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Comment: Australia’s fighters must now battle ‘tyranny of distance’

written by Staff reporter | July 9, 2020
F-35_Refuelling_USAF_4a73
Concept art showing the F-35 refuelling mid-air (USAF)

Stephen Kuper examines how Australia’s isolation is now a challenge for the RAAF. 

The isolation of Australia provides both defensive advantages and disadvantages – this ‘tyranny of distance’ is emerging as key concern for projecting Australian air power in significant quantities in a contested environment.

Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.

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Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations.

The concept of air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and strategic bomber escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.

Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War; the latest two generations of fighters are the pinnacle of these earlier designs.

Indo-Pacific Asia’s fighter fleets are made up of fighter aircraft ranging from third to fifth-generation aircraft, each with unique capabilities and roles within the regional balance of power.

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Prior to diving into the concept of the ‘high-low’ fighter mix, it is critical to understand the differences between the generations of aircraft operating in the Indo-Pacific.

Fighter aircraft, like every facet of military technology, are rapidly evolving. The current global and regional transition from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.

The growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) – is threatening to serve as a repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet-designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the “end of traditional dog fights”.

Further compounding these issues, China’s development of the next-generation J/H-XX, F-111 style tactical bomber is further limiting the responses available to Australia, the US, Japan and other key regional and global allies.

Fighter aircraft are also limited by their limited range and dependence on aerial refuelling and airborne early warning, command and control platforms that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a proliferation of advanced ground, sea and air-based anti-aircraft missiles, significantly hindering the air combat capability of modern air forces.

The Royal Australian Air Force is no exception and is further hindered by the nation’s geographic isolation, meaning the future fighter fleet relies heavily upon increasingly vulnerable aerial refuelling tankers.

The true impact of the ‘tyranny of distance’

The impact of the ‘tyranny of distance’ has recently gained renewed traction following an analysis in Forbes, drawing on detailed analysis by Marcus Hellyer from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s $270 billion announcement.

While the Air Force has been the high profile recipient of many major capability developments in recent years, with the acquisition of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Super Hornets, Growler electronic attack aircraft and a range of support capabilities, government at least in some small part seems committed to extending Australia’s capability in the Indo-Pacific.

This includes the proposed acquisition of two additional KC-30A tankers to better support the tactical and strategic mobility of the Air Force and its air combat forces, however, as Hellyer explains, this may not be enough.

“If a commander wanted to keep F-35As on station around 1,500 kilometres out from mainland airbases (potentially protecting an amphibious task force, a lodged land force, or a naval task force patrolling choke points), planners would likely need to set up two refuelling circuits – one to enable the fighters to reach their station, and then one a few hundred kilometres behind the fighters’ station so they can pull back, refuel and return to station with fuel to fight,” Hellyer said.

This limitation is further explained by David Axe writing for Forbes, who explains, “For all the billions of dollars that Canberra plans to spend on its air force in coming years, it still could struggle to significantly expand its capacity for long-range, high-intensity aerial combat.

“With its planned fleet of 72 F-35A and 24 F/A-18F fighters, the RAAF could keep just two jets on station with Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-Off Missiles or Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which can range as far as 300 miles and 230 miles, respectively.

“The reason for this hard limit on combat capacity is not that the air force lacks fighters. Even taking into account training and maintenance demands, the RAAF in theory could deploy dozens of F-35s and F/A-18s. But both types can fly just 300 miles or so with weapons and internal fuel.”

Further compounding the air combat limitations is the additional material costs associated with supporting the necessary E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning, command and control platforms, which will also require their own dedicated tanker support.

Hellyer builds on Axe’s thesis, explaining, “In that scenario, keeping just two F-35As on station would take at least eight F-35As in the air at one time around the clock (two heading out, four cycling between their station and the refueller, and two heading home).

“Each of them would need to fly an eight-hour mission, potentially tanking four or five times. Taking aircraft maintenance and unserviceability into account (which will increase as the operation continues), that would potentially require at least 12 to 16 aircraft to sustain.

“But since pilots can fly that mission only once per day, the cycle needs a minimum of 24 pilots (and more to account for ‘unserviceability’ of pilots as the operation grinds into the future).

“But more is needed. The whole concept of a fifth-generation air force relies on superior situational awareness, so to fully exploit the F-35A’s capabilities the package would need to include an E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft flying a circuit a hundred kilometres or so behind the fighters to detect enemy aircraft.

“The RAAF has six, and fewer than that will be available for operations, and fewer again serviceable for missions. Therefore, sustaining that one combat air patrol will likely require all the Wedgetails. Keeping them on station will likely draw on some of the tankers’ fuel.

“But the biggest stressor on the viability of the mission is tanker capacity. The air force now has seven KC-30A air-to-air refuellers after recently acquiring an additional two. It’s hard to see more than five being available, and fewer will be serviceable on any given day.

“One tanker, engaged in continuously refuelling fighters on the combat air patrol, can’t stay on station for more than four to six hours before needing to refuel.”

F-35-1000-Flight-Hours_d190
Squadron Leader Chris Myles, left, the Australian Participant Maintenance Lead at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and pilot Flight Lieutenant Adrian Herenda, with the F-35A A35-001 (Source: Dept of Defence)

Long-range munitions can’t make up the difference

It is apparent that despite the government’s commitment to acquiring additional long-range, precision strike munitions, they simply won’t be enough to bridge the glaring capability gap that effectively limits Australia’s application of credible air combat power in defence of the long vaunted ‘sea-air gap’, which continues to serve as the foundation for Australia’s defence doctrine.

Recognising these factors, combined with the ever-shrinking reality of Australia’s long vaunted strategic moat in the ‘sea-air gap’, renowned Australian strategic policy thinker Hugh White presented an idea for a significantly enhanced Royal Australian Air Force to meet these challenges.

White’s premise, along with the potential for a doubling of the nation’s defence budget, is for the acquisition of some 200 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters armed with the latest in long-range stand-off weapons systems to dictate and dominate the terms of engagement throughout Australia’s northern approaches.

Combining the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35 with other key platforms like the E-7A Wedgetail, KC-30A Tankers and future submarines to severely blunt a potential adversary’s hostile intent towards the Australian mainland.

White has used his position of prominence to advocate for a range of force structure, acquisition, modernisation and capability restructuring and developments, shifting from the major acquisition programs identified as priorities of the Australian government’s record $200 billion investment in capability, including:

  • Scrapping the $35 billion Hunter Class program – selling the Hobart and Canberra Class vessels;
  • Increasing the acquisition plans of the Attack Class submarines from 12 to 36;
  • An increase in Australia’s purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range strike capabilities; and
  • A consideration of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.

While this represents a quick summary of White’s proposal, it perfectly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future.

White’s primary focus builds on the Cold War-era Defence of Australia policy to focus on “controlling” the sea-air gap by hindering the potential for any adversary to get close to the Australian mainland while exercising a degree of rudimentary sea control and limiting the nation’s offensive capabilities.

This focus on sea control, in particular, is expanded upon by Richard Dunley in his recent ASPI piece, ‘Is sea denial without sea control a viable strategy for Australia?’.

Dunley dissects White’s premise for “limited sea control” to focus on “defensive sea denial”, which he defines as “trying to use the sea as a barrier to enemy aggression. In contrast to limited sea denial, defensive sea denial requires a very high level of sea control. For the strategy to work, the denying force needs to be stronger than its enemy everywhere (within the region of operations) all of the time”.

Further reinforcing the complexity of dominating the sea-air gap and White’s proposal to focus solely on becoming a “strategic echidna” is commentary by Andrew Davies in his piece for ASPI, ‘What the Battle of Britain can teach us about defending Australia’, which seeks to focus on the limitations and challenges facing the Air Force proposed by White, namely the focus on a massive expansion of the RAAF’s fast jet force.

Davies writes, “Hugh White’s ‘Battle of Australia’ scenario in which 200 frontline aircraft form a bulwark against a hostile power. The lessons from 1940 mostly apply, with the exception of the rapid production of replacement aircraft, given that the lag time for a new strike fighter is well over a year.”

In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a “new defence paradigm”, or is it a case of more of the same?

Your thoughts

Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.

Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.

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16 Comments

  • Michael

    says:

    WOW and who is going to pay for all those dreams ??? Remember the classics: Your army is only as good as your economy !!!

  • BRIAN BEBAN

    says:

    300 miles or 480 kms is laughable if it is true. Maybe contemplate starting up the Mustang production as that WW2 aeroplane could fly more than 1160 miles- or 1900 kms return from England to Berlin with capacity for a fight or two either way. A flock of F111’s would also be handy for long distance interdiction.

    • Matthew East

      says:

      Not at all true. Combat radius for an F35 a with internal fuel and AA weapons is 870 miles, for LRASM and internal fuel it’s 770 miles. This article is literally incorrect or factually misrepresenting every figure that has been listed.

  • J

    says:

    All great, but we can’t even get the basics financed and supported across our bases so what chance do we have of achieving any of this. Let’s get the fundamentals of our ADF sorted first (ICT, workforce and infrastructure comes to mind) before we attempt to meet such pie in the sky ambitions.

  • Dan

    says:

    F-35A can on range out 300 miles? It is in no way secret or classified that we’re doing at least twice that on a daily basis.

    Staff Reporter might need to double-check themselves on that!

  • MikeofPerth

    says:

    Interesting read but I think this article and the ASPI info it is sourcing from looks at the challenge from too much of a traditional perspective. If you look at the 2020 strategy update it is very forward thinking in looking at emerging technologies in the years ahead (such as manned-unmanned teaming, hypersonics, loitering munitions etc) to deter adverseries in that air-sea gap.

    Also dont rule out enhancements to more near term hardware extending the ADFs reach off our shores. LRASM is a clear example of this. Longer range air to air missiles and a2g munitions are in development, conformal tanks for SH/Growler, drop tanks (most situations wont require 100% stealth) and engine updates planned in future F-35 block updates.

    So we likely wont need a force of 200 F35s and 36 subs to defend our shores. The Chinese still dont have the ability to project significant power past their immediate region. The ADF will likely evolve by the time that happens to meet the challenge.

    Btw those 2 extra KC-30s are cancelled in the latest update. The ADF is looking longer term at stealthy unmanned aircraft to fulfil this role.

  • Rob H.

    says:

    Very interesting suggestion from an eminent strategic thinker. It reinforces my long-held belief that the RAAF’s program
    for 72 F-35A’s for a “all eggs in one basket” situation is extremely risky. The brilliant decision by a Defence Minister to
    urgently order 24 F/A-18F’s when it became obvious that the delivery schedule for the JSF’s would be delayed should have been followed up by an order for a further tranch of at least 28 F/A-18F’s. At the very least it would have enabled the earlier retirement of the “classic” F/A-18’s whilst dramatically enhancing Australia’s defence capability.
    With the ongoing JSF delays and the increasingly wide view that the F-35A will never reach its intended capability:- too
    slow, too short range, limited weapons capacity and most serious shortfall of all, its “semi-stealth” capability, in that
    when the aircraft turns to return to base – baring its backside, it is no better than a fourth generation fighter and is quite visible on enemy radars, especially on much faster Russian built Gen.4 fighters. The F-35 was originally designed for the
    U.S. Air Force to operate with cover of full-stealth F-22 Raptors, so it is extremely vulnerable if operated in a strike situation without such support. Japan and the U.K. can provide similar support with F-15’s & Typhoons etc, but Australia
    cannot! At the very least we need to obtain more F/A=18F’s (new enhanced models), 5-8 additional tankers (not part-time
    VIP transports!) & more Wedgetails & P-8’s. The F-35A will prove to be valuable to Australia’s defence long-term – its data-downlink capability is excellent, but it cannot and will not provide security for our borders on its own. It’s too great a risk for 25 million Australians!
    air-superiority support

  • over 80

    says:

    how about using war ships with a landing area for VTOL F35 aircraft, For self defense and aggressive attacks.

  • Steve

    says:

    As much as I loath the idea of Australia becoming a nuclear armed middling power, I am beginning to see the wisdom in this growing line of thought.
    With over a third of the worlds high quality uranium and the ability to develop, or acquire and afford the requisite technology, plant and infrastructure, we could become, in time, a producer of weapons grade material and even the devices and delivery options themselves, without having to purchase from our nuclear armed allies.
    Even then, I consider our isolation to still be a significant element of defence, as an enemy still has to be able to fly all the way down here, with all the support required, and arrive in theatre with enough surviving elements to be able to press any sort of attack or suppression mission.
    If we can deny them their newly made atoll and island bases in the SCS and deny blue water operation of their one or two carriers, we stand a good chance of discouraging an enemy to risk further loss and potential defeat.
    I applaud the notion of increasing our attack submarine fleet to thirty six hulls, and they must certainly be nuclear powered and armed, as no netter deterrent really exists.
    Crewing these vessels will be a challenge, however, as current peacetime recruitment cannot make up for current attrition, and in wartime, without conscription, who in their right mind is going to volunteer for probable combat and all that entails?
    No many, I would imagine.
    These limp wristed, woke times are not the trying and perilous times of our forefathers, and the idea of what makes a man is no longer clear.

  • Kevin T

    says:

    . Equip Canberra and Adelaide with F-35B
    . More KC-30A tankers (at least 5 more)
    . Nuclear submarines
    . Expand Christmas island airport as a forward base capable of operating and supporting KC-30
    . More long ranged missiles.

  • Gerald Casimatis

    says:

    Perhaps it is time to encourage New Zealand and Canada to be more proactive in the Pacific region. Asking them to fund their own F35s would take some of the pressure off our military budget.
    Western nations should also determine that Taiwan is not just a wayward, large, Chinese island. This would make the Chinese take notice. Placing cruise missiles on Taiwan would also show that we are serious and that the west won’t be intimidated by an apparent take over of China by their Nazi like military war hawk factions.

  • Murray Howlett

    says:

    I would have thought that these days the “high ground” is in space.

  • Matthew

    says:

    Umm.. recheck your numbers or at least go back to primary school because every number is either plain wrong or totally misrepresented.

    LRASM can go as far as 230 miles? Nope, LRASM is stated range greater then 230 miles and actually estimated at 300 miles.

    F35 can only fly out to 300 miles only on weapons and internal fuel? Again wrong. The combat radius for an F35 on internal fuel and air to air weapons internal is 870 miles, for heavy weapons or: LRASM it’s 770 miles.

    Will be an 8 hour mission? An F35 operating at cruise speed and altitude goes at around Mack 0.95 which is around 1173 km. Over 8 hours at cruise speed your F35 would have traveled 9,384 km’s.

    As to refueling, well loaded with LRASM and internal fuel it’s range is roughly 1,250km so yes would need one there and a short one on way back but not nearly as much as described.

    Overall this article is either not researched at all (I found this info in all of 15 minutes) or just a straight out lie. Delete it, retract it, rewrite it with factual information upto you but this article is just a sad showing of current journalism.

  • Adam

    says:

    This article totally ignores the possibility of forward basing RAAF assets. This has been done in the past, so why not in the future? RAAF has operated in Japan and of course Malaysia in the past. To constantly fly in Indonesian airspace requires permission by the Indonesian government. Indonesia is becoming increasingly alarmed by regional bullying by China and has even approached the Australian government regarding the prospect of joint naval patrols in the SCS. So any military operation that involves pushing back China in the SCS is in the interest of Indonesia. So, would it not be worth discussing and arranging joint temporary basing of RAAF assets at a Indonesian air base or even a civilian airport? There of course would also be the possibility of basing in Singapore and Malaysia as well. Any such operation would involve Australia being part of a coalition force involving regional neighbours and USA. So there would be joint USN/USMC & USAF assets in the region along with those of regional allies. The ranges quoted appear pretty wrong, but all this article achieves is showing how difficult it is to stage fighters continuously far forward from Australia – it’s showing how impractical this is and in fact Australia never has had this capability of flying a continuous fighter CAP over the SCS launching from Australia. With the existing tanker and AEW&C assets and the much greater range and endurance of the F-35 relative the Hornet and Super Hornet, the RAAF is in fact in a much better position now than it ever was. This was originally a poor bit of journalism that has been jumped on and added to by some other lazy journalists without doing some basic fact checking and thinking about alternative solutions.

  • Wildcat Willy

    says:

    Nothing wrong with drop tanks! Or additionally conformal tanks. Will add considerable Extra range. Use up drop tanks first before entering any enemy radar zones and then you’re back to stealthy F35.

  • nicholas fehring

    says:

    I think all the ideas in the article are insane and not realistic. 36 subs , 2/3 of the russian fleet when for the last 15 years its been very hard to have just 3 collins class operational with enough crews. Australian sub crew would be in the top 5 best payed in the world with there benefits yet nobody wants to join not enough to be viable. I always thought 9 subs would be the ideal number and even that with a reduced crew of 30 like most diesel subs now. I think the Australian force structure has so many holes in it and could be much better. The Canberra class , how usefull are they ? right now and for what purpose. I thought endurance class for singapore was far more usefull and just 3 enlarged ones would be enough and save Australia navy a lot of money to put someone else. The type 26 frigate i dont think is usefull, is there even such a thing as an anti sub frigate? when a sub will have a huge advantage over any ship i dont see the reason spending 2 billion a ship no matter how good it is trying to out muscle a 500 million sub that most likely will detect and fire on the ship first in any engagement. Australia neds to use its resources wisely and all the defence objective needs to be put towards the south china sea. i worry the sub purchase was a terrible idea, the new class will cost the same as a nuke sub which is insane and Australia kind of doesnt really need a nuke sub anyway it just dilutes the force. There should be way more UAVS like global hawk and the boeing idea the figher buddy. China weakness is in sub warefare followed by air , building more ships like frigates just gives them easy targets or plays to there advantage in the south china sea. i would prefer Australia did this :

    Build one more Canberra class now same as turkey as light carrier with 16 f35b. Saves on logistics cost and get turkey to build it there ship is only 1 billion USD. Really need 2 to have 1 available all the time like UK but that adds to cost

    Dont build anymore hobart class the time is past and its too late now. 3 is enough the min with 1-2 available for task group

    keep sub numbers at 9 ideally. building more will be pointless as you wont be able to crew them. Subs are also becoming easier to detect with new technology making a all sub navy like Russia today very risky in the long term. A far better idea is just have 6-9 as a detterant against there ships and have the P8, global hawk and light carrier have sea control and do all the sub hunting

    the 12 new type 26 frigates im not sure on…. i think the ships great but at 2 billion each its a waste of resources. China sub fleet is huge and still growing, agaisnt china the biggest priority will be air control and the area around Australia is so huge , only air assets can hunt and attack other ships subs quickly , frigates will be too slow and cant be everywhere at once. May have been better for Australia just to have small number 8 of light frigates like what malaysia has and put all the extra money saved into the carrier program the turkey ship and build more global hawk and p8 planes the real important force multipliers that china cant equal yet in capability.

    Building such a large number of f35 in my opinion is silly, any f35 makes a huge difference even just a small number for situational awareness but large numbers just increase the cost and turn around time of the fleet. More super hornets before would of been better but the air force keeps insisting on a 1 aircraft fleet. There is a reason India never buys from just 1 country because a parts supply problem can put your whole fighter force out of action and when your in a dangerous area you just cant risk that.

    Forward air bases are a great idea in theory and would save a lot of money as we would not need the carrier for force protection, Brunie is another country that has bases right next to the SCS and Phillipines. However what if they say no, or get influenced or payed off by china then what, it takes away a lot of your options when china already has bases in that area and is expanding every year and you have a maybe but not garentie some country will let you deploy there.

    Taking money away from the army on silly purchases like self artillery that will have no bearing in the defence of Australia or any trading routes and giving more to the air force would be more sensible. The air force is the number 1 priority for Australia due to time and distance and is really the only thing that can help in any conflict the most.

    I think they could grow the air force bigger quite easily as compared to the navy they turn so many people away, Its the easiest service to recruit from. Increasing the navy will be almost Impossible for Australia and should not be a given and very risky. Uk personal are already being recruited now so i cant see how the RAN is ever going to have these 12 subs and 12 frigates , they might just be expensive items sitting there doing nothing. I know the Norway navy had the same problem, buy 5 frigates and have enough crew for 2 over a 10 year period half sit there wasting resources.

  • Concerned

    says:

    I don’t know why when considering aircraft for the RAAF that some of the same logic could have used as for the navy buying submarines ie that we needed to build our own long range submarines because nothing currently available had the range. Ergo for the RAAF. Maybe the airforce should have bought f15s with conformal tanks instead of the super hornets. It appears with the f35 that the assumption is that forward airbases would be available, if this is incorrect then they would have to be supported by tankers. Also the RAAF needs to beef up defences for its airfields because these seem to be very vulnerable. It would appear that use of lasers for this along with advanced missiles purpose should be investigated and implemented. I am not really sure of the usefulness of the helicopter landing docks when we have large heavy airlift capability.. I don’t think we have an army big enough to justify these. Maybe these can be converted to fly f35bs and anti-submarine helicopters. Lastly the expansion of the submarine fleet is wise but availability of crews will be an issue. The purchase of the new super frigates (hunter class) is more in line with just having a traditional navy but considering our reliance on overseas trade it is important that we make visible effort to show we are serious about protecting this. It looks like with the f35 the greatest capability will be the ability to share information with other assets allowing networked fighting. Not sure how much stealth will help in defensive use of the f35 especially when it is considered we are a huge continent and we appear to be buying so few f35s. Purchasing more longer range missiles with hypersonic speed for surface/ship attack, and air defence seems to be a must. Finally Australia needs to consider that an attacker could invade using large transport aircraft as the delivery mechanism for invading land forces which would negate any investment in anti-ship capability such as submarines and surface combatants and aircraft strike capability.

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