Shipbuilders Still Awaiting Details of 355-Ship Fleet Buildup Plans 1 Year Later; Yards Won’t Make Investments Without Firmer Signals from the Navy

December 14, 2017 9:57 AM

It’s been a year since the Navy declared it needed a 355-ship Navy to meet its global requirements going forward – outlining a potential future fleet with nearly 40 percent more attack submarines, 30 percent more small surface combatants, nearly 20 percent more large surface combatants and an additional aircraft carrier.

And yet, little  action has been taken to begin reaching this vision. For the shipbuilders who will be tasked with constructing this new fleet, they’re encouraged by the talk coming from the Navy and Congress but haven’t seen the right signs to begin expanding their facilities or revving up their supply base.

Earlier this year the Pentagon said efforts to increase force structure would have to wait until Fiscal Year 2019, with FY 2017 and 2018 budgets being focused on readiness and wholeness. But with the FY 2019 budget release around the corner, it’s still unclear that industry will get the green light it needs from the Navy to begin any kind of meaningful buildup.

USNI News visited three shipyards to talk to them about the role they hope to play in the Navy’s quest for a 355-ship fleet, and what the lack of immediate action from the Pentagon and Capitol Hill has meant for them. At Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., the yard builds four ship classes and is pushing to accelerate several of its stable program lines. Nearby at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., though, the modern manufacturing facility hopes to play a role in the buildup but is quickly running out of work to do as it awaits word on whether either of its two ship programs will be continued. At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the yard is in the midst of major facilities upgrades – all of which are aimed at the currently planned shipbuilding rate, not one to support a larger fleet.

Signals from the Navy

A crane moves the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. on June 22, 2017. HII Photo

In the big picture, the Navy is saying all the right things to industry. Mike Petters, president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding, which owns both the Ingalls Shipbuilding and Newport News Shipbuilding yards, told USNI News in an Oct. 27 interview that the talk coming out of Washington today is more promising than at earlier points in his career.

“There seems to be general agreement that the Navy needs to be bigger. That’s not always been the case – over my career there’s been arguments about the size of the Navy; it’s always been some would argue for a larger Navy and some would argue for a smaller Navy. But today, in this international environment, there seems to be a general agreement the Navy needs to get bigger. Now there’s disagreement on exactly how much bigger and how fast you need to get bigger and what does bigger mean and all that stuff, but the fact that everyone agrees it needs to be bigger is actually a pretty good place to start from,” he said.

The Navy hasn’t yet filled in the details with a strategy or an updated long-range shipbuilding plan, though, forcing industry leaders to read between the lines a bit.

HII CEO Mike Petters

“The faster you feel the need to get bigger, the more you’re going to need to focus in on the stuff we’re already doing. And what I see the Navy talking about is exactly that,” Petters said, explaining the key takeaways he has from the Navy’s rhetoric.
“We’ve been actually advocating that, look, the smartest way to buy aircraft carriers is to take advantage of the production line and capacity that we have and buy them as smart as you buy other stuff. So let’s buy them two at a time like we did before. We watched the Navy make a decision in the amphib arena to say the LX(R) needs to look, the more it looks like an LPD the more efficient that will be and the faster to the fleet it will be. The frigate program, there’s been a lot of discussion about, we don’t want to go and start with a clean sheet of paper, we want you to use a parent design. So all of those are signals to us that say there’s a little bit more urgency to this than just some sort of academic study that some day in the future the Navy needs to be bigger. There’s actually a need for the Navy to be larger sooner, and to do that, the things they are talking about are ways to make the Navy bigger. So we find that to be encouraging.”

Despite the positive signals within the Navy’s rhetoric, though, the Navy is currently being funded by a continuing resolution rather than a budget bill that reflects the current FY 2018 spending needs. Spending caps still loom over the budget process, constraining the Navy’s ability to buy the ships it wants while also spending the money on the maintenance and training the fleet needs. The Pentagon has promised a National Defense Strategy to reflect Defense Secretary James Mattis’ priorities for the department, but that has yet to be publicly released. And despite outlining a notional 355-ship fleet, the Navy has not released an updated 30-year shipbuilding plan to project when it would buy any of those ships.

For Petters – whose two yards have steady business and are simply awaiting information on accelerating their programs – that delay is okay. For now.

Continued Improvements in DDG, LPD Serial Production

John Finn (DDG-113) launching. HII Photo

As the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer program prepares to upgrade to the Flight III configuration and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock prepares to transition to the LX(R) next-generation dock landing ship, program officials at Ingalls Shipbuilding say their workforce is still finding new ways to improve how they build their ships.

Donny Dorsey, the DDG program manager at the shipyard, told USNI News that the program maintains a lessons learned database to ensure that, despite a flurry of activity with six destroyers in various stages of completion, each ship can do better than the previous one.

“A lot of times it might be something you change in the drawing, something you change in the build. Sometimes it’s just, hey, here’s a better way to do this. But yes, we’re seeing huge benefits as you move from ship to ship as far as capturing our lessons and applying them,” he said.

For example, the team has found ways to complete more work on the exhaust system while the hull is coming together on land, “on the hill” in the middle of the shipyard.

“Those earlier ships we were down here (at the waterfront) putting together exhaust systems,” he said, though the DDG team discovered that most of the work, “right up to the point it ties into your engine, could be done up on the hill. So that’s been one we spent a lot of time and effort on.”

As the DDGs transition to the Flight III design, Dorsey said the hull design is mostly the same and that the systems that make Flight III truly unique are mostly government-furnished equipment they’ll install in the end. The power system is different compared to the Flight IIA DDGs currently under construction, but Dorsey said the Flight III power system is the same as is used on the LHA amphibious assault ships.

Ingalls Shipbuilding president Brian Cuccias told USNI News the LHA team would share its own lessons learned with the DDG program to ease the transition to the new electrical system.

“We leverage cross-craft experience and training across all platforms. Keep the team together on a particular program and they get very good; but also we look at by craft – the electricians and the shipfitters – we look across program on who is doing it the best across programs and then how do you get each program to do it best on that platform as well,” he said.

On the LPDs, program manager Steve Sloan told USNI News that about 100 changes were made between LPD-27 and LPD-28 to take cost out and begin to move closer to the eventual LX(R) design. There will likely be single-digit changes between LPD-28 and LPD-29, but chief among them is that LPD-29 will be the first to use the new Enterprise Air Search Radar (EASR).

Sloan said his production line is very efficient right now due to building ships at nearly one a year, down from two-year build cycles at the beginning of the ship class.

Beginning with LPD-28, the timeline could be even more compressed – as some systems and spaces are deleted from the ship design, pipes that previously were bended around that feature can be straightened out, allowing for faster installation. Many hydraulically driven systems are being replaced by electrically driven systems, which cuts out a lot of time-consuming and expensive specialized pipe welding – saving time and money.

“We found ways to take cost out of the ship with no loss of capability, and that’s what the Navy and Marine Corps are so excited about and what’s been so fun for us working with the Navy on these changes to improve the design,” Sloan said.

Both Ingalls Shipbuilding and Newport News Shipbuilding are in the midst of a digital overhaul to implement more efficient processes, speed up work and add automation to some segments of work.

“The investment that we’re making, quite frankly, is designed to help us efficiently produce the 30-year plan as it exists, not the bigger Navy that people are talking about. So if there actually is some acceleration towards a bigger Navy – if you’re going to ramp up the submarine production rate or the destroyer production rate – we probably have to make some more investment,” Petters said.
“We can make the decision to invest and have the facilities ready faster than the government can appropriate the money. … But it also means that we don’t have to make the decision right away if we feel like the process is going to take a while. And frankly, as long as the sequestration is still in effect and this fiscal food fight about how big should the budget be and how do we get it to where it needs to be continues to go on, we’re ready to make the investments, but we don’t need to, not yet. What we really need to do right now is we need to focus on capturing the value of the investments we’re making before we go and put another layer of investment in.”

But for Austal USA, waiting for more information is not an option. Austal builds two classes of aluminum ships – the Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ship and the Expeditionary Fast Transport ship (EPF). The current shipbuilding plan calls for an end of the EPF line, though operators in the fleet have given overwhelmingly positive feedback about the ships and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer recently committed to helping U.S. Southern Command execute its anti-trafficking mission with EPFs as early as next year. The LCS program will end in 2019 and transition to the FFG(X) frigate program, where Austal will have to compete against a handful of other companies for a single construction contract in 2020.

Craig Perciavalle, Austal USA CEO

Austal USA president Craig Perciavalle told USNI News in a Sept. 13 yard visit that he needed answers about future shipbuilding plans “pretty quickly” to make decisions about his workforce.

Whether these and other shipbuilders will receive some clarity any time soon is still to be determined. The Navy did not respond to requests for comments about whether the FY 2019 budget request would show signs of a fleet buildup, as Mattis had suggested in a January 2017 memo.

Secretary Spencer told USNI News on Dec. 13 that the 2019 budget request, set for release in early February, may show investment but not necessarily additional hulls in the Navy’s spending plans.

“Right now we’re in the scrum, fighting, pushing, pulling, making taffy. So I don’t have an immediate answer for you,” regarding the timing of shipbuilding acceleration.
“You might not see actual hulls being delivered as fast as the path that we want to get to 355, but the footnote there is, we are front-end loading [the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine program], we are front-end loading carriers, we’re doing a lot of front-end loading in 2019 that doesn’t equate to a ship until farther down the line. But we never know, we might get plussed-up to put us right back on there; there are talks about some various different outcomes there. More to come.”

Anxiety at Austal

Littoral Combat Ship Tulsa (LCS-16) is heading back to Austal USA after launching from the drydock at BAE Ship Systems. She’s passing Austal’s vessel completion yard where USNS Yuma (EPF 8), future USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) and future USS Omaha (LCS 12) are docked in 2016. Austal USA Photo

Perciavalle said Austal’s expertise in smaller surface ships should set it up nicely to participate in a fleet buildup. However, nothing is certain for the yard at this time.

“This place is humming, and if the Navy wants to get to 355 ships there’s not a whole lot of other ways they can get there, to be honest. They’re not going to get there by building DDGs, they take longer to build and they’re three times as expensive as the ship we’re building today,” he said.
“So, bring it, let’s go, we’re ready.”

What work the yard will have past next year is still unclear, though.

The yard will be delivering EPFs to the Navy through 2019, but to avoid a production gap Perciavalle said he would need another contract soon. Due to the ability to move work between the EPF and LCS production lines, he said there’s some flexibility to slow down EPF production a little, but “we’re in a situation where we need to get extensions on both programs now, and we need to keep things moving now to not have any detrimental effect on our cost on the program.”

“Quite frankly we’re at a stage now where we need an EPF now for us to not have a break in production on EPF,” he continued.
“The reason why I said I have some flexibility is because I can put LCS on EPF line and that gives me a little bit of flexibility. The bottom line is, I still have a break in the line and then you lose the momentum. Man, we’ve come really a long way on cost on EPF, and quite frankly on LCS, so we don’t want to break that momentum, that’s for sure.”

Perciavalle noted the company has had “positive discussion” with the Navy about continuing the EPF line, either in its current configuration or with some slight modifications to take on specialized missions: a medical ship, for example – the EPF would be akin to an ambulance, and not in competition with USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) as the hospital ship – or an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support ship.

“There’s been some challenges across the board from the budget perspective and things like that that have caused things to not be as firm and as stable as we would have liked, and that’s been the biggest challenge,” he said, noting that Austal has shared its drawings of these variants with the Navy.
“We’re very excited about the feedback we’re getting from the fleet. We’re excited about what we’re hearing the ships being used for, which is beyond just troop transport and things of that nature, so that’s really good for us. We certainly are working closely with the Navy and [Military Sealift Command] and others to continue to communicate the added potential the ship can have. We have had discussions with the [chief of naval operations] and even with the secretary of the Navy about medical platforms and things like that, which was used to supplement the Comfort not too long ago. So our focus on that is to continue to communicate that, market those capabilities. … There’s no doubt the EPFs can make a major play in being able to bolster the fleet and support a 355-ship navy. So key for us is just to get that going, and we’re hoping to get an extension on that soon with an EPF-13 and follow.”

On the LCS side, the Navy will likely buy three LCSs from Austal and Freedom-variant builder Lockheed Martin in FY 2018 but potentially as few as one in FY 2019. In 2020 the service will award a construction contract for the frigate, though the competition is an open one and Austal will be competing with at least three other bidders for the work.

USS Tulsa (LCS-16) launched on March 15, 2017. Austal USA photo.

Currently, Austal delivers two LCSs and two EPFs a year, though that workload is about to taper off. Looking to the fleet buildup in the next decade, Perciavalle said Austal is just fighting to maintain its current workload, but would happily increase its production rates if called upon to do so.

“Right now that hasn’t been part of the discussion; right now we’re just fighting to maintain the level we are now, and we’re not there. I think that the time is ripe right now and perfect right now: you’ve got a 355-ship navy that’s been communicated as needed, you’ve got a brand new facility that’s in hot full-rate production delivering four ships a year on two different programs; we certainly hope that somebody would see that and say, wow, this is something we don’t want to interrupt and disrupt, and we can certainly continue that going forward.”

Perciavalle said his yard has the capability to expand further if the Navy were to decide Austal had an even larger role to play in the fleet of the future.

“If we were to go really hog-wild and go beyond where we are today, we do have the ability to add another assembly bay and we actually do have the ability to add shifts. So there’s excess capacity in the facility we could leverage going forward,” he said.
“We can stay at two per year for each ship (class) right now forevermore with the workforce we have and the facilities we have today. If they want to go hog-wild more than that, I have another assembly bay I can build.”

New Facilities at Newport News

A crane moves the lower stern into place on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) at Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va. on June 22, 2017. US Navy Photo

Newport News is expanding its yard to include several new facilities aimed at getting ready for the new Columbia-class SSBN and to increase the efficiencies in the Virginia-class attack submarine program. The Joint Manufacturing Assembly Facility (JMAF) under construction today will contain automated equipment and heavy-lift cranes for building large segments of SSBN and SSN hulls. Improvements are also being made to the Virginia-class final outfitting facilities to accommodate the added length of the Block V SSNs with the Virginia Payload Module.

The yard is also investing in a transformation to digital shipbuilding, with the future aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN-80) to be the first ship at the yard to go completely paperless. Workers building carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) are using tablets to help them run cables and wires twice as efficiently as before, and to bring with them an augmented reality tool that shows them step-by-step how to complete a specific job without having to refer back to technical papers.

CVN-80 to ‘De-Risk Columbia’ SSBN Program

Rendering of the third ship in the Ford class of aircraft carriers, Enterprise (CVN-80).

Newport News Shipbuilding officials say they’re using the upcoming Enterprise CVN-80 aircraft carrier as an opportunity to learn lessons ahead of the start of the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine program.

Shipyard president Jennifer Boykin said the yard is going digital and will build Enterprise as its first paperless ship, using only digital drawings and work instructions instead of paper ones. Though some of this digital transformation is already taking place and adding efficiency to the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) construction, she said going all-in on Enterprise is ““a big de-risker” for the SSBN program, which has already eaten up all its schedule margin and must strictly adhere to its planned path forward to allow the lead ship to make its maiden deployment in 2031.

Based on the Columbia design schedule, she said, the yard would want to do its model-based digital design planning and prototyping by the end of 2018 – which is when Enterprise should be completing design work and beginning construction, so “it’s literally a stepping stone to that.”

An undated artist’s rendering of the planned Columbia-class submarine. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

Huntington Ingalls Industries president and CEO Mike Petters, who oversees both Newport News Shipbuilding and Ingalls Shipbuilding, told USNI News “we’re aggressively trying to put as much digitization into the 79 and the 80 carrier programs to drive cost out of the carriers but also to reduce risk on Columbia. There’s a great opportunity for us to take advantage of that process innovation to create the workforce that’s going to do Columbia and de-risk Columbia. Columbia is the big program that’s kind of sitting out there coming over the hill, and the more we can do at the front of that to take risk out of that program, the better served we are all going to be.”

However, the $1.5 billion in upgrades taking place today is meant to optimize the yard for the current shipbuilding plan, not one that gets the Navy to a larger fleet.

“Generally speaking, we won’t invest in the facility until there’s a very strong signal. Sometimes it’s just being in the 30-year plan, sometimes it’s more than that, it’s closer to contract,” Newport News Shipbuilding president Jennifer Boykin told USNI News during an Oct. 27 visit, when asked what it would take for her to start making investments to support accelerated shipbuilding.
“In terms of our role in building up to a 355-ship navy, it’s really submarines and aircraft carriers. Our capital investment plan right now reflects the plan of record, which is the Columbia-class schedule and two Virginia-class per year. So if on the fast attack side, if the Navy decides they want to increase the rate … for Virginia-class, if the Navy considers going beyond two per year, that would require more investment. For Columbia-class it’s unlikely.”

On aircraft carriers, Boykin said she has talked to Navy and congressional leaders about buying two ships at a time and accelerating the build rate beyond today’s one carrier every five years.

“The closer the ships are – and there’s kind of a sweet spot at about three years; with the industrial base it’s probably more like three-and-a-half years to four years – but the closer the centers, the greater the labor efficiency because my workforce doesn’t have to build up to build one carrier and then go down and wait and go back up, build a second carrier and go down,” she said.
“We also have a tremendous amount of data from Nimitz class and also from submarines that if we buy bulk, if we go to the supply base and get two ship sets as opposed to one ship set, in aggregate that offers about a 10-percent opportunity to reduce cost on material.”

Boykin said today’s current carrier build rate of one every five years will never allow the Navy to reach its goal of having 12 carriers, “and worse than that, we run the risk of going below 10.” For both reasons – cost efficiency and reaching a 12-carrier fleet – Boykin said the company is strongly advocating building carriers every four years.

“To move the carrier left and to produce those savings on a two-ship buy to the Navy really doesn’t take more facility investment for us. … That’s the beauty of our yard is we can deliver carriers faster to the Navy without significant need to build new facilities – we have those facilities, and we have the workforce and actually by moving the centers closer it enables us to keep our workforce stable and therefore more efficient and therefore reducing cost. And the third piece of that is that does send a strong message to the industrial base so that our suppliers – our suppliers, so many of them, are small businesses and they’re not going to invest on listening to the idea of a 355-ship navy. But a two-carrier buy ahead of Columbia really helps the supply base invest in their facilities and their workforce and their build processes.”

On the SSN side of the house, lawmakers are seriously considering asking Newport News and General Dynamics Electric Boat to build three attack subs a year in select years: 2020, 2022 and 2023, when the yards will not be building a Columbia-class SSBN and a third sub would flatten the workload a bit. However, the Navy is facing a serious gap in attack subs until 2048 at least and some have suggested looking at industry’s ability to build three a year even during Columbia years.

Boykin said building three SSNs a year on a more permanent basis would require additional facilities, as the production line as it stands today cannot be sped up. The decision to make that capital investment would be a tough one, though, because if Navy attack sub acquisition were to drop back down to two-a-year then the shipyard would be left with expensive and under-utilized assets. She said the yard needs to “make sure that we can be a good partner the Navy needs but in a way that there’s value to the business.”

“I do know the Navy has a significant concern about the dip in number of fast-attack submarines, so we’re very confident that there’s a lot of discussion going on at the right levels of Navy leadership and industry to sort of figure out what the right mix of solutions are,” she concluded.

Improvements at Ingalls

USS Tripoli (LHA-7) is launched at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ (HII) shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. on May 1, 2017. US Navy Photo

Ingalls Shipbuilding is in the midst of a “shipyard of the future” improvement plan that not only seeks to create more covered work spaces to keep shipbuilders out of the heat and rain but also to “actually improve efficiency and movement of information, from less paper to more digits, and from rather than going through people go right into machines,” Ingalls Shipbuilding president Brian Cuccias told USNI News during a Sept. 14 yard tour.

Ingalls today builds the America-class amphibious assault ship (LHA-6), which some lawmakers have discussed accelerating to bring efficiencies into the production line; the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock (LPD-17), which is starting on its 13th ship before transitioning into the LX(R) program that Ingalls will likely build as well; the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG-51), which is among the most talked-about targets of a fleet build-up plan; and the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter program, which could end after the 10th or potentially 11th ship in the class is built, though talks are still ongoing about extending the program.

For Cuccias, the quest to build ships most efficiently would dovetail nicely with an effort to grow the fleet in that both are dependent on him speeding up his ongoing ship production lines.

“We actually are not at capacity,” said Cuccias, who has previously told USNI News the yard is operating at about 75-percent capacity with its current facilities.
“We’re ready to respond to the Navy’s demand for additional ships right now. And we look forward to that demand signal to come, and we stand ready to respond when the budget comes through, gets appropriated, authorized, becomes contracts – we’re ready to implement probably more quickly than the budget can get here. We’re ready right now to increase production.”

If the Navy asked Ingalls for more ships tomorrow, Cuccias said the biggest consideration for his yard would be workforce, not facilities.

“It would entail increased headcount, but the facilities the way they’re structured, it’s not loaded out. You saw a lot of ships in the water; you didn’t see a lot of ships with their keels, you didn’t see a lot of ships up on land,” he said after USNI News conducted a tour of the yard.
“So if you go into the shops, the shops have various loads, you saw plenty of spots in the shops that weren’t full. That’s with 11 ships being built at the same time. We have a capacity of a lot more than that. … There’s a lot of open spots still. So with 800 acres and the ability that we have, I think we’re really uniquely positioned to help the Navy deliver more ships to the fleet in a very affordable and timely way.”

Though the lack of clarity in Navy shipbuilding plans doesn’t put Ingalls at risk the way it does Austal, Cuccias said the ability to deliver the most affordable ship possible is at risk in the current Navy budget. The LPDs should fall about a year to a year and a half apart, but Ingalls is looking at a two-and-a-half-year gap between LPD-29 and the first LX(R), assuming Ingalls is chosen to build the LPD-based LX(R). The yard could squeeze in an LPD-30 ship to fill that gap if the Navy wanted to buy it, Ingalls LPD program manager Steve Sloan told USNI News during the yard tour, but so far that 14th LPD is just an idea – though the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act allots $1.5 billion for either the lead ship in the new LX(R) class or for LPD-30 as a bridge ship to avoid a production gap.

The future John P. Murtha (LPD-26). Huntington Ingalls Industries photo.

“We always look at yard loading and efficiencies. Our real challenge is to, how do you maintain those critical skills and critical resources throughout? So if there’s a need to do (schedule) adjustments, we will always consider do we need to do an adjustment or not? But I want to make sure that I get the next ship out in the most affordable manner possible for our customer at a better value than they have seen in the past,” Cuccias said.

“The continuity in all the lines just makes a lot of sense, be it an NSC, an LPD, a DDG or a large-deck amphib, we have asked that, can you look at accelerating those programs so there isn’t a gap, so the resources that are working on the last ship can be as productive as they can be on the following one. So I would say in terms of need is really to have some of these programs accelerated. We need it for the 355-ship Navy, and from an affordability (standpoint) it’s really the right place to be,” Cuccias continued.
“I’m not sure the ’18 budget fully supports all the acceleration I spoke about, so to the degree that Congress can help fund things to accelerate those different programs, to put them in a natural order, it is really smart for the nation. I think our capability at Ingalls is really unparalleled in the industry in terms of what we can produce, and a big part of that is the people. We talked about recruiting and training and it’s not easy – we do it very well, and so I’m not up at night about where are we going to recruit people, but it’s an expensive process if you lose them and have to retrain them. … So back to, it’s really smart to buy [ships] in an affordable way; buying one-offs and breaks is the most expensive way to buy a platform. So what I’ve really asked to see if the programs could be accelerated – and sometimes that may not line up to the budget, so the budgeted would have to be adjusted to make that happen.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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