On February 20 the government finally released its blueprint for the non-submarine part of the RAN, entitled Enhanced Lethality Surface Fleet.  The document claimed that the number of surface combatants will be substantially increased to 26 platforms – eventually.  Currently the RAN operates three Air Warfare Destroyers and eight Anzac frigates, with two of the latter soon to retire.

The number of Hunter class frigates – due to be delivered from 2032 – has been reduced from nine to six and central to the growth of the future fleet is the rapid acquisition of up to 11 General Purpose Frigates.  To get them as fast as practicable, the first three will be built overseas in the yard of the designer with construction of the remaining eight transitioning to the Henderson precinct in West Australia.

As far as anyone can tell, the government’s announced increase in Defence funding for the next decade of $11 billion will go mainly on these new frigates.  The Integrated Investment Plan released on April 17 gives the unapproved funding for the project as between $7 billion and $10 billion – but doesn’t say whether that is for 7 ships (the minimum number) or 11 (the ideal number)

The Surface Fleet report says:

The Government has directed these ships be acquired rapidly with an established international shipbuilding partner through a hybrid offshore then onshore build strategy, transitioning to the consolidated Henderson shipyard in Western Australia. Four platforms have been identified by the independent analysis as exemplars to form the basis of a selection process for this new general purpose frigate:

  • Meko A-200 (Germany)
  • Mogami 30FFM (Japan)
  • Daegu class FFX Batch II and III (South Korea)
  • Navantia ALFA3000 (Spain)

The problem is that there is no such thing as a Daegu class FFX Batch III.  The third batch of Korean FFX is the new Chungnam class, the first of which is undergoing sea trials and will be delivered to the ROKN in December.

To add to the confusion, elsewhere Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) is listed as the supplier of Daegu frigates.  This is also incorrect. The designer and lead yard for Daegu class frigates – FFX Batch II – is Hanwha Ocean, formerly DSME.  Construction of all eight of these ships is finished with the final one commissioned in October last year.

The Chungnam ships are larger at more than 4,000 tonnes, have a more robust construction and – most importantly – have an integrated radar mast with four fixed electronically scanned arrays.  This makes them very suitable to be equipped with similar Australian naval radars from Canberra-based CEA, which have been mandated for all surface combatants.

The 3,500 tonne Daegu class have a conventional rotating radar and would have difficulty being modified for an Anzac frigate style radar mast because of the necessary increase in top weight.  Modifying the Chungnam class would be simple since the mast – developed by Korea’s Agency for Defence Development (ADD) – looks to be of the same overall dimensions, height, and presumably weight as the Anzac frigate configuration.

Korea has an innovative approach to naval shipbuilding that is more complex than a lead-yard, follow-yard system – though that is still an important ingredient.  Everything is run by the powerful Defense Acquisition Program Agency (DAPA) – APDR has featured interviews with its former head – and it reserves the right to put the construction of some ships in a series out to tender.

For the Chungnam class, even though HHI is the designer and lead yard, ships two to four will be built by a new player, SK Oceanplant, and the final two by Hanwha Ocean.  This is because SK Oceanplant underbid both HHI and Hanwha with what may prove to be a costly commercial strategy.

Both the Daegu and Chungnam class share several features such as a 16 cell VLS, 5” main gun, torpedoes and an embarked MH-60R helicopter.  Either could be equipped with the Australian Saab 9LV combat management system because this would be achieved by swapping out operator consoles and racks of processors with little impact on the ship.

Put simply, the Daegu is good – but the Chungnam is better, and of the two designs is much closer to what the RAN needs.  Hopefully it will swallow its collective pride and confirm that it meant Chungnam from HHI and not Daegu from Hanwha Ocean – though the way might be open for both companies to submit bids.

In parallel, Hanwha Ocean has offered to buy Austal, which is the presumed future builder of the General Purpose Frigates at its Henderson yard in West Australia. If successful, this would not seem to be an impediment to the company building the Chungnams there after HHI has constructed the first three in their massive Ulsan parent shipyard.

The initial Hanwha offer has been rejected, but there is no reason why it could not be resubmitted with different terms. At the very least, it signals the willingness of the company to invest in Australia, which the other bidders are unlikely to do for purely commercial reasons.

By the way, it took the author about one hour to figure this out the situation in Korea looking at the ROKS Chungnam tied up at Ulsan and speaking with its commanding officer.  Even this level of analysis looks to be beyond the team who wrote the independent review into the RAN surface fleet, or the team who drafted the government’s response to it.

The entire process surrounding the General Purpose Frigate acquisition seems characterised by a high level of disfunction within Defence, so the confusion about which Korean design is being sought is understandable, if not excusable.  Apparently, the builders of the listed designs have been blocked from having any contact with Australian entities critical to the success of the project.

This means, for example, that no discussions can take place with: CEA (radar suite); Saab Australia (9LV combat management system); or Austal (prospective builder at the Henderson Precinct).  This, in turn, has given rise to speculation that if the government insists on a “Minimum viable capability” approach this will mean taking ships directly from the parent shipyard with no Australian-specific modifications.

If this happens it would be a regulatory nightmare because Australia has all sorts of domestic and international rules to adhere to – including things like Occupational Health and Safety legislation.  To get the speed delivery of ships from Europe or North Asia, presumably these would all have to be waived.

Another consequence of a “Minimum viable capability” approach would be to knock out the Koreans and the Japanese because all of those designs come with completely unfamiliar combat and communications systems – amongst other things.  The combat systems tend to come from suppliers such as Hanwha and Hitachi – and while based on principles developed by the USN are likely to be different from the Saab 9LV / Aegis combination that is now on all of the surface fleet.

The two European bidders – Navantia and tkMS – arguably have more flexibility with regard to combat systems because, strictly speaking, they could argue that there is no such thing as a parent yard baseline system.

This is because the Navantia ALFA3000 has not yet been constructed – but is a family of multifunction warships that can incorporate whatever the customer wishes.  However, it should be noted that this design features a mechanically scanned radar array, rather than the CEA fixed face AESA that the RAN presumably would like to acquire.

A parallel situation exists with tkMS and the MEKO 200.  The company has delivered a lot of MEKO frigates – about 70 and still counting – including the 10 Anzac class for Australia and New Zealand that are now getting long in the tooth.  Some use mechanically scanned radar arrays and others – such as those of the RAN – have fixed faces, including a suite from CEA.

If the RAN were to dogmatically hold tkMS to the latest reference MEKO 200 for Egypt, that comes with a Thales combat system and a rotating AESA radar, which again is different from what one assumes to be the ideal Australian configuration.

To this mix can be added an obvious desire on the part of the RAN to get their hands on General Purpose Frigates as soon as possible to plug a looming capability gap entirely of their own making.  Even a child can calculate that a ship that has a life of thirty years built before the year 2000 is approaching obsolescence quite soon.  Even combat systems and hull & machinery upgrades can only go so far.

The original plan to replace eight Anzacs with nine Hunter class frigates went off the rails years ago when it was apparent that the slow delivery schedule of the latter was not compatible with the age and capability of the former.  In other words, work on acquiring the General Purpose Frigates should have started at least five years ago.

But we are where we are, and the question becomes: of the five designers, who can build them the fastest?  This is highly speculative, but the Koreans – both Hyundai HHI and Hanwha Ocean – would be very difficult to beat.  The author has visited both yards in Ulsan and Okpo, respectively, and the scale and speed of production is extraordinary.

For example, in Ulsan the latest KDX destroyer – the Jeongju the Great – is undergoing sea trials.  This 11,000 tonne Aegis-equipped destroyer has 128 VLS cells making it arguable the world’s most powerful warship other than an aircraft carrier – and given its size could be more properly classified as a cruiser rather than a destroyer.  It has many additional features familiar to the RAN, such as a 5” main gun and an embarked MH-60R helicopter. It also has a large, variable depth towed array.

Keel laying was in October 2021 and launch in July 2022 – a completely astonishing nine months.  The overall program is also unbelievably brisk from an Australian viewpoint.  Contract signature was in October 2019 and the ship will be delivered – after very extensive sea trials – in November this year.  That’s five years from go to whoa – and compares very favourably with the 14 years for the first Hunter class.

But there’s more – because HHI have 10 huge dry docks, they can build identical ships in parallel.  This means that if Australia placed an order for three Chungnam class in the very near future they could have two of them – and possibly all three – by 2028.  HHI are cautious about the build time for the class because the first was not entirely under their control because they had to wait for the delivery of the radar mast from the Korean Agency for Defence Development (ADD).

What can be said is if they can build an 11,000 tonne KDX in nine months, then a 4,000 tonne Chungnam will certainly be quicker than that. It is highly likely that Hanwha Ocean could offer to do the same thing for three of the smaller Daegu class built at Okpo.

Calibrating the other designers is not easy, but of the two European yards tkMS have a reputation for speed.  This is partly because of the modular nature of the MEKO design combined with typical German industrial efficiency and can design and build a frigate in just under four years, if pushed.  However, it is unclear whether they would be able to produce more than one ship at a time.

Navantia and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are for the moment less well known when it comes to speed of construction and this will come down to issues of available workforce, order book and facilities.  An imponderable is that while Navantia definitely want the contract for the General Purpose Frigate, the position of MHI is unknown – and might remain that way given the Australian government’s attempt to totally suppress any information about the project.

The main worry in all of this is if the RAN is compelled to take ships that do not feature a CEA radar suite and a Saab 9LV combat management system they will be substantially different from the rest of the surface fleet.  This will impose a large additional sustainment cost and might in some circumstances lead to a new frigate having less capability than the 30-year-old Anzacs that are being urgently replaced.

(Disclaimer: The author travelled to Ulsan as a guest of HHI specifically for the contract signing for the delivery of the submarine the ROKS Shin Chae-ho. The company has been banned by the Australian government from discussing any aspect of the General Purpose Frigate program, as have all other bidders.)


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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. Listened with great interest to your podcast on your time in South Korea and in particular this subject. Whilst I was initially supporting the Navantia option for the General Purpose Frigate given the work they have done with the RAN in the past I think we need to look at the Chungnam class as the best possible option. Given the Hanwha Ocean bid to buy Austal it would make so much sense to tap into the huge South Korean industrial engine. Yes – build the first three in South Korea and by that time Austal/Hanwha Ocean should be in a position to build the remaining ships in South Australia.

    It is not just the building of ships that would benefit the South Australian shipyard – if the Chungnam is adopted potentially there is scope for repairs and maintenance on South Korean Navy ships being undertaken in South Australia as well – if for no other reason than emergency repairs in time of conflict. Australian industry could become a secondary source of resources to South Korea as well which is surely a win/win scenario.

    If the Frigates could be built in the time frame you spoke about in your podcast then it would go a long way towards reducing the capability gap we are currently facing.

    Hopefully common sense will prevail.

    • South Australia? Austal isn’t going to build in South Australia, and even if they wanted to the government isn’t going to suddenly change its mind about continuous shipbuilding at Henderson.

      Maintenance is also likely to be by Austal, so also won’t be in South Australia.

  2. The RAN should seriously consider recycling as much as possible: torpedo tubes, 5” guns, etc
    Heck we could probably cut off the current CEA radar mast off our ANZAC’s and bolt them onto the Chungnam Class or the MEKO A210 to save money (they’re really not that old)
    I personally think the the Morgami Class block 2 (with 32 VLS) is the way to go. Japan can knock them out pretty quick and they only need 90 crew.

    • I’m hearing anecdotally that the Mogami has overdone the automation and that the small crew is worked to death constantly having to run around checking things.

      • That’s an interesting thought about reusing the Anzac masts – though that would only be from the first two that are being retired almost immediately. The remaining six will need their masts for the next 15 years or so.

      • That would sound about right, the US Navy found this out with the LCS.
        It’s hard enough operating these ships with small crews in peace time, in war time it just would be possible.

  3. Given the need to build the first 3 rather quickly, hasn’t the government mentioned that only minor changes are likely, at least at this early stage anyway?
    That would potentially shelve the 9LV and CEAFAR mandate, but we’ll wait to see what happens there.
    In the recent ANI webinar a few weeks ago on the Fleet Review, ADM Peter Jones gave a run down on his views on the 4 shortlisted examplars and noted that he thought that the Meko was the only suitable design that could meet the brief with minimal change. The Meko, being modular and having no standard base fitout supposedly could have our standard equipment fitted with less issues compared to the others. The Mogami , A3000 and Chungnam in their standard fits would all bring new CMS, AAMs, radars and in some, VLS etc. to the RAN, reducing overall desirability and interoperability.
    Saying all that, it’s not to say you couldn’t accept 3 stock standard vessels as a first batch and then build vessel 4+ to an evolved design, later modifying the first 3 at a refit.
    How similar is the K-VLS, that features on the Daegu and Chungnam, to the Mk-41?

    • I’m told that the K-VLS is “very similar” to Mk41, but I don’t have the exact dimensions. It certainly looks similar. I agree that the MEKO will be hard to beat, although HHI can build very fast and to a budget so they can’t be counted out.

      • They’re bigger and proprietry for Korea’s home grown missiles, unfortunately. The space is there, so a mk41 VLS may not be a big change.

  4. The key word with reference to those frigate was, ‘exemplars’; meaning like.
    I don’t see the ‘bungle’ you see Kym.
    During questions at the ministerial annoucement, Minister Marles also made comment about the ship ultimately selected could be 4,500t – 5,000t and have 32 VLS cells. That siggests the Meko A210, Alpha 5000, Mogami 2 or Chungnam could well be a possiblity.
    Then again, ‘exlemplars’ indicates others, like those four can be considered. I have no doubt other firms will be offering their similar boats.
    My bet remains, the shipyard capacity and CFAR, Aegis & Combat system integration experience, plus the partnership agreement of Austral -Cimec -Nanavartia at Henderson, makes an A210 polesitter.
    It just happens to be 4500-5000t and has 32 cells, towed array etc.
    My understanding is the Mogami is still evolving and primarily focused on mine laying & hunting rather than ASW.

  5. The Meko has served Australia very well, I would go as far as to say “we got our monies worth”. The latest Meko has room to grow physically a factor that should be front and centre, knowing our penchant for “Buyers Regret”. With all these added frigates, is the missile ratio greater per ship or are we just kicking missile numbers down the road “again”?. “What you want fries with that”???????.

  6. When I first read the 4 Preferred Designs my initial thought was, why was the word Examplars used. My thoughts since are that it leaves the Government room to include the U.S. Constellation Class at a later date (weight not with standing) and really if time is of the essence, nothing seems to be moving at any pace (except Snail Pace). Honestly, it’s not all that hard , The 4 designs mentioned have obviously ticked all the boxes, or they wouldn’t have been chosen, approach the Builders with two questions, When can you start Building and what is the Price . Select the one the meets the right answers and get moving.

  7. This is all silliness.
    Why did we not take up the offer made by Navantia for additional Hobart Class vessels, just a year or so ago if we truly wanted vessels quickly?
    If the government was serious that could have been signed and the ships on the way already.
    But we are travelling back in time and debating what light frigate we should have.
    Sometime, in the future, not sure when.

    We could have got it right in 2018 and picked the modified Hobarts.
    But we didn’t.
    We didn’t even go for the excellent and in the water FREMM vessels, which by the way are made on an 18 month cadence in Italian yards which now have spare capacity that is being offered to Indonesia as I type this.
    We went with the really good power point presentation Type 26.
    Heavily modified of course.
    Which despite serious security issues in the world we are still persisting with, no doubt to buy our way into a nuclear sub deal with the our UK partner.
    In the far future, think 2040 if every thing goes perfectly.

    The above examples are not all I could write but it will suffice for now.
    This is not competent Defence planning nor industrial policy.

    It is a travesty.

    Discussions about which new light frigate we should or should not get is sadly a fantasy.

    What we desperately need is a competent Defence department and procurement policy which does not exist because of the above.

    No more reviews, no more competitions nor more selection processes, stop the endless discussions.

    Take up the Navantia offer for more Hobarts immediately.
    Get Luerssen to make all 12 Arafura’s with the final 6 made to 90m C90 (Bulgarian base design).

    They are not perfect but are what we have. Get it done.

    • I agree – particularly with reference to Luerssen. I’ve seen the Bulgarian C90 – it’s an impressive corvette and Luerssen offered a slightly lengthened version with 16 VLS cells and a quadpack of Kongsberg NSMs – as well as 75mm main gun and ASW torpedoes. It has 70% commonality with the Arafura class – same propulsion train, air conditioning etc. The redesign around RAN requirements and the inclusion of a CEA radar would have taken 6 months. In other words, the RAN could have started receiving these heavily armed, highly capable corvettes from 2026 – and then delivered at 9 month intervals using the existing Australian supply chain.

      For the life of me I cannot understand why this offer was not accepted with enormous gratitude. Instead Luerssen – one of the world’s great shipbuilders with a 130 year history – has been treated like dirt, had their reputation unfairly smeared and basically run out of the country.

      • From what we’ve seen of the Arafura build so far I think building one every 9 months is totally unrealistic.

        • On the contrary, that’s about what Luerssen were able to manage until they hit a brick wall with Defence/RAN suddenly signaling a change of direction around 2 years ago.

  8. Hi Kym

    On all the mistakes you found in the Albanese Government’s General Purpose Frigates announcement we should be charitable to the poor sods in Defence and the RAN who were asked to throw together a quick list of ships to meet the deadlines of uncomprehending Ministers’ Offices.

    And to give all their due the quick list may trigger the usual billion dollar mistakes down the line that no one is held accountable for.

    And then is the manned “new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs)” decision. http://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2024-02-20/navys-enhanced-lethality-surface-combatant-fleet

    I wonder how the poor crew will feel after weeks-months aboard ships not intended to be manned, hence tending to be Low Freeboard – meaning unsafe sea keeping capabilities… see how unsafe http://www.sealawyers.com/blog/2015/12/why-you-should-consider-the-freeboard-of-a-vessel-before-sailing/#:~:text=If%20a%20ship%E2%80%99s%20freeboard%20is%20too%20low%2C%20a,on%20water%20and%20potentially%20sink%20in%20the%20process

    Wasting billions of tax payers money is now an established tradition in Defence
    but what about RAN sailors needlessly drowning in even a typical high swell?

  9. When Australian kids are standing in the yard at school, pledging allegiance to the Chinese flag, they will wonder and ask their fathers, “daddy what happened to Australia”? His only reply will be, “ we didn’t have a navy or Air Force and the army just withered away “.

  10. Hi Kym

    It indeed looks like quick list of General Purpose Frigates was thrown together to meet the deadlines just before the announcement. The quick list may trigger the usual billion dollar mistakes down the line that no one is held accountable for.

    Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels

    And then is the manned “new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs)” decision announced by the Australian Government. http://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2024-02-20/navys-enhanced-lethality-surface-combatant-fleet

    I wonder how the poor crew will feel after weeks-months aboard ships not intended to be manned, hence Low Freeboard Optionally Crewed may well have unsafe sea keeping capabilities.

    Here is one proposed design https://news.usni.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/GFO_Nomad_Ranger_2021-copy-1182×630.jpg

    “If [an Optionally Crewed] ship’s freeboard is too low, a sizeable wave could wash over the ship’s deck, causing it to take on water and potentially sink in the process.”


    Wasting billions of tax payers money is now an established tradition in Defence but what about risking RAN sailors needlessly drowning in even a typical high swell?

  11. The list of exemplars, the key requirements list, plus the Minister’ quips at the news conference about the final decision might be ships 50% (4500-5000t ) bigger and preferably with 32 VLS cells, suggests the ‘corvette’ exemplars are unlikely selections.

    Methinks there’s a baseline here which is a price signal, encouraging offers for more capability, but not a Tier1 8000ter. That’s also incompatible with speed of delivery.

    That’s why Navantia & TKMS are offering their Alpha5000 & Meko A210 with Ceafar/Saab/Aegis intergrated. The name of the game here has to be intergration & compatibility with the rest of our assets and the US Navy. Both companies have experience through involvement in masts for Anzac & Hobart class.

    Those two offerings also offering the key hints given: 4500t, 32 VLS, ASW towed array, CWS, mission bay, MH60 compatible, with masts housing the sensors, radars and combat systems which I see as a must. The Japanese and Korean offerings are too propriety; too much change to fit our fleet compatibility.

    When the Surface Fleet Study was first handed to government it included mention by the authors of the value of ‘compatible hulls’. Not mentioned since, but I heard that as a positive for Navantia & TKMS. And both firms have yard capacity for quick build overseas and currently touting these same ships internationally If it comes down to price & fastest time rollout, meeting requirements; Navantia has the edge.

    The onshore construction is to be at Henderson which is currently the hime of Austral, Birdon, Leurrsen, Cimec. Navantia partnered with Austral & Cimec for any build at Henderson. TKMS indicated they’re in negotiation with another ship builder, if Meko A210 wins. Leurssen is the likely Henderson candidate. Leurssen has been the loser in this review, so far. Whatever happens, Austral will be involved.

    Henderson is already being upgraded with a much larger shiplift / dry dock facility, same as Osbourne.

    I’m not surprised to see HHI trying to buy Austral out. That’s the way Koreans do business, but even if they did, that doesn’t mean they’ll get the contract. This will be more a military and compatible capability decision than an Abbott style bilateral ‘deal’. The decision makers will look for ‘fit’, not orphans.

    Navantia have a track record with RAN vessels & the quick delivery capability and RAN systems integration experience.
    TKMS has similar. They’re the pole sitters.

    • While I agree with your broader points there are a few details for correction. tkMS have been asked about the MEKO 200, not the MEKO 210. I don’t see any path forward for Luerssen – they seem to be out of the game as soon as the 6th Arafura is completed. And it’s not HHI that has offered to buy Austal (not Austral) but Hanwha Ocean.

      It would be helpful if RAN / DoD explained simply and clearly what they need. All of the secrecy and misdirection does no one any good.

  12. The simple fact of life is that there is no budget for these 11 frigates.
    They are an item on a wishlist.
    Once politics gets involved, which is inevitable, I’m betting the orders either never get placed at all or alternatively we end up with some half baked plan designed to artificially create jobs in Australia that might give us 3-4 of the 11 frigates.
    The optionally unmanned vessels are a pipedream and they’ll be lucky to ever be mentioned again

    • I agree with that – except there’s a vague glimmer of hope in the shape of the May budget. Richard Marles has promised an “immediate” increase in Defence funding to the tune of an additional $11 billion. If this actually starts to come through now – not in 2028 or 2035 – and combined with drastic cuts in many other areas it might, theoretically, free up some funds. We should have a far better idea of what is fact and what is fiction about a month from now. Based on prior performance, I’m not particularly optimistic.

      • Kim , I know where the Government can save around $9 Billion. What sort of simpleton donates money to Foreign Industry at the expense of our Defence. I’m sure that money could be spent more productively.

        • I agree 100%. I’m astounded that the transfer of $9.4 billion to the companies in the US and UK has generated so little interest. If that money were to be spent in Australia to make parts for US and UK submarines it would be absolutely transformative, but we are just giving it away – and it’s coming out of our Defence budget.

  13. I can understand a certain amount of Secrecy around Defence Projects But the DoD seems to have taken it to a level that would make the KGB blush. The lack of information (from official sources) about the Fleet upgrade can only mean that Nobody in the DoD, Defence Miniseries and the R.A.N. have a clue what is happening now. It’s all good to talk about Future Capability and Gearing Up for the War of the Future but what about now, I read a piece in the Australian that sums up the situation some what and I agree. An illustration of what it sums up is simple, The Walls of Troy began as a Wooden Fence.

    • The level of secrecy is quite simply insane – and I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next podcast. This is a level of stupidity greater than anything I have previously witnessed – and that’s really saying something. Even though the 4 – or 5 – bidders (depending on what happens with Korea) cannot even answer a phone call from a journalist or face jail time, I can assure everyone that none of them has any idea of how the selection process will work.


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