War Games Are Fake

Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) was a major war game exercise conducted by the United States armed forces in mid-2002, likely the largest such exercise in history. The exercise … cost $250 million, involved both live exercises and computer simulations. MC02 was meant to be a test of future military “transformation”—a transition toward new technologies that enable network-centric warfare and provide more powerful weaponry and tactics.

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue’s sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications. … In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. … Another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected.

At this point, the exercise was suspended, Blue’s ships were “re-floated”, and the rules of engagement were changed. … The war game was forced to follow a script drafted to ensure a Blue Force victory. … Red Force was ordered to turn on all his anti-aircraft radar in order for them to be destroyed, and Red Force was not allowed to shoot down any of the aircraft bringing Blue Force troops ashore. … They also ordered Red Force not to use certain weapons systems against Blue Force and even ordered that the location of Red Force units to be revealed. This led to accusations that the war game had turned from an honest, open free play test of America’s war-fighting capabilities into a rigidly controlled and scripted exercise intended to end in an overwhelming American victory. …

Due to his criticism regarding the scripted nature of the new exercise, Van Riper resigned his position in the midst of the war game. … Navy Capt. John Carman, Joint Forces Command spokesman, said the war game had properly validated all the major concepts which were tested by Blue Force, ignoring the artificially imposed restrictions placed on Van Riper’s Red Force which led them to succeed. (more)

War colleges, where people learn to be soldiers, often have war simulations where different people play different parts of a war between “us” and “them.” Students and others are told that these are realistic, or at least as realistic as is feasible given the simplifications that simulations and games require.

But I’ve now heard personally from enough independent expert insider sources that I’m willing to post it: the above example was not a rare exception; war games are mostly fake.

They are designed so that our side wins, and so that the official strategy that we teach students actually prevails. Every once in a while some joker plays “them” cleverly and wins, and then their career is over. The games also make sure terrifying outcomes never happen, even in a game where “we” win. For example, it is forbidden to sink an aircraft carrier.

I’m told that that fake war games and simulations are common in the rest of the military too. Simulations that show realistic levels of outcome uncertainty and variance tend to be rejected in favor of low variance ones that suggest outcomes just can’t get very bad.

You might have thought that because in the military most everyone’s freedom and lives are on the line, the military at least would try hard to create realistic estimates of the outcomes of their policies. But you’d be wrong. Organizational disfunction plagues them as well. Apparently military leaders think it is more important to instill confidence in the troops and citizens than to actually find out how wars would go.

Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?

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  • You don’t think that given the extremely rigid hierarchy of the military and given the fact that much of the military’s purpose is to look impressive to other nations so they don’t decide to mess with your nation, that we should expect the military to be unusually dysfunctional in this sort of way?

    Are you sure it’s *not* more important to instill confidence in the troops and citizens than to actually find out how wars would go?

    • Mark M

      Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s not more important to make soldiers feel good about themselves than it is to win wars. I’m also pretty sure we don’t have to choose – there are other ways to make soldiers feel good about themselves.

      • Glopknar

        I think suntzuanime’s point is that it may be more advantageous to war-winning to instill confidence.

      • Randaly

        Relevant anecdote: During WWII, US troops were trained to fire and maneuver- ie one group would fire to pin down their foes, while another would outflank them and kill them.

        In practice, and as noted after the war by (?) General Marshall, this was close to useless in practice- the enemy would never be sufficiently pinned down to stop looking around and firing, and the maneuver group would never know enough about the location and extent of the enemy to outflank them. Instead, its real purpose was to give troops confidence.

        Note that, IIRC, this was the only tactical training recruits were given, and it was known to be useless.

    • lighterthanlead

      Also,  if the United States, or any other country, developed a repeatable method for actually finding out how wars would go, wouldn’t that method be ultimately copied by potential violent enemies?  The study of  military history includes as a major sub-field  the question of how much of an overlap there was at a given moment in time between the class defined as  “military insiders” and the class defined as those who understood the range of potential threats (i.e.  competent war-gamers)., That overlap generally gets larger (due to the aggregate of individual motivations of potential new “miliitary insiders” and their supporters) when a oountry or civilization feels more threatened, and smaller when a country feels reasonably secure in the flow of time.  Since the ability to feel threatened is a universal trait, consistent comparative advantage as to the quantiity of overlap is difficult. Thus fake war game planning is not so much (at least if we limit ourselves to wars between humans)a sign of a dysfunctional military as a sign of an overall low feeling of apprehension as to the particular threats envisioned by the wargaming country.

  • THe lesson may be that war simulations are hard, and that war simulations of unconventional tactics are very very hard.

    Yes, outcome estimating processes are hard in lots of disciplines. Experience is the great teacher: in my own career, I strive, as a pretty good-case scenario, not to repeat my mistakes.

    The question is how fast a military could adapt to unconventional attacks, and whether the rules accidentally favored such attacks. It’s also entirely possible these are totally legitimate problems: to some cynical observers modern carrier groups look like they are as big a white elephant as battleships were in WW2, where they mostly served as expensive victims of aerial bombardments.

    It’s also fair to say that there are two things war games test: strategies and execution. It is relatively easy to simulate strategies using theory and pure tabletop or computer simulation, but in a big exercise, you’re largely testing the ability to turn training into high-tempo execution at all the tactical levels.

    But all that is excuse-making if the generals are not being properly kept up at night thinking about sunk-carrier nightmare scenarios, and how to defend against them.

  • Jason

    While I do not know any specific information, the vulnerabilities of US forces tend to be closely guarded secrets and to have them exposed in an open environment with many uncleared military personnel like MC02 would have probably have sent the relevant security officers into palpitations. Whether this concern was the reason or not is an open question.

    It is also possible defense contractors were lobbying their representatives to stop MC02 from demonstrating their particular program was worthless.

  • Salem

    German wargames pre-WW1 were constantly hampered by the Emperor’s insistence that “his” side win.

  • Vladimir Nesov

    Accurate big picture might get in the way of focus on training particular skills.

  • Noumenon

    This sounds like someone finding a bug in a video game and exploiting it for a win. I wouldn’t disrupt an official war game for that. It’s like a game of Civilization, it’s too much effort to replay the entire thing when something gets glitched.

    • Strange_Person

      In a game of civ between friends, sure. In this case, replaying from the start until they learned how to counter Van Riper’s overwhelming first strike, or continuing with the ships still sunk until they learned how to recover from it, was the entire point. The bug that he found was that the simulation did not adequately represent reality.

      • Finch

        Clearly that was not possible in this case for cost reasons. It was a $250M exercise, the point of which is getting everybody a chance to practice what they will most likely be doing in a real war. The idea that the navy is not aware of the missile threat to carriers is farcical. Personally I’d prefer more, smaller carriers, but reasonable minds can differ.

        I note that despite numerous similar situations on a world stage, nobody has ever successfully done anything like the Red Force attack. Presumably because it’s a one-time-only thing in which you trade an aircraft carrier for your country. It’s analogous to an Iranian nuclear attack on the US. Sure it would cause a lot of harm to the US, but the consequences for the attacker would be considerably worse.

      • AspiringRationalist

        If you have a country to lose, you wouldn’t dare do anything like that. That’s why the biggest attack on the U.S. in recent history was by a non-state actor (granted, with state backing from the Taliban) obsessed with achieving martyrdom.

      • In fairness, though, what I’ve read of that exercise suggested an under-equipped but highly effective force. In the real world, the armies that have that kind of equipment don’t coordinate half as well, or plan one tenth as effectively. (Probably helped by the fact that the US would look very hard for any war or other crimes committed by anyone who showed them up in such a fashion.)

    • Vaniver

      The problem is that “glitches” exist in reality, in the sense that the rules of reality are less constraining than the rules of human expectations. This isn’t Eurisko; saying that the Red team can’t use cheap and effective real-world tactics (like actual WWII light signals, or motorcycles) destroys the legitimacy of the exercise.

  • Douglas Knight

    If war games are systematically fake, how did Van Riper get to be a general without knowing it? Was his goal to publicly cause a scene, rather than to test strategic claims? Why doesn’t anyone frame it that way?

    • It’s not clear to me, but I’m guessing you’re making the following inferences:

      1. Van Riper is a general, so presumably he’s participated in war games before.
      2. War games have always been fake, so Van Riper should have realized that they are fake by the time he has become a general.
      3. “Knowing that war games are fake” means “willingly following the rules of the wargame, as opposed to the rules of real life”.
      4. There were specific rules forbidding what Van Riper did, and Van Riper was informed of these rules at the start of the game.
      5. By willfully breaking these rules, he is obviously trying to cause a scene.

      If my understanding of your line of inference is correct, I think you may be assuming (4) without sufficient evidence.

      • Douglas Knight

        Robin asserts #2 in this post. Your explicit version of #4 is absurd. What Robin claims in the post is that people who rock the boat in war games not only fail to improve military strategy, but end their careers. If you buy that, Van Riper’s long career means that he never before got creative in a war game.

        Why did he change in retirement?

        Did he think his action would have an impact this time? Did he think a Malcolm Gladwell article would be the best way to improve things? Maybe he wanted to become a celebrity, rather than change the military? Mainly I’m confused by his resigning in a huff in the middle.

  • There is a lack of real world feedback in military simulations – not necessarily a bad thing.

    In commercial estimates the amount of feedback you get can be highly variable. If you are estimating for a service company that does HVAC repair work, your feedback is very fast, and your estimates are probably pretty good. Other types of estimates have very little real feedback, and you would expect them to be more of a planning exercise.

  • Because bad guys would never use low tech methods to counter the US military’s technological advantages. Can anyone spell IED?

    • The reason IEDs were so effective in Iraq was because Saddam’s weapons depots were abandoned and left open and unguarded for weeks following the collapse of the Saddam regime. So they were looted.

      The Iraqi army was disbanded instead of being hired to guard stuff and keep order.

      My understanding is that zero planning went into what to do with a post-war Iraq, other than “they will greet us with flowers and then Iraqi oil will be pumped happily ever after.”

  • The absolutely best and cheapest way to win a war is to achieve the same political aims without fighting it.

    The point of the US military is not to win wars or to achieve political aims, it is to enrich the Military Industrial Complex. As much as Conservatives crow about small government, the US military spends more than the rest of the world combined.

    The US military is a pawn of congress and congress is a pawn of the lobbyists.

    At the time in question (2002), the White House was being run by chickenhawks who were drumming up evidence for WMD in Iraq so as to launch a war to enrich Halliburton. IIRC, some senior officials were fired for suggesting an Iraq war might cost as much as $200 billion.

  • Ari T

    I’ve been in such war games in Northern Finland when I was doing conscription. I don’t think anyone cared who won or lost, except maybe the cadets who wanted a promotion. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion, cold etc. were the major things on mind. Real war would be quite different of course.

    Sure I think the the feedback was toned and manipulated, especially when the boys had live ammunition (!) but when people fail, they will get to hear it. But you are right that real war outcome would be vastly different, but given the constraints, there’s limit how much you can simulate that. Especially with conscription you’re faced with political and moral problems on what kind of exercise you can do. Difficult equation no doubt.

    At least when we you play with real ammunition and military devices, outcomes can get very bad. For example, due to ballistics, you have to use real artillery ammunition which can cause fatal accidents (I knew a guy who died in one). And in winter, everything freezes you wanted it or not.

    • You don’t have to use real artillery ammunition for reasons of ballistics – they could easily manufacture a ballistically similar inert round. You have to use real rounds because without an explosion you can’t spot the rounds and judge your accuracy.

  • LR

    Military man here, I’ve done a few classes at the Naval War College. I don’t know any details about the exercise you mention but have some experience with war-gaming in general.

    Sometimes the goal of Red teams is explicitly to war game the “most likely course of enemy action” and sometimes the goal is to war game the “most dangerous course of enemy action.” Sometimes the goal will be to incorporate aspects of both depending on what sub-set of goals you’re trying to refine.

    Like Ryan said above, wargaming is very difficult and a lot of thought needs to go into any restraints / artificialities you inject into the exercise and how best to minimize them. There are certainly many that are run poorly but I’ve seen a few that seem to add a lot of value as well.

    I agree with Robin that the military has a host of institutional problems that make it much less effective than it could be, but the wargaming piece may be a bit more nuanced.

  • Miley Cyrax

    Star Trek did something similar with the Kobayashi Maru, which was a lesson about no-win situations masked as a war simulation.

    • Vaniver

      No-win situations as a test of character can have value. But always-win situations? Dangerous.

  • Vaniver

    Robin: are you familiar with Fleet Problem XIII? The attack on Pearl Harbor- and its smashing success- was predicted in 1932 by Naval war games. Battleship captains did not take kindly to the results.

    • Is there a more detailed source than that brief note?

      • Randaly

        Well, wikipedia cites this research paper.

      • That’s a pretty remarkable document, Randaly. This is a particularly striking quote:

        “Black Fleet’s land-based counterparts had anticipated a surprise landing rather than a Sunday-morning air assault, and had sent most of their 20,000 men to patrol Oahu’s coast. Caught unawares, their air stations claimed that the attack had been successful only because the raid had been launched at dawn on a Sunday, which placed it ‘on the dirty side’ of tactics.”

      • Douglas Scheinberg

         Any army that accuses its enemies of “cheating” or “fighting dirty” is probably losing.

  • “Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?”

    Slightly more than the Ivy League Perfumed Princes who’ve controlled our military since the Truman 50’s, safely ensconced in plush bunkers.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    “Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?”

    The degree to which decision makers in various organizations care about outcomes is not a function of the number of lives involved (the moral weight) but rather the immediacy and strength of feedback effects (i.e. organizational survival threats) faced by the organization. This is why the US military does not care about outcomes. Neither our freedom and lives nor the organizational survival of the US army are on the line here. The vast majority of US military resources are not needed to protect the mainland, they are mostly a self propelled money burning machine, which achieves excellent outcomes in this task. I have a hunch that the armies that really matter, are smaller and have practical feedback in fighting wars for survival, like the IDF, may be more realistic in setting up their war games.

  • David Ward

    War games are fake; but they may be very useful: I have been designing and executing war games at the Naval War College for 7 years. As we design and execute games at NWC, they are by definition fake (a war game does not involve actual military forces—Perla, The Art of Wargaming, p. 164). There are no real forces involved, no bullets, no bloodshed and no death—major benefits in a war game over war. In a war game, everything is a distillation or abstraction, to a greater or lesser degree, from the real.
    Our focus in games is on decisions, ideally under conflict (a 2-sided or multi-sided game) where a thinking opponent works against you to achieve antithetical objectives. There is a winner and a loser (losers often learn more). What decisions can players make during a game that upon analysis will inform our objective in making the game? Building a good game to enable that decision making and capturing how the decisions were made (key factors) for further analysis is the goal.
    Yes, bad war games exist and games have been built to further specific agendas: caveat emptor. Each game should be examined to determine if the game structure is reasonable for each team and the game objectives—you shouldn’t be able to determine the result and write the report without playing the game. I have seen aircraft carriers and similar sacred cows sunk. A game never proves or validates anything—a war plan, usefulness of military hardware, new concepts, etc. Good war games produce more questions than they answer.
    War games are good tools for examining ill-structured and complex problems under uncertainty. A well designed game can be indicative, but not predictive, and provide focus areas for further analysis and research. If you want to prepare for many potential futures (a robust and adaptive military force), then play some war games; however, if you want to know a particular military outcome, then you have to fight the war (and the winner typically gets to write the history).

    • Yes, bad war games exist and games have been built to further specific agendas: caveat emptor.

      The claim I heard is that most war games are like this. Do you dispute this?

      • David Ward

        I cannot confirm or refute the claim. You would have to examine most war games critically, compare the game objectives with the methodology employed, analysis conducted and results obtained to confirm (or refute) the claim. I haven’t been involved with enough games to make such a claim.
        The great majority of the games that I have been involved with at NWC would not support the claim. As an academic institution the collage is able to focus on the gaming process and not be invested in a particular game outcome. If you properly determine game objectives, then you can design a game that produces honest results.

      • Michael Wengler

        It seems plausible that what a military would want known publicly about a war game is quite different from what it would want to know privately.  What, in modern conflict, is more important than information asymmetry?  Also, why would constraining one side or another in order to push the game towards certain decision processes be “bad?”  Every simulation pushes the scenario towards the scenario one wishes to examine, and it is hardly considered cheating to get there quickly and/or by fiat.  

      • sternhammer

        I think MW hits the nail on the head.  The military has political and propaganda reasons to hide the failures of current policy.  But the ugly lessons might have already been learned by the time they scuttled the simulation.  I don’t know from reading Robin’s post whether the Navy privately altered its doctrine and planning after Van Riper schooled them.  That seems to be the most important question.  Maybe they didn’t.  But maybe they did.

        I could also imagine that the Navy considered Van Riper to be an unrealistic opponent.  Real world enemies might not be as clever or as well informed about the vulnerabilities of the US military.  I don’t think I see any kind of strategic genius in al quaeda, or Saddam’s Iraq, or the Taliban.  Yes, they caused us a lot of tactical problems.  But the first two were easily defeated strategically, and while the last might end up winning, that’s largely because there is nothing in Afganistan worth the investment that defeating them would require. 

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I am much surprised. Downward updating my estimate of the competence of the U.S. military. Thank you also for specifying that multiple insiders confirmed this was general; that makes for a much larger downward update.

    • komponisto

      Military competence is really only relative to other militaries; so a large downward update may not be appropriate unless you think other nations’ militaries are different.

    • Arran Stirton

      curious to know just how high your estimate of the U.S. military’s competence
      was beforehand.

      At least over here in the U.K., friendly fire on our forces from U.S. troops is
      something that’s regularly reported in the media (for example:
      As such it’s a fairly commonly held view that the U.S. military isn’t really
      competent and gets things done through brawn, rather than brains.


      I wonder if the British military is portrayed by
      your media in a similarly
      negative fashion.

      • Michael Wengler

        To answer your question, I have never noticed any negative press in the U.S. about the British military.  

      • AspiringRationalist

        Nor have I. For that matter, I haven’t noticed any positive press in the U.S. about the British military either.

      • Matt B

        Link for the source, yours is broken? Drift by Rachel Maddow calls the us military out for a lot of things including suicide but I think most people agree its competent compared to the rest of the world. Britain is one of the only militaries other than the US/Mexico with troops currently dieing in large quantities to suicide and the wars themselves so its misleading compared to a lot of standing armies.

  • Randaly

    Really? Can you give stronger evidence for the generality of this problem? From my perspective, the problem seems to be more that planners ignore the outcomes of war games, than that those outcomes are wrong.


    * Sigma-I and Sigma-II, both of which accurately predicted the Vietnam War

    * Operation Desert Crossing, which predicted the Iraqi Civil War

    * Fleet Problem XIII (HT Vaniver above), which predicted Pearl Harbor

    Furthermore, it seems to me like most of the remaining major surprises the US military has faced fairly recently were things that would have been brought up in war games- eg the Korean/Chinese invasions of Korea, the failure of the Bay of Pigs attack, etc.

  • Its only been a hundred years of so that warfare has been so damn serious.

    Prior to the C20th there were a lot of rules, regulations, conventions etc. that meant war was not fought optimally. 

    Not just in Europe, in Mughal India was was played at like a game to some degree, similarly, Maori war was nothing like European war (which is what made conquering New Zealand so awkward). 

    Calling war games “fake” assumes that war is “real” and fought as seriously as possible, but I think this is an incorrect assumption (Wars of Bush passim) and historically.

    • Michael Wengler

      I don’t believe any of this.  I find it implausible that the Mongoloian hordes or Alexander’s armies, or the Romans spreading their empire were playing some fancy game by some fancy rules.  

      • Alexander cared about honor. In the Battle of Gaugamela he therefore decided not to attack at night.
        The Romans also had a honor code that influenced the way they waged war.

  • Firepower, why “since the Truman ’50s”?

    daedalus2u, a cold war is more profitable for the defense industry than a hot one. Most of the cost of wars like Iraq comes from “boots on the ground”. And when Cheney was still with Halliburton, he was saying it was a bad idea to invade Iraq. The part of Halliburton which was taking military contracts is K.B.R, and it has spun off so Halliburton could focus on its core competencies (the stock price for both companies rose following the split).
    The Iraq war was very badly planned, but that’s not an explanation for IEDs. They’ve been effective in Afghanistan & Chechnya as well.

    Salem, I hadn’t before heard that.

    Ryan Cousineau, this didn’t seem to be the case of simulating being “hard”, but of the military deliberately limiting the game.

  • Furslid

    I think you have a little confusion in the last point Robin.  Your argument seems to be “When the costs of being wrong are potentially huge, we should expect more accurate planning.”   However there are a couple of points that would lead me to expect poor planning in the military. 

    The first is the separation of ownership and control.  Generals may chose to ignore huge long term costs, after all they benefit now and the losers for poor choices are the enlisted men and the public.  It’s the same reason business executives may benefit themselves causing costs for their employees and stockholders.

    The second is that there is mainly simulated feedback which can be faked.  No real world feedback, which can not.  If the US military has huge errors in its doctrine, these may never be revealed without a war, and a war that leads to the surprise sinking of aircraft carriers is dangerously close to going nuclear or bringing back strategic bombing.  Businesses get real world feedback all the time.  If there is bad doctrine, they can quickly observe losses of profits, which is tough to hide.

  • Tyhg

    Apparently there is a lot of evidence to suggest that WWI started in large part because every European power’s war game/pre-planned strategy (which was a relatively new concept) depended on being the first to mobilize their huge armies and get them to the front.  This can be argued to explain why Austria-Hungary’s beef with tiny Serbia over a political assasination somehow ended up in a war being fought across all of Euroe and the wider world.   

    While tactically true, these pre-WWI war games failed, I suppose, to take into account whether a strategy for avoiding war, or at least a wider war, was the best strategy. 

    It is depressing to think that the military can be just like any other huge organization when it comes to incompetence, cover-ups, and waste in resources, including lives.  Empirically, however, there are certainly enough examples of just that happening.  Not sure anything can really be done about it though.          

  • From most autobiographies I’ve read, LTs who bend the rules are congratulated. Of course, those are squad level exercises. But I’ve never read anything saying “and their career was over”, usually the opposite, and usually when the exercise was designed for the squad to lose (like ambushes)

  • buddycasino

    As others have posted, there are severe limits to how a war can be simulated effectively, so the best idea might actually be to use it instill confidence in the troops, because troop morale is a really powerful factor in warfare.

  • Weaver

    I have personal expertise in this area.

    I agree wholly with the criticism. Many wargames are scripted to ensure a blue win, either directly scripted or with unrealistic rules and initial assumptions that forces Red to play “stupid”. And when that fails, there’s always “cheating”, as illustrated. The reasons are pretty much as Robin puts out; to protect/affirm the orthodoxy and its advocates. Showing the orthodoxy to be flawed is a seriously career-shortening move.

    To be fair, sometimes scripting is permissable; perhaps one wishes to test a concept or technology in isolation, or see how well procedures and a team work. But a lot of the time it is quite inappropriate to the test. The UK only even started “red teaming” parts of its COEIAs in recent years, and still changes the analysis set-up if they come back with the wrong answer…

  • Cambias

    Having read the account, I think it makes a big difference that this was a large-scale, “live” training exercise rather than a tabletop kriegsspiel.

    Quite simply, part of the purpose of a live exercise is to let troops rehearse under conditions similar to combat. Which means that “sunken” ships can be reactivated just to give their crews a chance to do stuff.

    Planners can learn from the exercise and still let “dead” forces get some training.

    • Sibel

      The problem is that after re-floating the ships, restrictions were placed on the red team to prevent them from using strategies that the US forces couldn’t handle

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