Vietnamese Defense against Aerial Attack

Paper Presented at the 1996 Vietnam Symposium
Center for the Study of the Vietnam Conflict
Lubbock, Texas, April 19, 1996

Barton Meyers

Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

In Southeast Asia the United States waged the greatest air war in history. It lasted from 1961 until 1972, longer than any other air war in history, and was responsible for the expenditure of half of all the U.S. munitions used in the war (Kolko, 1985). Estimates of the tonnage of the ordnance dropped on all of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, vary from 7.8 million tons (Turley, 1986) to 15 million tons (Gibson, 1986). Whatever the correct figure, comparison with past wars emphasizes the great magnitude of the Vietnam air war: for example, the U.S. and its allies dropped "only" 2.7 million tons of bombs on the greater land mass of the European, North African, and Asian theaters during World War II and 678,000 tons of bombs on Korea (Harrison, 1993).

Not surprisingly, the air war has been thoroughly chronicled and studied. Some of this research had the intention of improving tactics and techniques for continuing operations during the Vietnam War (e.g., the Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Counterinsurgency Operations series, commonly referred to as the Project CHECO Reports); other studies focused on drawing lessons for operations in future wars (Fullbrook, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c; Gehri, 1985; Grinter and Dunn, 1987).

The U.S. military's interest in learning lessons from one war in order to wage the next one better was clearly stated by four Pentagon colonels (Bacevich, Hallums, White, and Young, 1988) who presented a paper at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge on the Salvadoran air war during the 1980s and 1990s:

     . . . the war in El Salvador provided a laboratory for the
     U.S. military: The Pentagon concluded that the Salvadoran
     war offered lessons for the future: expecting that the
     United States will continue on occasion to be drawn into
     such conflicts, we view El Salvador as providing fertile
     ground--until now largely uncultivated--for teaching
     Americans how to fight small wars. Detached, dispassionate
     analysis can only contribute to improving the American
     capacity to win such wars in the future.

Unlike the study of the conduct of the air war, only one report of any scope has attempted to describe the Vietnamese defense against that air war (Van Dyke, 1972). Since its publication, however, much new information has become available. Moreover, Van Dyke provided little coverage of the air defense in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), where more than half of the bombing occurred (Harrison, 1993), and his book was published too early to include the fierce antiaircraft defense of the Hanoi- Haiphong area during LINEBACKER II, the so-called Christmas bombing.

My presentation today attempts to describe the Vietnamese defense against the air war. My intention is to contribute to redressing the imbalance of scholarship and to draw lessons for resistance against high technology air war by Third World revolutionary movements.(1)

Political Factors

Vietnamese Revolutionary Politics and Morale

The Vietnamese revolutionaries, namely the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the National Liberation Front (NLF), insisted that the military aspect of the war must go hand-in-hand with and, if anything, be subordinated to the political aspect (Duiker, 1995; Van Tien Dung, 1968, 1969; Vo Nguyen Giap, 1970). They called their effort a "people's war." Although the rhetoric used to describe it often sounded leaden and propagandistic to the Western ear, it had a reality that contributed fundamentally to their war effort.

Quoting Ho Chi Minh that, "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom," Vietnamese revolutionaries asserted that their war against the Americans and their Vietnamese allies was a just war, as had been their preceding wars against the French and the Japanese, not to mention their struggles against Chinese domination that went back in their history nearly 2,000 years. Inspired by the perception that their's was a just cause, Vietnamese people of the North and the South mobilized to resist in massive numbers and with great commitment.

Concretely, this meant that civilians contributed countless hours of work digging both individual and collective shelters (DRV civilian air, 1966; Vu Can, 1975). Stationed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Youth Shock Brigades against U.S. Aggression for National Salvation, most of whose members were female, quickly repaired damage resulting from U.S. bombing (Dan Hong, 1982; Hess, 1993; Van Dyke, 1972). Self-defense militias composed of farmers, workers, and students assembled during attacks and concentrated small arms fire on planes coming in at low altitudes in an attempt to avoid other antiaircraft measures effective at higher altitudes (Grant, 1986; Study movement, 1965; Vo Nguyen Giap, 1969). Perhaps above all, the public mobilization meant that Vietnamese people continued to support the revolution even in the face of and, in part, because of appalling losses inflicted upon them by the superior firepower of the U.S. military and its Vietnamese allies (Bui Tin, 1995; Landsdale, 1977).

Foreign Allies

The DRV received significant aid during the war from other nations, particularly the Soviet Union (USSR) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Three factors contributed to their willingness to provide this aid to the DRV: (1) their common political perspective, namely, communism, and their opposition to the capitalist bloc of which the U.S. was the leader, (2) the perceived justice of the Vietnamese revolutionaries' cause, and (3) the rivalry between the USSR and the PRC for credentials as the leader of world revolution.

The provision of weapons and supplies was easily the most obvious form of support. The USSR and the PRC contributed weapons essential to defense against the air war, including petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL), the AK-47 assault rifle and other small arms, radar systems, antiaircraft artillery (AAA), surface- to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG fighter aircraft. Without this materiel, the Vietnamese resistance to the air war would, to understate the case, have been hard pressed.

In addition, U.S. governing circles were concerned that relatively immoderate military measures on its part, like the all- out bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong strongly urged by the military early in the war, would provoke USSR or PRC entry, and they consequently imposed various restraints on targeting, which benefited the DRV (Gropman, 1987; Kearns, 1976; Lewy, 1978; Marolda and Fitzgerald, 1986; Porter, 1973). Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson, in order to make certain that there would be no provocation, had a regular Tuesday luncheon at which her personally approved all bombing targets for the coming week. He repeatedly rejected calls for bombing strategic targets such as factories in Hanoi, port facilities in Haiphong, the rail line near the Chinese border, and MiG air bases, out of a concern not to widen the war (Gropman, 1987).

On one occasion, President Johnson stated that if he were to authorize such attacks he would have to face 500,000 American anti-war protesters who would climb the fences surrounding the White House and lynch him (Halberstam, 1972). In fact, the U.S. anti-war movement constituted a significant obstacle to the conduct of the war and was, therefore, objectively another foreign ally of the DRV and NLF. It turned American public opinion against the war, introduced a domestic cost to the war through demonstrations and campus turmoil, forced politicians to worry about what impact support for the war would have on their careers, and contributed to impairing the U.S. military morale (Heineman, 1993; Heinl, 1971; Vo Nguyen Giap, 1968; Zaroulis and Sullivan, 1984). In fact, anti-war sentiment among the peoples and governments of allies throughout the world limited the U.S. government's ability to wage the Vietnam War (Hoopes, 1969; Marr, 1979).

Defense against Aerial Attack

Evacuation and Dispersal

In My Tho Province in the South, many peasants slept in RVN controlled areas to escape the bombing and shelling during the night, only to return to contested areas during the day to work their fields (Hunt, 1974). Others disassembled their village homes and built temporary huts in their fields where they hoped, often in vain, that their dispersal would make attack by Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) and U.S. aircraft less inviting. And, of course, many Vietnamese permanently evacuated their villages and fields in the South for the comparative safety of Saigon or other zones controlled by the RVN.

In the DRV, during periods of threatened heavy bombing, officials removed schools, offices, and production facilities from urban areas and dispersed them to the countryside, and the students and workers followed. Those people (e.g., children and the elderly) who were inessential for production at remaining facilities or for conduct of the war also evacuated. The Vietnamese referred to the evacuation and dispersal campaign as Operation So Tan, which connoted a regrouping in order to reduce losses while continuing the struggle (Nguyen Khac Vien, 1993; Salisbury, 1967). These evacuations were credited with significantly decreasing the number of casualties that would otherwise have resulted (Burchett, 1977).

For example, in response to the U.S. attack on Hanoi's oil facilities in 1966, all but 200,000 of the city's population of 800,000 people evacuated ( Fall, 1967; Mass evacuation, 1966; Vo Nguyen Giap, 1975). In 1968, when the U.S. halted its bombing of the Hanoi-Haiphong area, residents drifted back to Hanoi, but in early December 1972 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conveyed to Le Duc Tho the threat of renewed bombing, a massive evacuation of Hanoi was again accomplished (Burchett, 1977; Gibson, 1986; Nhan Dan urges, 1972). Similarly, under the threat or actuality of bombing residents left other urban areas such as Vinh (Vu Can, 1975) and Thai Binh (Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, 1986).

When evacuated from urban centers, people, supplies, and institutions were dispersed to multiple areas in the countryside rather than being concentrated, which might have invited attack. For example, Vinh's factories were distributed in smaller units to the highlands and midlands regions of the north, and the students of Cam Binh village evacuated to a number of different hamlets (Vu Can, 1975). After attack on its petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) facilities, the DRV dispersed its POL supplies in 55-gallon drums spread along roads, paths, and rice paddies (Salisbury, 1967) and in 2,500- and 5,000-gallon tanks hidden under dense vegetation or karst formations (Porter, 1970).


The Vietnamese raised to a high art the camouflage and concealment of people, supplies, vehicles, and transportation routes. On the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail and in the forest, there were three sayings: "di khong dau, to walk without footprints; nau khong khoi, to cook without smoke; and noi khong tieng, to speak without sound" (Hess, 1993, p. 31). Leafy vegetation secured to their shoulders camouflaged children walking to school (Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, 1986) and adults reporting for military exercises (Cameron, 1966). Trucks were spray painted with foliage patterns and further camouflaged with branches, palm fronds, and banana leaves (Cameron, 1966).

The Peoples Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) and the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the military forces of the NLF and the DRV, respectively, in order to conceal their positions and avoid attack, often cooked in an oven that did not emit smoke. Variously called a Dien Bien Phu kitchen (Burchett, 1978), a Golden Guitar oven (Goure, 1965), or the cuisine of General Hoang Cam after its inventor (Truong Nhu Tang, 1985), this oven had long horizontal chimneys dug into the ground which absorbed almost all of the smoke rather than exhausting it into the air.

During the day there was virtually no traffic along trails and roads, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but when night descended and aerial detection of vehicles became more difficult, traffic materialized (Cameron, 1966). Trucks used lights dimmed by being fixed to the undercarriage of the truck or by having their headlights covered with shields perforated with small holes (Air- defense lights, 1972; Cameron, 1966). Mats of banana leaves and bamboo insulated hot surfaces of trucks from infrared detection, and aluminum foil wrapped around ignition systems prevented the detection of electromagnetic emissions (Spector, 1993). The rain forest canopy, in some places triple layered, prevented aerial observation of traffic along trails and roads. Where it was too sparse, the canopy was often improved with trellises or latticework covered with vegetation (Aton and Thorndale, 1969; Blumenthal, 1971), or the branches of the trees were simply tied together with vines to better conceal the road (Brennan, 1985; One memorandum, 1966; Phan Trac, 1971). The Vietnamese disguised trail and road surfaces with ashes, sand, leaves, or even potted plants (Aton and Thorndale, 1969; Davis, 1978).

Aerial attack especially targeted bridges that crossed Vietnam's many rivers, and the Vietnamese devised a number of methods for concealing them. They built bridges of bamboo or cables that could be released at one end to disappear into the water and then, when needed again at night, raised up by hand- powered winches (Burchett, 1978; Gerassi, 1968). Other bridges built of cable or of planks of wood or lengths of bamboo laid on pontoons could be detached at an end which would float down river and come to rest along a bank under trees and thus be invisible from the air (Burchett, 1978; Cameron, 1966). The Vietnamese also built submerged bridges which could be traversed but were nearly impossible to spot from the air (Grmmer, 1972; Le Quang, 1973).

Protective Clothes and Shelters

Children in the North wore hats and coats or capes of heavily woven straw to protect themselves against the pellets and shrapnel of antipersonnel bombs (Air raids fail, 1967; Broyles, 1968).

In the entire annals of war, the Vietnamese must rank at or near the top for military engineering. They dug mile upon mile of trenches, tunnels, and shelters, both individual and collective, for protection against air attack. Officials gave direction for the best kinds of shelter to build. Highly recommended were partially subterranean A-framed structures with walls at least one meter thick, roofs set an an angle of 45 to 60 degrees, and made of alternating layers of wood or bamboo and dirt (Aton and Thorndale, 1969; Nhan Dan article, 1966; Nhan Dan hatred, 1972). Concrete cylinders with plaited reed or concrete covers were sunk into the flanks of Hanoi streets to serve as individual shelters (Burchett, 1977; McCarthy, 1968). A youth brigade in the village of Vinh Moc used machetes, metal tipped oars, crowbars, and sharpened bamboo to dig a collective shelter 900 meters long (Vu Can, 1975). Excavations in the sides of mountains shielded factories (Chomsky, 1970).

Repair and Redundancy of Transportation Routes

The revolutionary forces combatted the terrible destructiveness of the U.S. bombing of its transportation routes by establishing the capability to repair the damage under severely adverse circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of peasants and youth mobilized into Self-Defense Militias and Youth Shock Brigades against U.S. Aggression for National Salvation quickly repaired (often overnight) rail lines, roads, and bridges that U.S. air attacks had damaged (Dan Hong, 1982; Davis, 1978; Grmmer, 1972; Robinson, 1968; Stern, 1969; Van Dyke, 1972). These personnel lived or were stationed near the transportation line for which there were responsible, and they stored nearby in dispersed stashes the necessary steel rails, railroad ties, gravel, pontoons, and other supplies for ready use. Years of U.S. bombing transformed roads in some areas into virtual gravel piles, which provided readily available material for rapid repair (Ballard, 1982; Fox, 1969).

When U.S. aircraft bombed and temporarily blocked a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, workers often constructed a bypass before repairing the original route (Dan Hong, 1982; Truong Nhu Tang, 1985). Over time the Ho Chi Minh Trail became a redundant network of roads and trails rather than a single, linear route. This redundancy grew progressively rather than diminished with continued bombing and facilitated the passage of traffic.

The use of multiple routes for the infiltration into the South of supplies and personnel also built redundancy into the supply network. Besides the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which exited the southern part of the DRV west into Laos and along the Truong Son mountain range before entering the Republic of Vietnam, other supply routes entered the RVN also through the demilitarized zone (DMZ), by sea and then over the beaches and up the rivers of the RVN, and through the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville and then overland to and across the Vietnam border (Abrams, 1968; Davis, 1978; Duy Duc, 1985; Van Staavaren, 1977b).

Infantry Tactics

The PLAF/PAVN forces often fought as close as possible to the U.S. or Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops in order to forestall close air support which would have had to risk striking friendly troops (Aton and Thorndale, 1969; Burchett, 1978; Diary of, 1966; Porter, 1966). The PLAF/PAVN forces targeted radiomen to prevent their calling in air strikes (Brelis and Krementz, 1968) and attacked air bases as a "proactive" defense against air attack (Fox, 1979; Van Tien Dung, 1969). Frequently attacks were initiated at night to decrease vulnerability to aerial detection and attack (Asprey, 1975; Harrison, 1982). Further, revolutionary forces dispersed into small, mobile units in order not to provide easy, lucrative targets for air attack (Cameron, 1966; Van Tien Dung, 1968).

Often the PLAF/PAVN forces attempted to lure planes into traps in order to destroy them. Their methods included firing single shots at the planes (Brennan, 1985), popping smoke grenades of colors designated by U.S. or ARVN forces to mark a landing zone (LZ) for helicopters (Bergen, 1986), wearing the uniform of a downed pilot and firing his flare gun (Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, 1986), or not immediately capturing downed pilots so the pilots would have the opportunity to call in help (Chinnery, 1987). The revolutionary forces attacked helicopters and their occupants by implanting in helicopter LZs stakes (District unit in Quang Ngai Prov., 1967) or mines (Nhan Dan on victories, 1966) or home-made grenade launchers (Grenade launching, 1966) and, of course, by firing on them at the LZs (Fullbrook, 1986b).

The PLAF/PAVN also produced instructional manuals and films and trained with models to improve their techniques for shooting down planes (Brennan, 1985; Bulletin N. 502, 1966; Dist unit in Quang Nam Prov., 1967; Enthoven and Smith, 1971). Among other lessons, these manuals and films pointed out that helicopters are most vulnerable when flying at low altitudes, descending, hovering, landed, or taking off (Our militia, 1971a, 1971b, 1971c).

Antiaircraft Defense

Integration of Antiaircraft Defense

In the North, PAVN mounted the "most sophisticated and effective" antiaircraft defense in the history of warfare (Pike, 1986). It was a multi-level, dynamically integrated defense that included radar warning systems, MiG jet fighters, SAMs, AAA of various calibers, and small arms fire (Van Tien Dung, 1969). This system created an environment in which aircraft tactics designed to escape one type of threat brought the plane under threat from another layer of the system.

By early 1966, PAVN employed sophisticated radar that detected the range, altitude, speed, and azimuth of U.S. planes, information that radar operators provided to gunners and pilots (Lavalle, 1976). In order to evade radar detection and the consequent AAA fire, SA-2 Guideline SAMs, and MiG attacks, when possible U.S. pilots at first flew at low, terrain-hugging altitudes when entering DRV air space. Shortly before reaching the target, they would "pop up" to identify it visually and then dive on it in their bombing run (Lavalle, 1976). This low- altitude flying had the serious disadvantage, however, of bringing the planes within range of concentrated small arms (rifles and light automatic weapons) fired by workers, peasants, and students which posed a real threat to the aircraft up to altitudes of 1,500 feet (Broughton, 1969; Futrell, 1989; Hai Thu, 1967; Khac Vien et al., 1966; McGarvey, 1969).

To evade the small arms fire U.S. pilots flew at higher altitudes, but this exposed them to different aspects of the integrated air defense. The PAVN radars detected the planes at the higher altitudes, deprived their missions of the element of surprise, and vectored MiG fighters to intercept them (Futrell, 1989). The higher altitudes also brought the planes into the effective range of AAA of various calibers, from the 12.7-mm guns effective to altitudes of 3,300 feet to radar-guided 100-mm. guns effective to altitudes of 40,000 feet (Ballard, 1982; Littauer and Uphoff, 1972; Mersky and Polmar, 1986).

Because AA guns were the most effective weapons in bringing down U.S. aircraft, their presence forced U.S. aircraft to fly above AAA range, but this brought them into the range of SAMs (Dorr, 1988; Lavalle, 1976). In order to counter the SAMs, U.S. aircraft with devices mounted on their wingsfor electronic countermeasures (ECM) against the radar flew in formation with other planes, which enhanced the ECMs but reduced the planes' maneuverability and made them more vulnerable to attacks by MiGs. When a SAM was actually coming at them, pilots performed a tight turning dive to outmaneuver the missile, but this tactic had the undesirable effect of bringing them down again into the range of AAA (Dorr, 1988; Mersky and Polmar, 1986).

Disruption of the Air Attack

Downing U.S. aircraft constituted the clearest successes for PAVN gunners, but the air defense system impaired bombing missions in more subtle ways as well. Attack or threatened attack by MiGs and SAMs often forced U.S. pilots to respond by jettisoning their ordnance, which increased their maneuverability and speed but effectively aborted their missions (Broughton, 1969; Grant, 1986; Lavalle, 1976). Often planes responded to the presence of SAMs by simply not attacking certain areas (McCarthy and Allison, 1979; Vogt, 1973). Rather than performing bombing missions, many U.S. planes were diverted to ECM missions, suppression of AAA and SAMs, or protecting against MiGs (Chinnery, 1987; Heffron, 1967). Even for those planes that did carry out bombing missions, the mounting of ECM pods on their wings forced a reduction in their armament (Thorndale, 1969). Small arms and automatic weapons fire and AAA forced planes to fly at higher altitudes, which reduced the effectiveness of their bombing attacks (Davis, 1982; Success of low, 1972; Olson and Roberts, 1991).

AAA Tactics

The PAVN troops arranged their guns in formations of triangles, diamonds, and pentagons to concentrate their fire and improve their effectiveness (Grant, 1986; Van Dyke, 1972). The PRC AA troops in combat in the DRV moved their AAA sites around and used "dummy" sites to confuse U.S. pilots, and they concentrated their fire on particular planes with good results (Xiaoming Zhang, in press). Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the jungles and mountains of Laos provided few potential LZs, PAVN antiaircraft battalions emplaced their guns on the high ground and triangulated them on likely approach routes to these areas (Fullbrook, 1986b).

SAM Tactics

Like the AAA sites, SAMs were also moved around and some sites were equipped with dummy missiles to disguise their locations (Broughton, 1988; De Luce, 1970; Gibson, 1986; Van Staaveren, 1977a). When U.S. aircraft did locate SAM sites, they attacked them with anti-radiation missiles, which home in on radar signals (Rhodes, 1989). To cope with this weapon, PAVN crews turned their radars on and off or did not activate the SAM terminal guidance radar until 10 to 15 seconds before launch, which impaired accuracy but both protected missile crews against anti-radiation missile attack and denied warning to U.S. pilots from their radar homing and warning equipment (Belli, 1973; Futrell, 1989; Lavalle, 1976; Mersky and Polmar, 1986).

To counter ECMs, PAVN fired SAMs in barrages when aircraft were close to the target area and about to break out of their pod formations (Chinnery, 1987; Dorr, 1988). In 1967 PAVN added optical tracking devices that did not operate electronically in order to thwart ECMs (Chinnery, 1987; Lavalle, 1976). During the B-52 bombings of Linebacker II, PAVN SAM crews attempted to overcome the ECM disruption of the radar guidance systems by having MiGs fly alongside the B-52s and relay information on their altitudes and headings to the missile batteries (Chinnery, 1987). Because later formations of B-52s flew the same routes, altitudes, headings, and turning points as earlier ones, PAVN troops monitored the early formations and then used those flight parameters to fire barrages of missiles at later formations without activating their radar which might be thwarted by ECMs or attacked by Wild Weasel SAM suppression flights (Chinnery, 1987).

MiG Tactics

Although they were much slower than the U.S. F-4s that provided cover for the fighter-bombers, MiG-17s had superior maneuverability and posed a real threat (Futrell, 1989; Mersky and Polmar, 1986). The MiG-17s flew at low altitudes where interference from ground phenomena disturbed the guidance of U.S. air-to-air missiles (Bakke, 1967). MiG-21s tended to operate at high altitudes from which ground control intercept radar vectored them to high speed attacks (Futrell, 1989). Often a few MiGs operated at a medium altitude, while other aircraft flew at an extremely low altitude where they were difficult to detect; if U.S. aircraft attacked those at the medium altitudes, the low elements ascended to attack effectively from behind (Tolman, n.d.).


In the face of an enormously powerful air attack utilizing the sophisticated technology of the RVN and particularly the U.S. air forces, Vietnamese revolutionary forces, both military and civilian, resolutely resisted. This resistance took political and military forms. On the political front, the DRV and the NLF engendered widespread support among the Vietnamese people for their revolutionary project and, therefore, for the war. Solidarity and aid from the USSR and the PRC restrained U.S. military measures and supplied critically important war materiel to their Vietnamese allies. Similarly, the U.S. anti-war movement objectively provided support to the DRV and the NLF. The Vietnamese people and military units employed a myriad of defensive measures against air attack. Tactics such as evacuation, dispersal, camouflage, taking shelter, and fighting close to their enemies were designed to evade bombing. Other tactics, such as luring helicopters over the RVN into AA traps and creating over the DRV an integrated antiaircraft defense consisting of radar, small arms, AAA, SAMs, and MiGs, attempted to shoot down the planes or disrupt their attack. References

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1. The fact that the Farabundo Mart¡ National Liberation Front in El Salvador used a "Vietnamese" oven to prevent their detection from the air (Metzi, 1988) indicates that revolutionary movements do incorporate in their practice lessons learned from previous struggles.

2. FBIS is an acronym for the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, which is a U.S. government agency that monitors, translates, and publishes transcripts of foreign broadcasts.

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