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21st Space Wing
21st Space Wing.png
Active 15 November 1952
Country United States
Branch United States Air Force
Role Space Control
Part of Air Force Space Command
Garrison/HQ Peterson AFB
"Strength and Preparedness"

World War II Victory Medal ribbon.svg Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon.svg

  • World War II
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign (1944–1945)
Decorations Presidential Unit Citation ribbon.svg DUC
Outstanding Unit ribbon.svg AFOUA
Col. Chris Crawford
Donald G. Cook
C. Robert Kehler

21st Space Wing - Defense Satellite Program (DSP)

File:Space Surveillance Network.jpg

The Space Surveillance Network

The 21st Space Wing[1] is a unit of the Air Force Space Command based at Peterson Air Force Base,[2] Colorado. The unit is tasked with the operation of early missile warning and space object detection equipment around the world in support of NORAD[3] and USSTRATCOM[4] through a network of command and control units and ground based sensors operated by geographically separated units around the world.

The Wing's services include more than 9,000 government and contractor personnel who detect, track and catalog more than 14,000 catalogued man-made objects in space, from those in near-Earth orbit to objects up to 22,300 miles above the Earth's surface and explores counterspace warfighting technologies in the field.

On 12 August 2013, the Wing was told that it would stop operation of the aging Air Force Space Surveillance Systems by October due to budget cuts.[5]


Conduct world class space superiority operations and provide unsurpassed installation support and protection while deploying Warrior Airmen.


The 21 SW operate and maintain a complex system of U.S. and foreign-based radars that detect and track ballistic missile launches, launches of new space systems, and provide data on foreign ballistic missile events through its communication and control with CMAS, TABG, CAFS, and CCAFS.

Ballistic missile warning allows the US to monitor at least 20 nations that currently have nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and the technology to deliver them over long distances, including some with the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States.

The 21st Operations Group manages all operation units in the 21st Space Wing.

The Wing's ground-based radars are: a sea-launched ballistic missile or SLBM, the PAVE PAWS warning system; a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, or BMEWS; and a Perimeter Attack Radar Characterization System, or PARCS.

SLBM warning units are the 6th SWS, Cape Cod AFS, Mass., and the 7th SWS, Beale AFB, Calif. Their mission is mainly to watch America's coasts for incoming sea-launched or intercontinental ballistic missiles, and warn NORAD and NORTHCOM.

The wing's two BMEWS radar units are the 12th Space Warning Squadron, Thule AB, and the 13th Space Warning Squadron at Clear AFS. The 21st SW also has a detachment at RAF Fylingdales, U.K., to coordinate cooperative missile warning and space surveillance with Royal Air Force counterparts.

The wing's PARCS unit is the 10th Space Warning Squadron, Cavalier AFS, N.D.

Space control

Space surveillance is a critical element of the space control mission and will be vitally important to support future theater missile operations and assured availability of U.S. space forces. As part of the space surveillance mission, the wing operates surveillance units. More than 9,500 manmade objects in orbit around the earth, ranging in size from a baseball to the International Space Station, are regularly tracked. Knowing the orbits of those objects is essential to prevent collisions when a new satellite is launched.

The 20th Space Control Squadron, Eglin AFB, Fla., provides dedicated active radar space surveillance. In addition, other collateral and contributing missile warning and research radars are used to support the surveillance mission.


Besides the three major commands, the Wing directs and supports Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (CMAFS); Thule Air Base (TABG), Greenland; Clear AFS (CAFS), Alaska, and Cape Cod AFS (CCAFS), Mass. The 21st also provides community support to 302d Airlift Wing (AFRC), the 50th Space Wing, Schriever AFB, Colo and to its neighbors in the Colorado Springs area.

  • 21st Operations Group: The mission of the 21st OG as Air Force Space Command's largest, most weapon-system diverse, and geographically separated operations group is to command and control 19 units. The group provides real-time missile warning, attack assessment, and space control to the President, Secretary of Defense, JCS, combatant commands, and foreign allies. They develop future combat counterspace capabilities in support of theater campaigns.
  • 21st Medical Group: The 21st Medical Group commander is responsible for protecting the health and environment of the warriors who defend the United States through the control and exploitation of space, educated, train and deploy medical personnel, and provide caring and efficient primary health care to retirees and family members.
  • 21st Mission Support Group: The 21st MSG is made up of the people who make sure the base runs smoothly and effectively. They pay the bills, make sure the base stays secure, oversee the telephone services, keep the facilities in good condition, keep the records and take care of the well–being of all the people stationed in the Peterson Complex.
  • 721st Mission Support Group: The 721st Mission Support Group, located at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, operates, maintains, secures, sustains, mobilizes, tests, and controls the worldwide warning and surveillance system for North America, normally referred to as the Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment (ITW/AA) weapon system. It consists of airborne, land-based and space-based systems which sense and report on all activities in air and space.
  • 821st Air Base Group: The mission of the 821st Air Base Group is to operate and maintain Thule Air Base, Greenland, in support of missile warning and space surveillance operations missions. Provide security, communications, civil engineering, personnel, services, logistics and medical support to remote active duty units in a combined US, Canadian, Danish and Greenlandic environment of more than 800 military, civilian and contractor personnel.


For additional history and lineage see 21st Operations Group

21st Fighter-Bomber Group - Wing Commander's Aircraft - North American F-86F Sabre - 52-5222

72d Fighter-Bomber Squadron - North American F-86F Sabre - 52-5233

531st Fighter-Bomber Squadron - North American F-86F Sabre - 52-5193

On 1 January 1953 the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing as part of Tactical Air Command at George AFB, California. The wing was activated following Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' promise to provide NATO with four additional tactical fighter wings to increase its defenses against the Soviet Union due to the outbreak of the Cold War. The wing's operational component was the 21st Fighter-Bomber Group, comprised three fighter-bomber squadrons: the 72d, 416th, and 531st. The 72d and 531st previously had been components of the World War II 21st Fighter Group.[6]

During its first six months, the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing upgraded from the F-51 to the F-86F “Sabrejet,” which had become famous for its prowess in the Korean War. Throughout 1953 and into the first months of 1954, the 21st participated in a series of tactical exercises through which the unit obtained operational readiness. As part of the training for operational duty, the 21st FBW conducted deployment exercises to Alaska in September and October 1953 when the flying squadrons, in tandem, rotated through a special two-week arctic indoctrination program at Eielson AFB.[6]

Next, the 21st sent six of its F-86s to participate in Project Willtour, an 11,000 mile goodwill and training tour of twelve Central, Caribbean, and South American countries. The wing continued its exercises in Operation BOXKITE, held throughout April and into May 1954 at North Field, South Carolina. BOXKITE tested a new operational concept: the ability of a tactical wing to deploy to a forward base and sustain combat operations over a thirty-day period. In response, the 21st flew 3,000 sorties.[6]

United States Air Forces in Europe

BOXKITE was the last significant stateside exercise, for on 22 June 1954, the Secretary of the Air Force announced that the 21st would be relocating to Chambley Air Base, France, as part of Twelfth Air Force and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which had taken a defensive stance against the Warsaw Pact headed by the Soviet Union. Chambley Air Base was located about ten miles west of the French city of Metz, and just south of the road leading to Verdun near France's strategic northeastern border with Luxembourg, Belgium, and West Germany.[6]

The wing's deployment from George AFB, California, to France had to be carried out in stages. Four echelons of wing personnel variously traveled by train, ship, and air to reach their destination between November 1954 and January 1955. The air squadrons stopped to refuel across the United States and in Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland in route.[6]

Upon their arrival, the facilities at Chambley were not ready for aircraft use, and the squadrons had to deploy elsewhere while engineers upgraded the modest facilities at Chambley. The 72d deployed to Chateauroux AB, while the 416th and 531st operated out of Toul-Rosieres AB.[7]

After many construction delays, the wing combined its fighter squadrons at Chambley on 15 April 1955. The squadrons carried out close air support training missions with the Army, then took first place at the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) "Gunnery Meet" at Wheelus Air Base, Libya.[7] The 21 FBW participated in the Atomic Warfare exercise Carte Blanche, and went on to take an overall second place in the Nellis AFB, Nevada Gunnery Meet in 1956. Moreover, they won the USAFE Award for Tactical Proficiency for the January–June period of 1957.[6]

In 1957, the French Government decreed that all nuclear weapons and delivery aircraft had to be removed from French soil by July 1958.[7] As a result, the F-86's of the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing had to be removed from France.[6] During October 1957 it was announced that the 21 FBW would be inactivated on 8 February 1958, and that its assets would be dispersed among existing USAFE units. With the departure of the wing, Chambley-Bussieres AB was placed in reserve status.[6]

Pacific Air Forces

416th TFS F-100D 55–3604 at Kunsan AB, South Korea

The 21st Tactical Fighter Wing was reactivated at Misawa AB, Japan a few months later on 1 July 1958, inheriting the lineage of the 21st FBW. The mission of the 21st TFW included defending the air space of northern Japan against Soviet intruders and planning for strategic bombardment in the event a new war broke out with North Korea (known as contingency plan “Quick Strike”). Operational squadrons of the 21st included the 416th and 531st Tactical Fighter Squadrons.[6]

Initially, the 416th TFS carried out the war-fighting missions in the F-84G Thunderjet, a single-seat fighter-bomber. The Thunderjet was the first fighter equipped to deliver non-conventional ordnance as well as the first capable of refueling in-flight. Meanwhile, the 531st prepared to upgrade to the F-100D Super Sabre, the world's first supersonic aircraft. Once combat ready in April 1959, the 531st assumed the wing's war-fighting missions while the 416th converted to the Supersabre in turn. Remarkably, the 416th achieved full operational status in August 1959.[6]

Cooperation between the wing's units paid off in Fifth Air Force’s Tactical Evaluation and Operational Readiness Inspection held in August and September 1959. The 21st garnered an “Excellent” rating and carried off the best bomb score average in the history of Fifth Air Force. Operational readiness and high marks in training translated directly into the field.[6]

21st TFW aircraft intercepted Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 "Badger" and Myasishchev M-4 "Bison" bombers on a regular basis, taking home, in the words of Intelligence analysts, “some of the best photographs ever taken of the Badger.” In October 1959,First Lieutenant Charles L. Ferguson of the 531st received credit for making the first M-4 Bison intercept in the Far East and probably the world.[6]

The 21st Tactical Fighter Wing also flew beyond the base at Misawa. In addition to routine alert commitments and deployments to South Korea, two F-100s from the 531st made the first American jet aircraft transpolar flight, flying from RAF Wethersfield, England, to Eielson AFB, Alaska, on 7 August 1959.[6]

Once more, however, the accomplishments of the 21st came to a temporary halt when the U.S. government placed a ceiling on the number of fighter wings allowed in the Air Force inventory. Consequently, Fifth Air Force undertook an extensive reorganization. The 21st Tactical Fighter Wing inactivated on 18 June 1960 and its assets were transferred to the 39th Air Division at Misawa AB.[6]

Alaskan Air Command

21st Composite Wing

317th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron - Convair F-102A Delta Dagger - 56-1259

43d Tactical Fighter Squadron - F-4Es at Mount McKinley.

The 21st activated again as the 21st Composite Wing (CW) on 8 July 1966 at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and was assigned to Alaskan Air Command (AAC). AAC itself was a component of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), which had been formed in 1954, and the Alaska Region Command of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) which had been formed in 1957.[6]

The 21st activated as an intermediate headquarters that could tie together and manage several missions critical to Alaskan Air Command. Components of the 21 CW carried out the wing's three primary missions: air defense (317th Fighter Interceptor Squadron), airlift (17th Troop Carrier Squadron, known from 1967 as the 17th Tactical Airlift Squadron), and search and rescue (21st Operations Squadron). The 21st Operations Squadron (OSS), utilized H-21 helicopters for search and rescue work and employed C-47, C-54, and C-118 aircraft to assist with the mission of airlift. The 17th Troop Carrier/Tactical Airlift Squadron provided logistical airlift (with its C-130 Hercules aircraft).[6]

The 17th supported the various U.S. Army and AAC aircraft control and warning sites, and permanently stationed two C-130s on skis at Sondrestrom Air Base, Greenland, in support of the Distant Early Warning Line sites (DEW).[6]

The 317th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS) carried out the mission of air defense for the wing. The 317th kept two of its F-102A Delta Dagger aircraft on alert at each of the following locations: Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force Bases, and King Salmon and Galena Airports. The 317th was one of the premier squadrons of its day, being the only unit to have won the prestigious Hughes Achievement Trophy (given for the best fighter unit with an active air defense mission) three times during its operational service.[6]

The F-102s, unfortunately, were technologically outdated, a fact that made long-range interception of Soviet intruders into Alaskan airspace by 317th crews increasingly difficult. AAC recognized the limitations of this aerial platform and repeatedly tried to secure the more advanced F-4 Phantom II for air defense. The Vietnam War, however, had first call for the F-4. For a few years, therefore, Air Defense Command (ADC) dispatched F-106 Delta Darts from other states on a rotational basis to Alaska to help correct this mission limitation.[6]

The situation came to a head late in 1969 when the Air Force announced the inactivation of the 317th due to the squadron's aging F-102s and the need to respond to budget cuts imposed by the cost of the war in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the Air Force compensated the 21st by assigning the 43d Tactical Fighter Squadron, which flew F-4Es, to the wing on 13 March 1970. The 43d departed MacDill AFB, Florida and arrived at Elmendorf on 23 June 1970. Consequently, the rotational F-106 deployments from the lower continental states ceased soon after the 43d assumed mission responsibilities at Elmendorf, Eielson, Galena and King Salmon on 1 August.[6]

Unfortunately, the winter of 1970-1971 was severe in Alaska, causing numerous mechanical failures in the F-4s which had been accustomed to Florida's warm climate. At times, the wing's operational air defense assets dwindled from eighteen aircraft to only one or two. Moreover, the 43d assumed close air support as well as air defense responsibilities, two missions which stretched the squadron's capabilities. In response, Air Staff sent the 43d an additional six aircraft in May 1971.[6]

Despite these initial handicaps, the 21 CW quickly proved itself a leader in the fighter community, conducting alerts, intercepts and exercises throughout the 1970s. In July 1972 the wing dispatched a detachment to Operation COOL SHOOT, a live missile firing exercise, held at Tyndall AFB, Florida. Air Force Headquarters awarded the 43d the coveted Hughes Achievement Trophy in December. Meanwhile, the 21 CW continued to intercept Soviet intruders into Alaskan airspace.[6]

Exercises in 1976 included JACK FROST (later known as BRIM FROST), and a Tactical Air Command (TAC) Weapons System Evaluation Program at Eglin AFB, Florida. At the William Tell fighter weapons competition held in October–November 1976 at Tyndall, the wing won “Best F-4 Crew”, “Best Maintenance Crew,” the Apple Splitter Award for the most drones destroyed, the Top Gun Award, and only narrowly missed overall first place due to a sudden mission abort. The 43d again won the Hughes Achievement Trophy in 1977. Training deployments included the Canadian Maple Flag in September 1978 and Red Flag in April 1979.[6]

Organizational changes also underscored the 1970s. Due to a realignment of airlift and rescue forces under the Military Airlift Command (MAC), the wing divested its helicopters and C-130s in 1975. Overall, however, the wing expanded, gaining two air base squadrons and several other responsibilities. The 21 CW picked up a new fighter unit on 1 October 1977 when the 18th Tactical Fighter Squadron (F-4Es) activated. Subsequently, the 43d maintained its air defense mission while the 18th adopted the role of close air support. Both units shared air defense alert duties in Alaska. Additionally, from November 1977 to April 1979, the 21 CW controlled all thirteen of Alaska's air control and warning sites. Then, in May 1979, Colonel Michael E. Nelson, 21st Composite Wing commander, initiated a study that concluded that his unit should be streamlined into a normal tactical fighter wing.[6]

21st Tactical Fighter Wing

43d Tactical Fighter Squadron - F-15s over Alaska Range

43d Tactical Fighter Squadron - F-15s - Tu 16 Bager Intercept

On 1 October 1979 the wing was redesignated as the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing as a result of the study, which was accepted by Alaskan Air Command. The name change reflected a period of growth and modernization of Elmendorf AFB. The mixed bag of aircraft from the old Composite Wing dispersed, leaving 40 F-4Es, 12 T-33s, and a C-12 at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. The F-4s were distributed between the wing's two flying components, the 18th and 43d Tactical Fighter Squadrons, while the T-33 trainers and the C-12 merged into the 5021st Tactical Operations Squadron.[6]

The F-4s of the streamlined wing soon deployed to Chong Ju Air Base, Republic of Korea for Exercise “TEAM SPIRIT.” During March 1980 the wing participated in dissimilar air combat training (DACT) and conducted combat air patrol, air interdiction and composite force tactics. TEAM SPIRIT proved to be the last exercise for the 21st's F-4s. Later that year the Air Force released plans to replace the F-4Es stationed in Alaska with F-15A fighters, which were slated to go to the 43d Tactical Fighter Squadron, and A-10 close air support aircraft, which were earmarked for the 18th Tactical Fighter Squadron. In fact, the arrival of the A-10s heralded the reassignment of the 18th from the 21st to the 343d Composite Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska.[6]

The first F-15 arrived at Elmendorf in March, and the last of the new aircraft were in place by October. Thanks to special bomb-delivery air-to-surface training carried out in the T-33s, the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing became the first flying unit to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in the F-15 without the assistance of the aircraft manufacturer or a sister flying unit. The 21st made its first intercept of a Soviet intruder, a Tu-95 Bear C, when a pair of F-15s sortied from alert at King Salmon Airport on 24 November 1982.[6]

Over the next four years, the F-15s undertook several deployments and exercises such as “BRIM FROST,” a U.S. Readiness Command biennial Arctic exercise, and “TEAM SPIRIT” held in Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1985. The 21st conducted joint training exercises along the northern continental frontier with the Canadians. All the while, the wing intercepted Soviet bomber, transport, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea.[6]

This creditable service continued throughout the late 1980s from the William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons meets to COMBAT ARCHER to DACT training to the Air Force's “live-fire” Weapon System Evaluation Programs. During one exercise at the remote site known as Deadhorse, Alaska, three F-15s became the first Alaskan-based single-seat fighters to circle the North Pole. The 21st received newer aircraft, its first F-15Cs and Ds, in May 1987.[6]

The wing hosted multiple distinguished visitors in 1989. President George Bush stopped at Elmendorf in route to Japan for the state funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito and addressed a crowd of over 7,000 in Hangar Five. Ironically, this was the same hangar in which President Richard Nixon had greeted Hirohito eighteen years previously when the emperor had made his first official state visit outside his native land.[6]

Later that year, the wing expanded into the escort rather than only the intercept business. Two Soviet MiG-29 “Fulcrum” aircraft, which were traveling to their first air show in North America, officially visited the 21st at Elmendorf, not only to refuel, but as a gesture of goodwill. This event marked the first time the MiG-29 fighters landed on the continent, and the 21st's aircraft were there to escort them in, help them refuel, and play host.[6]

The final upgrade of the 21st fighter inventory came with the addition of the 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron and the F-15E “Strike Eagle” in May 1991.

In 1991, the 21st Tactical Fighter Wing was reorganized as an objective wing and all the major tenant units on Elmendorf were placed under it. The 21st Wing was inactivated and the 3d Wing was reassigned from the closing Clark Air Base, Philippines to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska on 19 December 1991. This was in keeping Air Force's polices of retaining the oldest and most illustrious units during a period of major force reductions.[6]

Modern era

Solid State Phased Array Radar (SSPAR) at RAF Flyingdales, England

AN/FPS-17 is a ground-based fixed-beam radar system at Eareckson AS, Alaska

The 21st Space Wing was reactivated on 15 May 1992 from the former 1st Space Wing and 3d Space Support Wing at Peterson AFB, Colorado (both previously located at Peterson AFB), providing command management of Air Force Space Command's worldwide network of assigned missile warning, space surveillance, and communications units. The missile warning network had operated under the direction of Air Defense Command (later Aerospace Defense Command) and Strategic Air Command since the early 1960s. The network then passed under the aegis of Air Force Space Command when that command activated in September 1982.[6] Upon activation, the primary wing mission was ICBM warning though Defense Satellite Program (DSP). DSP is a constellation of geosynchronous satellites equipped with infrared detectors to help locate and identify ballistic missile and nuclear testing activities around the world.[6]

If missile warning had remained the only primary mission of the 21st Space Wing, the wing still would have been one of the largest in the Air Force. However, in April 1995, the 73d Space Surveillance Group merged with the 21st Space Wing. With the 73d came a new primary mission, that of space surveillance though a series of radar stations located throughout the world.[6]

The 21st Space Wing also inherited the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System (GEODSS). GEODSS sites began opening in May 1982, first at Socorro, New Mexico, then at Maui, Hawaii, Choejong-San, Republic of Korea (soon to close in 1990), and finally at Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, in 1987. These advanced electro-optical telescopic cameras operate in the arena of space tracking, and allowed deep-space surveillance and space-object identification. Deep Space Tracking System and Low Altitude Space Surveillance Systems (DSTS/LASS) provided additional global coverage of space activities for the Air Force.[6]

The wing additionally operated the command and control network used to relay missile warning and surveillance information from sites dispersed around the world to HQ AFSPC, USSPACECOM, and NORAD. Air Force Space Command had identified the need for a mobile and hence more survivable command and control unit in 1989, a system which first would be called RAPIER, and which later would became known as the Mobile Command and Control Center (MCCC).[6]

The events of 11 September 2001 challenged America to respond to terrorism worldwide. President George W. Bush ordered strikes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in October, and followed-up with an assault on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in March and April 2003. The wing deployed personnel overseas and tightened security at GSUs and Peterson AFB.[6]


  • Established as 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing on 15 November 1952
Activated on 1 January 1953
Inactivated on 8 February 1958
  • Redesignated 21st Tactical Fighter Wing on 19 May 1958
Activated on 1 July 1958
Discontinued, and inactivated, on 18 June 1960
  • Redesignated 21st Composite Wing, and activated, on 6 May 1966
Organized on 8 July 1966
Redesignated: 21st Tactical Fighter Wing on 1 October 1979
Redesignated: 21st Wing on 26 September 1991
Inactivated on 19 December 1991
  • Redesignated 21st Space Wing on 1 May 1992
Activated on 15 May 1992.









 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website

  1. 21St SW Official Site
  2. Peterson AFB Official Site
  3. NORAD Home Page
  4. US STRATCOMM Official Site
  5. "USAF space surveillance system nearing end."
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 6.25 6.26 6.27 6.28 6.29 6.30 6.31 6.32 6.33 6.34 6.35 6.36 6.37 21st Space Wing history
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 McAuliffe, Jerome J. (2005). US Air Force in France 1950-1967. San Diego, California: Milspec Press, Chapter 7, Chambley-Bussieres Air Base. ISBN 0-9770371-1-8.
  8. Civilian Employee Recognition, 20 June 1969
  9. AFSPC Special Order GA-58, 6 December 1999
  10. AFSPC Special Order GA-62, 6 December 1999

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