equipped ship, the sweep is done with a phased array antenna that doesn't actually move. When active, it can and does sweep fast enough to respond to hypersonic missiles, and the Phalanx CIWS cannon can tear it apart reliably. This was one of the design considerations of the Aegis platform.

Now staying active has it's own risk, because you're lit up bright. Anti radar weapons just need to home in on the big radar source and don't have to send a pencil beam, but the Phalanx CIWS can home in on the radar return of a seagull. Not many problems here.

Now, having reviewed current and anticipated laser designs, if you put a thing in the air with a laser that can one shot a surface warship, it isn't going to be small. It's going to be phenomenally huge, and it's going to have - you guessed it - radar. As a general rule, radar on surface ships doesn't stay active, making them harder to spot.

So the exchange goes something like this. Drone is informed of a potential surface target; drone makes it's way to the target area; drone disappears because the US Navy was in touch with CENTCOM and satellite intel told them where to find the enormous flying laser, and the Navy laser has a longer range, higher power and faster repeat rate. (See what I said about planning ahead?)

This is the way war technology goes - a new tech becomes available, countermeasures and counter-countermeasures are engineered, and the game once again comes down to who can most effectively place their chess pieces.

"Drones" are great tools, but just one of many. For the foreseeable future, they are little balls of death you call on when an F22 squadron has better things to do, and the best payload I've seen so far is 3000 pounds. I'm not really worried yet.

Sailors have always been perfectly aware of the many horrible, agonizing ways they could die aboard their vessels. They have never been invulnerable, nor will they ever be, but we will always walk softly and carry a big stick.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you feel like reflecting and possibly updating on this post 4 years in, 2020 ? $\endgroup$
    – user431806
    Jul 30, 2020 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ @user431806, at this point, I am not. Supposing that various developing hypersonic weapons delivery platforms, orbital strike systems, nuclear weapons or lasers may one day make surface vessels obsolete requires me to believe there won't be counter measures and diplomacy to deal with new threats, and the point still holds that they simply are the most capable heavy weapons platforms we know how to build. Also, fast as they've gotten, missiles are still better at fighting warships than drones, and likely will be for the foreseeable future - just another reason missile frigates aren't obsolete. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Jul 31, 2020 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ Alright. I dont have have a strong opinion either way, I just found it interesting that especially in regards to hypersonic weapons the recent years have been wild in regards to development speed. The most strong point contra surface ships in my opinion is and will be cost effiency factors. Missiles are becoming faster, stronger and cheaper and tilt the $ ratio even further against surface combatants. Anyways, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – user431806
    Aug 4, 2020 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @user431806, and that's quite an astute observation, and one I completely agree with. But when considering things in war, even from a world building standpoint, don't forget about asymmetrical warfare. There are still a few places in the world that could not field the force necessary to sink a destroyer, and in the rest of the world, there are handfuls of belligerent fighters who couldn't remotely hope to withstand the assault of an American coast guard cutter (approximately a corvette type warship). Hypersonics shifting the balance of power just might mean naval dominance changes hands. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Aug 4, 2020 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the chat. Hope you contribute in the future. Bye ! $\endgroup$
    – user431806
    Aug 5, 2020 at 7:40

Surface ships will stick around though their roles may drastically change as weaponry improves. In a world of hypervelocity rounds or beam weapons, distance and maneuverability are the only things to ensure survivability.

Roles for Surface Ships

Surface ships will still act as the basis for power projection. No other type of vehicle can carry as much load as far as a surface ship can. Relocating a large complement of mixed mission aircraft requires a ship. Getting a railgun close enough to a shore based target still requires a ship (though perhaps with further miniaturization a railgun could be mounted to an aircraft).

Distance and Maneuverability

A beam weapon loses accuracy and power as distance increases thus distance is the only sure defense against hypervelocity and beam weapons. Hypervelocity rounds without terminal guidance may require tens of seconds to reach the target's area. If the target can tell that an attack is incoming, they can manuever to avoid the attack. This may not always be possible if the ship is too large or the attack is mounted close enough.

Greater reliance on sensors and sensory denial

If a surface ship knows where an attack may come from then it is better able to counter that attack, either through maneuvering, countermeasures or counter attack. Further, if a ship can defeat or fool an enemy's sensor networks then the enemy may not be able to fire at all or miss by a large margin.

Possible countermeasures

Unlike an aircraft, a ship can use smoke screens to conceal its location. Special smoke particulates could be developed that will defeat IR and visible lasers. Reflective coatings or ablative panels that would be weight-prohibitive to an aircraft don't matter to a ship.

Armor won't help you

Hypervelocity discarding sabot armor penetrating rounds move at 1701.45 m/s. Compare this to the M114 155mm howitzer's muzzle velocity at 563 m/s. Let's assume a 10kg projectile.

$E_k = \frac{1}{2}mv^2$

$E_k = \frac{1}{2} \cdot 10 \text{kg} \cdot \left(1701 \,\text{m/s}\right)^2 = 14,467,005 \,\text{J} = 14.48 \,\text{MJ}$

$4.184 \, \text{MJ} = 1 \text{kg} \, \text{TNT}$

$E_e = \frac{14.48}{4.184} = 3.46 \text{kg} \, \text{TNT}$

A 10kg projectile hitting at 1700 m/s doesn't carry a terribly huge kinetic energy budget compared to conventional munitions but since it moves so fast, it's ability to puncture armor is unmatched. Remember, a straw can embed itself in a tree if it's going fast enough. Wood through concrete isn't any different.

  • $\begingroup$ Hypervelocity rounds (and LOS beams as well) are not a problem if their launchers are heavy. Due to the curvature of the earth, a surface ship is safe from any land or sea-based platform as long as they are over the horizon. And if you put your launcher on an aircraft to get it close enough to see - well, remember the post's original premise. Hypervelocity from long range has problems with the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ And you might want to find a reliable source for the card-in-a-tree thing. Photoshop really doesn't count. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ Fixed with better pictures in many different circumstances. Tornadoes are scary. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Sep 22, 2015 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry to be the bearer of bad news - the hose picture is not caused by a tornado. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ How can you tell (so I can catch such errors myself in the future)? $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Sep 22, 2015 at 20:02

I will emphasize a quite different angle of view than in existing answers.

Transport ships are absolutely necessary. According to UNO :

Around 80 per cent of global trade by volume and over 70 per cent by value is carried by sea and is handled by ports worldwide; these shares are even higher in the case of most developing countries.

Therefore, in case of war, you have to defend your merchant fleet to secure your supplying of vital goods. Long-range defences or defences using aircraft will not be more viable than the use of warships, since most of the oceans are far away from any coast.

In fact, in your scenario, which includes lots of stealthy stuff, warships may even be more important than today to protect transport ships. Since you can not foresee an attack, your ships must be protected at any time.

Of course it may lead to the militarisation of freighters to make them able to defend themselves, but it means transforming civilian ships into warships, it does not discard them.


Combat surface ships are going the way of the dodo in the hot wars of the future. They are simply too big, too loud, too visible, too slow.

To hypersonic surface skimming swarm attacks and barrages of hyperkinetic railgun shells, there's very little that you can effectively do. A hypersonic surface skimming missile is over the horizon at 5km. Three seconds later, it hits you. It costs probably half a million bucks. Your ship probably cost upwards of half a billion. So the enemy should be happy to trade even a hundred-sized swarm for such a ship. It's dead. Gone.

For all the prancing and dancing that current great powers do with their aircraft carriers, 2 days into the combat phase of the next hot war the giant aircraft carriers and other huge surface ships will be either at the bottom of the ocean or racing as quickly as possible out of the combat zone, whatever that may be.

While it's true that they currently serve a useful role, they won't serve it as well with huge holes in the hull. Survivability trumps everything else, in the end.

If you're still in doubt, look up the results of the Millenium Challenge 2002, when a grumpy Marine Corps Lt. General, Van Riper used swarm attacks to sink most of the Blue Fleet in minutes (one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships). Another swarm followed soon after, rending the beleaguered survivors apart. Luckily, it was but an exercise, so the navy promply "refloated" the ships as part of the exercise, and went on in good Navy fashion to forget all about it. Good luck doing that in real life!

  • $\begingroup$ Haha, "refloated"! That is hilarious. +1 $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Hi. I was in the Navy when they did this. And it changed the way we fight small boats. At the time, we weren't supposed to engage small boats with weapons fire unless absolutely necessary, and the Colonel knew that and showed us how dumb that was. Lesson learned. Now we know what that tactic looks like, and have a no-holds-barred kill zone around the vessel which, if crossed, will be treated as a full scale attack. As far as hypersonic missiles go, this is old news, and is the entire reason Aegis phased array radar is a thing. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Sep 23, 2015 at 5:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Van Riper was a tactical genius, which is why he commanded Red Team. Blue made the mistake of underestimating how far Red was willing to go, and how fast. There have been devastating ways to sink ships as long as there have been ships to sink - there's nothing new here. Surface ships will continue to exist for the same reason Van Riper was so devastatingly effective - he had the ability to launch a blitz attack. You can't just materialize a swarm attack behind enemy lines. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Sep 23, 2015 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ @SeanBoddy that's going to get messy in the Mediterranean when someone stacks a ship with refugees on deck and explosives in the hull. A modern fireship (and floating war crime). $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Sep 23, 2015 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @pjc50, you aren't wrong. But if you want to solve that problem, we have to create an enforceable world peace. Bad guys have chained women to machine guns, strapped bombs to children and used hostage tactics for decades. War itself is the crime. You won't catch me arguing. But I won't apologize for the armed forces of any sovereign nation defending themselves. Surrendering to the kind of psychopath that does these sorts of things is simply not an option. If a small boat disregards the really loud multi language warning to keep their distance, they will be fired upon. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Sep 23, 2015 at 20:15

Usual navy tasks :

  1. Prevent the enemy from using the sea.
  2. Guarantee the use of the sea by friendly forces.
  3. Project power over land.
  4. Enforce the law.

In order to accomplish such missions a navy uses a certain set of ASSETS/MEANS.

  1. Boats and submarines.
  2. Infiltration teams (seals, frogman).
  3. Marines.
  4. Aircraft.
  5. Other special means (naval mines, sensory networks etc).

Of those MEANS, each have their own characteristics that decide their suitability for a certain mission :

  1. Boats have long ENDURANCE and PERSISTENCY, and are better suited to fullfill task number 2. They can fullfull task number 3 by means of missiles and guns, wich they can carry way more than an aircraft (and cheaper). Task 1 means a naval battle, and they are usually very well suited for such. Finally at longer ranges, there is no cheaper way to fullfill task number 4.
  2. Aircraft can cover long distances at much faster SPEEDS than boats, they can patrol at a certain range, but they lack persistence and endurance. They are more suited to fullfill task number 1 and when used from a carrier, task number 3. Some patrol aircraft/drones can fullfull task number 4 at shorter range.
  3. Submarines are best used to fullfill task 1, due to stealthness.
  4. Frogman can sabotage enemy ships at port and help defend against such situations and can usually be lumped with marines as a way to project power over land.
  5. You can minefield a piece of water to prevent its use by the enemy (task 1).

So, even if your drones advanced, there are certain situations where they are not the cheapest way to fullfill a certain mission. At the same time, we can very well have drone ships and drone submarines. Technology evolution works both to increase intelligence of aerial drones and naval drones. At the same time, a boat can stay with a convoy of merchant ships for the whole voyage, while drones might have to retreat due to lack of endurance. So in other words, a military boat will be usefull as long as we use naval merchantment, and I dont see merchants being abandoned in this century.


  1. Swarming missile attacks was the central strategy the russians intended to employ against USA carrier battle groups since the seventies. Yet USA leadership changed little to face this. They planned to use subs, long range aircraft and surface ships to launch round the clock strikes against battlegroups in order to satured their defenses. Major factor there is intelligence gathering and tracking their targets.
  2. Subs dont need to surface to fire missiles. There are russian anti-ship missiles that can be fired from the torpedo tubes of submerged submarines since a long time ago.
  3. Rail guns increase the potential range of the guns and might be very good against fixed shore instalations. But, against a moving foe even if they are pretty fast they cannot change course midflight and they can be tracked by counter battery radar. All the opfor needs to do is to change course to avoid being hit.
  4. Regarding stealth. Ships can be made stealth too (like the sea shadow). So, it works both ways.

In other words, drones dont change the battlefield so much as you appear to imply. Nor the lasers or railguns. They give a quantitative edge over your enemies, but they will not change radically the way navies equip themselves...


In the short future there will still be a lot of use for ships. Drones need something to base from, they need command staff, operators, maintenance. In addition a lot of operations require boots on the ground and a human touch. There is a certain psychological factor to having a massive warship pulling up alongside that helps win wars.

Yes you could build a drone with a 1000 mile range but in doing that you compromise on its other functions so some form of drone carrier and base is going to be needed. In the long run that base may also be automated, but right now people are needed to maintain and recharge/refuel/rearm the drones.

If you were asking about 50 to 100 years time that may well change but these changes happen slowly. After all there are a lot of military ships in use today that were built decades ago.

  • $\begingroup$ In addition i can mention, that even though our wired bandwidtih is pretty stable, the wireless overseas is not that good and a latency of more than 200 on a drone flying more than 40 km/h could be fatal for the drone. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2015 at 13:57

Discussion on the role of the armies in the future

There are already some good answers, but I wanted to point to a (rather common) error.

You, and some of the answers seem to refer to wars between major powers which can choose to equip themselves with warships and/or weaponized missiles or drones able to hit said ships from the other side of the world. But this is increasingly less likely. Due, to a part to the nuclear weapons and increasing military destructive capacities. An army is a tool to support a politics: it is easier to negotiate with a sword in hand than empty-handed. But that sword will be less and less effectively used on a large-scale battlefield.

The role of the armies in the future apart from threat will be often for protection, fast and precise interventions limited both in time and scale. Furthermore conflicts implicating first-world countries will be increasingly asymmetric: a well-equiped army against rebels, terrorrists, pirates, etc.

The warships have a role to play in those

To give you two modern examples:

  • East of Africa, the seas have a considerable economic importance. And they are full or pirates using fast, small boats to attack other ships. Long distance surveillance or continuously flying drones do not allow you to react to such threat. If a ship was boarded by said pirates, you need a some way to send some special-forces troups on board to neutralise the pirates. They aren't coming flying or swimming on a long distance.
  • Mediterranean sea is right now a dramatic place where many people try to flee their countries at war, suffering from radicals groups, or "simply" economic difficulties. Those often use the services of some mafia. Warships are used in complement to sattelite surveillance to fight against those mafia.

Those example show that a constant surveillance of the sea is partly undertaken by ships as complement to other means. Constantly flying drones would be costly and not very efficient.

Now say that you need to send a strong force on an island or a coastal country to defend its people. How can you project large troups fast? You need ships to carry the troups and land them. This is a less likely scenario, as, as we have seen, major operations will tend to be avoided. Nevertheless there no better way than ships to carry a major force on a remote operation site with a relatively great speed.

Then, if you look at the operations in Syria and Irak. The USA, and to a lower scale, the UK and France are bombing some targets on the ground. Those kind of operations will increase due to the increasing precision required and the costs (political and military) or non-intervention or troups of the ground. You can either have your planes or drones starting from bases, but they can be quite expensive and politically critical. How to ensure that you can cover the whole world? And if they are remote you need larger drones to have enough fuel to travel the distance. And if they are relatively slow (relative to the reaction time of the enemy) they can be anticipated. If they come from "close by" fat chance. So you need aricraft carriers to send the danger "close" to the operation to serve as an operation base.

Need for a fleet

We have seen that you need aricraft carriers, you need transport troups and frigates for surveillance. However those need to be complemented by defensive ships: anti-mines, faster, smaller ships, etc. So for larger operations, depending on the threat, a complete fleet is required. And will remain thus.

Now you mention the "ease" to sink your ships. In reality it isn't that easy, and you can look it up, but the USA and UK are working on lasers-based defensive systems which may allow to protect effectively the ships against missiles and drones. The first tests made by the USA show that lasers can be used in real conditions.


I would have to say yes, and no.

Any warship can be sunk, including the cripplingly expense carriers, and it does not take super weapons to do so. In '88 the Roberts picked up damage that cost \$90 million to fix from a $1,500 mine. In '91, the Tripoli and then the Princton were both damaged by mines.

I would question the continued use of super high tech (super expensive) surface ships but I see a real demand for simple low tech designs. A class of general purpose ships that can serve as a platform for launching sensors and missiles, and fitted with a big gun would fill the roles of mine sweeper, sub hunter, anti-piracy, marine and fishery protection, coastal protection, coastal bombardment, and with three or four of them working together would be able to take on anything any non-nuclear power on earth could threaten them with, with the advantage that the loss of one (or more) would be an irritant not a disaster. Take it further, and I suspect four such ships working together could prevent (or certainly deter) a US Carrier Group from completing its mission despite being massively out gunned and out budgeted. Think about it. Four ships with dead man switches; you take out one and the other three fire everything they have. Of course a carrier group can take out most things fired at it but it only takes one Exocet to get through to cost a politician his seat.


If we are talking hard-science here, then no conclusion can be directly jumped upon. We are living in a time where scientific discoveries are leaving production far behind. That is, scientific phenomena are being discovered at a much faster rate than their utilization. So even as I write this, there are at least several dozen scientific laws of chemistry and physics which are known and proven, but there is no device to put them to practical use. There is a technological explosion underway.

In the light of above paragraph, both sides would have a lot of hidden surprises for each other in the coming future. Drones would get smarter, faster, sneakier, but frigates would have their own advantages. Larger, more precise radar systems, to begin with. Super-computer controlled anti-aircraft guns shooting laser beams at the frequency of an assault rifle. More robust external layers, capable of dealing with a few mini-missiles or so. While submarines would be faster and more silent, surface ships would have more refined ways of detecting their presence and launching counter measures.

Whiles drones would get deadlier, frigates would be hosting their own arrays of jet fighters, which would be capable of vertical landing and take-off. These vicious hawks would detect a drone within seconds and make mincemeat of the poor fledgling and nobody in the control room would know what hit them.

All in all, it is not a war of who has natural supremacy, rather a competition between nations and organization about who can invest more funds in the right technology to come up with a better counter of the opponent's defenses/offenses.

  • $\begingroup$ My bad. I am a hermit living under a (virtual) rock in my part of the world so I don't get to find all these products in the market where I live. Quantum encryption isn't something that's used in consumer products (afaik, which is very poor). Piezo would be, I suspected (but didn't know as fact) $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2015 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Sep 23, 2015 at 16:27

Many surface ships today act as screens and outer defenses for an aircraft carrier. They provide picket lines, air defense, and anti sub operations. So even if conventional carriers go away in the near future, you will still need some kind of heavy weapon platform on a ship (because it's too heavy to fly, and you can't drive across the ocean), and you're going to need to defend it. You'll need some other surface ships for that.


Don't forget the nukes

The ultimate form of air attack is the nuclear-tipped ICBM: there isn't a reliable anti-missile defence system for it and it's capable of obliterating your entire fleet in seconds.

This has been a threat since the 1960s. But surface navies are still important. Why? Asymmetrical warfare. Giant powers with equivalent levels of technology aren't going to be fighting one another directly with navies when they can just nuke each other's cities directly. But the nuclear powers still want to maintain their empires and spheres of influence over non-nuclear countries.

The future of conflict between US and Russia is the same as the present: deniable, low-intensity, proxy warfare such as arming Assad and shooting down civilian airliners.


CSPAN had a panel discussing the future of the aircraft carrier. One of the people on that panel argued that aircraft carriers are just too big, require too much protection (a whole battle group) and too valuable to risk which, he argued, makes them impractical for warfare. Instead, he was advocating using nuclear subs with larger, more diverse load of missiles. I found that argument very compelling. If that's the way you take, I can see how you won't need as many other surface ships such as destroyers, frigates, etc.

If you add to this the increased threat of detection, via advanced satellite systems, etc, combined with high powered portable lasers (maybe on satellites!!), then it's difficult to see how you can justify putting critical capabilities on a surface ship.

You'll still have some surface ships though - icebreakers, transport ships, troop ships, patrol boats, etc, but probably not anything you have to rely on to win wars.


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