The Lost Logic of Limited Nuclear Options

China’s nuclear buildup revives a Cold War dilemma: nuclear parity will make the United States mutually vulnerable to attack. Because massive retaliation only promises further reprisal, the United States would face a choice between suicide or surrender over attacks on its allies and partners. U.S. nuclear threats to defend them, therefore, would lose credibility. 

To make deterrence credible, strategists should recall a Cold War logic. With Soviet nuclear parity, the United States needed limited nuclear options that would not catalyze major nuclear war.1 Under mutual vulnerability with China, U.S. nuclear strategy should rediscover the logic of limited options.

Sprinting to Parity

Beijing is revising its hitherto nuclear restraint. China historically maintained a puny and primitive arsenal sufficient only for assured retaliation.2 But recent U.S. intelligence estimates that military competition with the United States has raised China’s deterrence requirements.3 

The Department of Defense has increased its projection of China’s arsenal for three successive years.In 2020, the Department of Defense expected China’s nuclear warheads, then estimated in the low-200s, to at least double within the decade. In 2021, the Department of Defense predicted that China will have 700 deliverable nuclear weapons by 2027 and possibly 1,000 by 2030. In 2022, the Department of Defense estimated that China had surpassed 400 weapons and was likely to field 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, based on previous-year estimates.4 On its current trajectory, China will approach levels of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons, a mark of parity.

Further, China is building three silo fields for at least 300 solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), augmenting its road-mobile force.5 Between 2021 and 2022, China’s ICBM force doubled, and its launchers tripled.6 Indeed, in February 2022, China’s combined ICBM launchers exceeded those of the United States.7 China has also developed a nascent strategic triad, complete with modern air and sea legs.8 

China’s sprint to parity will make mutual vulnerability to strategic attack a fact, if not an admission.9 This is a problem because, while conventional military forces are the first resort, deterrence depends on the credible threat of retaliation. U.S. defense strategy maintains that nuclear weapons are the “ultimate backstop” for extended deterrence of allies and partners.10 

Under mutual vulnerability, however, the United States cannot denude China’s deterrent or significantly limit damage against nuclear reprisal. Yet China can threaten escalation to blackmail the United States from intervening on behalf of its allies or partners. Therefore, the United States cannot make credible nuclear threats to deter conventional attacks, which leaves it needing alternatives to a strategy of suicide or surrender.11  

Blast from the Past: History of Limited Nuclear Options

By February 1969, the National Security Council (NSC) staff predicted that the coming decade would bring about mutual vulnerability to strategic attack.12 A pattern had emerged of Soviet nuclear deployments exceeding U.S. estimates, and projections for future Soviet strength were continually revised upward.13 

As Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger testified to Congress in 1974, the “scope of the Soviet program as it now emerged is far more comprehensive than estimated.”14 By then, the Soviet Union had tested four new ICBMs with improved accuracy and payloads. It also fielded an equivalent number of combined launchers.15 

In May 1969, the NSC staff concluded that nuclear superiority was no longer viable.16 Without it, national security advisor Henry Kissinger believed the United States would need “more discriminating options” than the existing nuclear war plan for responding to a “less than all-out or disarming Soviet attack.”17 Kissinger directed nuclear planners to consider a “range of possible outcome measures.” So began the quest for limited nuclear options. 

In January 1972, the National Strategic Targeting and Attack Policy review panel proposed a “radical departure” from existing strategy, according to talking points prepared for Kissinger.18 Rather than win nuclear war by destroying enemy forces, the so-called Foster Panel proposed to “stop the war quickly at a low level of destruction.”19 To provide more discriminate options, the United States would need three classes of nuclear attacks: major attacks, selected attack options, and limited options.20

The following year, an NSC staff study directed by National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 169 adopted the proposed attack structure, adding regional nuclear options for conducting theater nuclear campaigns.21 Because “changes in the strategic situation” made massive retaliation incredible, the study endorsed the logic of limitation.22 The United States needed a “greater range of nuclear attack options to provide greater flexibility.”23 It also needed “targeting and attack concepts for controlling escalation,” including to “conduct nuclear war within clearly defined boundaries.”24 

Schlesinger believed the resulting report was an “excellent basis” for NSC consideration.25 (In the early 1960s, Schlesinger had reckoned with the dilemma of extended deterrence under mutual vulnerability and participated in an early analysis of limited nuclear options known as NU-OPTS.26)

On that basis, National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 242 made it U.S. policy to “seek early war termination, on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies, at the lowest level of conflict feasible.”27 This required a “wide range of limited nuclear employment options” to control escalation.28 Limited options—defined by the level, scope, and duration of violence—should “hold some vital enemy targets hostage to subsequent destruction” and “provide the enemy opportunities to reconsider his actions.”29 Limitation would signal both resolve and restraint. 

In March 1974, Schlesinger explained to Congress the need for a “series of measured responses to aggression which bear some relation to the provocation, have prospects of terminating hostilities before general nuclear war breaks out, and leave some possibility for restoring deterrence.”30 This would deter a wider range of attacks and discourage further escalation.

The following month, Schlesinger issued new guidance on nuclear weapons employment policy (NUWEP), emphasizing escalation management through selective operations, limited violence, and withheld targets. Nuclear plans should provide the “ability to conduct nuclear war at various levels of intensity within clearly defined boundaries,” signaling restraint.31 

Limited nuclear operations required confidence that attack options could be reserved and then swiftly executed.32 Moreover, targeting enemy command and control and warning and attack assessment capabilities, whose functioning was necessary for negotiation and war termination, should be withheld.33

The NUWEP also codified the attack structure of NSSM-169. Within the full war plan, limited nuclear options focused on signaling stakes, degrading enemy capabilities, and deterring limited nuclear attacks.34 Below those, regional nuclear options focused on defending territory by directly attacking enemy tactical forces.35 

Following the NUWEP, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provided further guidance to the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff to build the war plan, Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) 5, which took effect 1 January 1976.36 Under SIOP-5, the United States could employ limited nuclear options to target, for instance, Soviet nuclear and conventional military forces, while withholding attacks on population centers.37 The so-called Schlesinger Doctrine thus accomplished, according to one admirer, an “enduring shift in U.S. deterrence policy.”38

Breaks from the Past

Modern strategists should revisit limited nuclear options, but different conditions between the Cold War and the present limit their adoption. Specifically, the conventional military balance, U.S. nuclear force structure, and dynamic nuclear competition may limit the usefulness of limited options. 

Conventional Balance 

While limited nuclear options make credible the threat of retaliation, a worsening conventional military balance will weaken deterrence. During the Cold War, the military balance in central Europe arguably favored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Schlesinger believed NATO had qualitative advantages in fighter aircraft, anti-tank weapons, and logistics support for extended mobilization.39 

While NATO was inferior in number, Warsaw Pact advantages were neither inherent nor insurmountable.40 

Specifically, Schlesinger claimed that “[NATO] already programs most of what is required to counter the [Warsaw] Pact. What is at issue is the relatively small remaining margin.”41 The Fiscal Year 1975 defense program would further increase expenditures by 16 percent within the planning period.42 Therefore, “NATO could achieve military balance in Europe. It is a force of considerable strength.”43 

To be sure, pessimists at the time cited declining defense spending between fiscal years 1968 and 1975.44 Soviet rearmament yielded higher end-strength and more tanks, tactical aircraft, and other equipment.45 Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer summarized the military balance in central Europe as “very tenuous as far as NATO is concerned.”46 These contending assessments, however, were at least consistent with the call for limited nuclear options. 

Today, by contrast, the United States is behind the power curve in the western Pacific. China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities have attenuated U.S. military advantages, inhibiting U.S. forces from entering the theater and generating combat power within it.47 As the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission concluded, U.S. forces could lose a fight in defense of Taiwan.48 While the military balance narrows, limited nuclear options may not be enough. 

U.S. Nuclear Forces

The smaller size of U.S. nuclear forces makes it difficult to adopt limited nuclear options. In the 1970s, the United States developed limited options under nuclear plenty. 

While the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) constrained strategic launchers, the United States deployed 6,784 and 7,940 nuclear weapons in 1973 and 1974, respectively, several factors greater than today.49 Large quantities of nuclear weapons let Schlesinger insist that “evolution in targeting doctrine is quite separable from, and need not affect the sizing of the strategic forces.”50 The new strategy was independent of arms control and the prospect of deeper force cuts.51 Instead, limited nuclear options depended on qualitative changes like the variety of forces and weapon yields.52 

To implement limited nuclear options today, the United States could assign existing nuclear forces to limited nuclear missions or adjust its forces to develop limited nuclear capabilities. If the former, withholding or employing select nuclear forces would decrease those available for larger attack options. If the latter, the resulting force structure would directly decrease forces available for missions other than limited nuclear attack. Either way, limited nuclear options impose a certain opportunity cost on U.S. nuclear forces.

A large arsenal, as the United States enjoyed during the 1970s, may make that opportunity cost acceptably low to military planners. A much smaller arsenal, as the United States has today, increases the opportunity cost of adopting limited nuclear options. 

Deterrence Requirements

U.S. deterrence requirements affect the size and shape of its nuclear arsenal. Nuclear competition during the Cold War was dyadic, between the United States and Soviet Union. Deterrence requirements were, in this respect, more modest. 

Because nuclear strategy during the Cold War focused on the Soviet Union, China was long the lesser-included offense for nuclear planning. U.S. nuclear forces sufficient to deter a peer would more than suffice disarming China’s deterrent.53 Yet the emerging nuclear era has several nuclear-armed powers and two nuclear peers, complicating deterrence dynamics. 

A deterrent fit for this purpose must account for scenarios of coordinated or opportunistic aggression.54 Deterring both China and Russia increases nuclear planning requirements because the United States must deter, at minimum, conflict with the second peer during a conflict with the first. The United States therefore requires a more robust deterrent than it has today.55 By requiring more nuclear forces, two-peer deterrence exacerbates the problem of a smaller nuclear arsenal, increasing the opportunity cost of adopting limited nuclear options. 

Back to the Future

How should U.S. nuclear strategy resurrect limited options? First, strategists should recall the theory of victory by which limited nuclear options confer advantage in crisis and war.56 Second, strategists should consider revising elements of nuclear strategy to implement limited options, namely capability design principles, nuclear attack targets, and new nuclear capabilities. 

During the Cold War, the theory of victory behind limited nuclear options was to arrest an enemy’s attack and alter his calculation of the cost and risk of pursuing it.57 Limited nuclear options can unify the military utility of destruction and the political utility of terror.

Limited nuclear attacks should defend the object in contest. For example, they could destroy an invading force before it seizes territory or upon occupation. Ideally, limited nuclear attacks would degrade enemy forces sufficiently to deny their ability to accomplish objectives.58 But limited nuclear attacks should also have political effects on the stakes of the conflict. 

Nuclear weapons turn the conflict from a contest of force into a competition in risk-taking, with both sides dancing at the brink of mutual destruction. As Thomas Schelling puts it: “Once nuclear weapons are introduced, it is not the same war any longer. The tactical objectives and considerations that governed the original war are no longer controlling. It is a now a war of nuclear bargaining and demonstration.”59 Through incremental escalation, limited nuclear options produce the fear of unrestrained nuclear warfare. By increasing the cost and risk of pursuit, limited nuclear use could coerce war termination.  

While presenting the specter of devastation, nuclear options must also obey the logic of limitation. They should compel a pause in which the aggressor reconsiders the peril of his gambit, rather than provoke retaliation. As Schelling explains, deterrence in war must couple threats and assurances: “The threat of massive destruction may deter an enemy only if there is a corresponding implicit promise of non-destruction in the event he complies.”60

A discernably limited nuclear attack should incent restraint. By reserving further attacks, limited options make this incentive more potent. For example, attacking fielded forces rather than political leadership both assures enemy leaders of limitation and, if they escalate further, threatens their future destruction. To thread the needle, limited nuclear options should therefore involve the minimum use of force practicable. 

Design Principles

Limited nuclear options should apply force incrementally. These options can observe perceptible boundaries and firebreaks in conventional and nuclear warfare. These include domain of generation (air, land, sea), launch platform (strategic or non-strategic), launch site (intra- or inter-theater), flight profile (ballistic, non-ballistic, gravity-released), and weapon effects, inter alia

Numerous and variable nuclear options preserve decision space—because selecting one leaves others available to escalate further—and enables restraint. Planners should design limited nuclear options to promote escalation management. For example, a cruise missile attack launched at sea within the western Pacific is less escalatory—and therefore a more limited nuclear option—than a submarine-launched ballistic missile attack from long range.61 

Attack Targets 

Along a continuum of escalating attacks, generic targets could include deployed tactical military forces, tactical military forces in garrison at the immediate theater command, tactical military forces outside the immediate theater command, conventional command-and-control elements, theater-range land-based nuclear forces, and air or sea-based nuclear forces. Attack options could withhold senior unit commanders and command posts, theater military command headquarters, land-based strategic nuclear forces, and politico-military leadership. 

In a Taiwan invasion scenario, for example, the United States could first hit People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy amphibious forces transiting the Taiwan Strait. If the invasion continues, the United States could escalate against PLA tactical air force bases assigned to the Eastern Theater Command. Even more, the United States could strike nuclear-capable missiles belonging to the PLA Rocket Forces. At the same time, the United States would withhold attacks on, for example, ICBM silos and China’s Ministry of National Defense headquarters. 

New Capabilities

As described, limited nuclear options should improve the balance of forces while increasing the risk of further conflict. Within a matrix of escalation options, nuclear capabilities that are less escalatory should have disproportionate payoff, conferring more coercive advantage relative to risk. New nuclear capabilities should follow this principle. 

The United States is already supplementing its nuclear forces with two nuclear capabilities: a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile fielded in small numbers and a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile program.62 To provide greater optionality, the Department of Defense could pursue additional fighter-delivered gravity weapons, short-range air-launched land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, ground-based theater-range ballistic and cruise missiles, bomber-delivered gravity weapons, and low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missiles.


During the Cold War, Soviet nuclear parity left the United States the alternatives of suicide or surrender over its extended deterrence commitments. The search for credibility led the Department of Defense to develop limited options to manage nuclear escalation. As China’s nuclear buildup brings about mutual vulnerability, the United States must make credible its nuclear deterrent. The Department of Defense should devise limited nuclear options, complete with new nuclear capabilities, to deter war and manage escalation if deterrence fails.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any employer.


Image: Tactical nuclear air-to-air rocket Douglas AIR-2A Genie on display in SD Air and Space Museum, Box Elder, South Dakota, 22 July 2019. Retrieved from:, used under Wikimedia Commons.

[1] James R. Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, FY 1975 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 4 March 1974), 4-5,

[2] M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security 30, no. 4 (Spring 2006): 53-55,

[3] Office of the Director of Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2023), 7, 

[4] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2020 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021), 85,; Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021), 92,; Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2022), 94, 

[5] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021, 94; Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022, 94. 

[6] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021, 163; Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022, 167. 

[7] Michael R. Gordon, “China Has More ICBM Launchers than U.S., [A]merican Military Reports,” Wall Street Journal, 7 February 2023,

[8] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022, 96.

[9] Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 74-106; Brad Roberts, “Rethinking Mutual Vulnerability in an Era of US-China Strategic Competition,” in US-China Mutual Vulnerability: Perspectives on the Debate, ed. David Santoro (Honolulu, HI: Pacific Forum, May 2022), 16-25,

[10] National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2022), 9,

[11] Caitlin Talmadge, “The U.S.-China Nuclear Relationship: Growing Escalation Risks and Implications for the Future,” testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 7 June 2021, 11,

[12] “Strategic Policy Issues,” National Security Council, n.d.,

[13] L. Wainstain, C.D. Cremeans, J.K. Moriarty, and J. Ponturo, The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning, 1945-1972, S-467, (Arlington, VA, Institute for Defense Analyses, June 1975), 379. 

[14] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, FY 1975, 45.

[15] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, FY 1975, 45-48, 50.

[16] Terry Terrif, The Nixon Administration and the Making of U.S. Nuclear Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 52-53.

[17] Henry A. Kissinger, “Additional Studies of the U.S. Strategic Posture,” memorandum to Richard M. Nixon, White House, 1 July 1969, 1,

[18] “HAK Talking Points: DOD Strategic Targeting Study Briefing,” National Security Council, 27 July 1972, pp. 2-5, 

[19] “HAK Talking Points.”

[20] “HAK Talking Points.”  

[21] John S. Foster et al., Summary Report of the Inter-Agency Working Group on NSSM 169 – U.S. Nuclear Policy (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 9 June 1973), 9-12,

[22] Henry A. Kissinger, “National Security Study Memorandum 169,” memorandum to William P. Rogers, Eliot L. Richardson, and James R. Schlesinger, National Security Council, 13 February 1973, 1,

[23] Foster et al., Summary Report, 1.

[24] Foster et al., Summary Report, 1. 

[25] James R. Schlesinger, “Response to NSSM 169,” memorandum to Henry A. Kissinger, Department of Defense, 13 July 1973, 1,

[26] James Schlesinger, “Some Notes on Deterrence in Western Europe” (Santa Monica, RAND Corporation, 30 July 1962); Austin Long, Deterrence from Cold War to Long War: Lessons from Six Decades of RAND Research (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), 35,

[27] Richard M. Nixon, “National Security Decision Memorandum 242: Policy for Planning the Employment of Nuclear Weapons,” memorandum to Henry A. Kissinger, James R. Schlesinger, William E. Colby, and Fred C. Iklé, National Security Council, 17 January 1974, 2,

[28] Nixon, “National Security Decision Memorandum 242,” 2.

[29] Nixon, “National Security Decision Memorandum 242,” 2. 

[30] James R. Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, FY 1975 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 4 March 1974), 38. 

[31] James R. Schlesinger, Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 3 April 1974), 5. 

[32] Schlesinger, Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons, 5.

[33] Schlesinger, Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons, 5. 

[34] Schlesinger, Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons, 9.

[35] Schlesinger, Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons, 6; William E. Odom, “The Origins and Design of Presidential Decision-59: A Memoir,” in Henry D. Sokolski ed. Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Destruction, its Origins and Practice (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 2004), 177,

[36] Desmond Ball, “U.S. Strategic Forces: How Would They Be Used?” International Security 7, no. 3, 1982, 36,; George Lee Butler with Franklin C. Miller, Uncommon Cause: A Life at Odds with Convention, Vol: II: The Transformative Years (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2016), 7, fn. 2.

[37] Ball, “U.S Strategic Forces,” International Security, 36. 

[38] Keith B. Payne, “James Schlesinger’s Lifelong Creed of Public Service and the Schlesinger Doctrine,” Information Series no. 439 (Fairfax, VA: National Institute for Public Policy, 6 March 2019), 3,

[39] Richard A. Blitzinger, Assessing the Conventional Balance in Europe, 1945-1975 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, May 1989), 30.

[40] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, 8.

[41] Blitzinger, Assessing the Conventional Balance in Europe, 30.

[42] Barry M. Blechman et al., The Soviet Military Buildup and U.S. Defense Spending (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1977), 2-3.

[43] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, 8; Blechman, The Soviet Military Buildup, 26-27.

[44] Blechman, The Soviet Military Buildup, 3. 

[45] Blitzinger, Assessing the Conventional Balance, 25-26.

[46] Blitzinger, Assessing the Conventional Balance, 32.

[47] Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), 332,

[48] Eric Edelman et al., Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace),

[49] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, 50.

[50] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, 41.

[51] Schlesinger, Annual Defense Department Report, 41-42. 

[52] Lynn Etheridge Davis, “Limited Nuclear Options: Deterrence and the New American Doctrine,” Adelphi Papers no. 125 (1975): 19.

[53] Keir A. Leiber and Daryl G. Press, “The End of Mad? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30, no. 4 (Spring 2006): 7-44. 

[54] Caitlin Talmadge, “Multipolar Deterrence in the Emerging Nuclear Era,” in The Fragile Balance of Terror, eds. Vipin Narang and Scott D. Sagan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022), 13-38. 

[55] Brad Roberts et al., China’s Emergence as a Second Nuclear Peer: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Strategy (Livermore, CA: Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Spring 2023),

[56] Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). 

[57] Davis, “Limited Nuclear Options,” 19.

[58] Davis, “Limited Nuclear Options,” 6-7.

[59] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); John K. Warden, “Limited Nuclear War: The 21st Century Challenge for the United States,” Livermore Papers on Global Security no. 4 (July 2018): 49-54, 

[60] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 7.

[61] Vipin Narang, “The Discrimination Problem: Why Putting Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons on Submarines is so Dangerous,” War on the Rocks, 8 February 2018,

[62] U.S. Department of Defense, 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018). 

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