Battle Lab – Mission Planning


Doug “panzerde” Miller, 18 October 2014

What happens when doctrinal planning meets your friendly neighborhood wargame?  This.

This summer I had the good fortune to spend most of a week hanging out at Origins with the Grogheads team. During that week I participated in and observed several sessions of the wonderful Staff Wargaming sessions run by Dr. James Sterrett and Mark Graves (USA Retired). I’m going to apply the planning approach we used during these sessions to the first US campaign scenario from Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. I’m partial to doing this with Flashpoint Campaigns because it’s really perfect for this sort of planning. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Jim Snyder and Rob Crandall of On Target Simulations at Origins and discussing the game with them as well as using it during the Staff Wargaming sessions. I’m going to run through the process of terrain analysis using OCOKA, develop several potential enemy Courses of Action (COAs) and then plan my defense based on those COAs. To begin with, lets get an overview of the battlefield.


An overview of the battlefield in Google Earth. The Soviets will be advancing from east of Buchholz toward the western edge of the map on the route to Bremen. Note that the game map stops on an east-west line just south of Schierhorn-Tostedt.

It’s time to do some terrain analysis. I’m going to use the OCOKA method, which stands for:

  1. Observation and fields of fire
  2. Cover and concealment
  3. Obstacles (and mines)
  4. Key Terrain
  5. Avenues of approach
Looking at the map above, the features that dominate the map are the town of Buchholz and the gap to the west through the line of hills running north and south. In considering Observation and Fields of Fire, observation east-west is pretty much constrained by that line of hills. There looks to be another line of hills to the west. Between the hill ranges is an open area. That area is most easily accessible (and can probably be somewhat observed) via Buchholz and the gap behind it.


View east from Trelde through the gap toward Buchholz. It seems that Buchholz slopes down to the east. The gap, as expected, is bounded by high ground north and south. That ground should have excellent observation of and fields of fire into the western side of the town and the gap itself.


The high ground to the north of the gap looking south. Buchholz is to the left. As expected, excellent observation and fields of fire!


Looking from Buchholz west through the gap. Forces in the town can observe the gap, the high ground, and almost back to the far range of hills. The plain behind the hills is very accessible.


View from Schierhorn toward Holm-Seppensen. A likely view of the next largest town on the map from the perspective of a Soviet recce unit.

To the south of Buchholz lies the town of Holm-Seppensen, the second largest habitation on the map and also directly in the path of a potential Soviet advance. Like the area around Buchholz, there are some locations with excellent potential for observation.

Looking roughly southeast from high ground in Holm-Seppensen. This height provides excellent observation of most of the approaches to the town from the east.

While we can’t walk the ground, some careful analysis of the game map, Google Earth, and using Google Earth to get some views of the terrain similar to what we’d get from a scout helicopter has revealed a number of good positions for observing large areas of the map. We’ll need to keep those in mind as we continue our analysis.

Planning map with OCOKA graphics. You might want to open this in another browser window or tab to view it full size.
I’ve marked up a planning map of the battlefield with some graphics to complete the terrain analysis. In terms of Cover and Concealment, there are large areas of wooded terrain, particularly on the hills that offer good concealment and some cover. The towns and villages on the map will provide excellent cover and concealment, particularly to infantry.
To the east of Buccholz and north NATO has emplaced a line of mines and obstacles (red chevrons). Its important to note that no such line of man-made obstacles extends south from Buchholz toward Holm-Seppensen. The town of Buchholz itself, with its three bridges and water course is also an obstacle to movement east-west, particularly if defended. There are a few large roads/highways through the urban area, however.
The wooded hills and streams shown on the map are the obvious natural obstacles. I’ve used red “X’s” to note areas that seem to me to be the primary obstacles on the battlefield.
Many of the obstacles are also Key Terrain (green checks). Buchholz, the bridges, and particularly the wooded hills are all key terrain. Key terrain is terrain that can give the side that holds it an advantage in the battle. Remember of survey of Observation and Fields of Fire? Note how many of the areas we looked at are also Key Terrain.
After analyzing all of the above, some fairly obvious Avenues of Advance become clear. From the north to the south they are:
  1. The forest road from Sieversen to Eversen-Heide, and on toward the bridges at Moisburg,
  2. Along the A1 from Nenndorf to the critical bridges at Hollenstedt
  3. Through Buchholz to the N75 and southwest to Tostedt
  4. Through Holm-Seppensen and then north to Sprotze, and then southwest along the N75 from Kakenstorf to Tostedt.
There’s also possibly a route from the Holm-Seppensen road west along the K75 to Todtglusingen and then through Tostedt but I think it unlikely to be used, since part of the route involves going cross-country. If no other path exists it’s a possibility, but Soviet formations speeding west will want to stay on roads as much as possible.
The green stars on the map are the games Victory Locations. Virtually all of them are positioned on one or more of the Avenues of Approach described above.


Three possible Soviet COAs


Our next job is to try and think like the enemy commander, and determine, first, at least three likely Courses of Action he might take, and second, what key indicators will help us identify which COA (if any!) is actually in use.  (Ed note: here’s a much more detailed look at this process.)  In this scenario the Soviet mission is to transit the map from east to west, taking the majority of victory locations (er, capturing tactically valuable ground) and exit forces off of the west map edge (continuing the drive on Bremen, the ultimate objective).

Based on my terrain analysis and keeping in mind the Avenues of Approach I identified along with my understanding of the enemy mission, I’ve come up with the following three COAs:

  1. COA-1: North – Soviet main effort follows the A1 autobahn through the woods and aims to capture the bridges at Hollenstedt. Forces to exit the map along the west edge along the A1.
  2. COA-2: Center – Soviet main effort to push through Buchholz and the gap to the west, and then along the N75 southwest to Tostedt. Forces to exit the map at the western terminus of the N75.
  3. COA-3: South – Soviet main effort to seize Holm-Seppensen and move northwest to Sprotze. From Sprotze they will move west to Kakenstorf and then southwest along the N75 as in “Center.”

I don’t think the route along the northernmost forest road at all likely. It’s a smaller road through forested terrain and while it does provide a route to the western map edge, there aren’t many Victory Locations along that route. It would be easy for a small force to tie up the Soviet advance in those woods. Even if they punched through, they’d be leaving NATO in control of the much more valuable real estate south.

I believe the most likely COA is COA-2: Center. This COA provides the Soviets with the most open path to the west and touches the largest number of tactically significant locations (VLs). The most dangerous COA is probably a simultaneous advance along COA-2 and either COA-1 or COA-3. I suspect, based on the size of my force (a brigade combat team, coming in over the course of the scenario) that I’m facing a Soviet battlegroup of around Division size. As such, trying all three routes probably spreads their combat power too thin (one regiment per route). An attack by a pair of Tank Regiments, each along one route with the most successful attack backed up by a Motor Rifle Regiment (MRR) is very possible.

It’s unlikely that COA-1 and COA-3 will be the paired attacks. This approach leaves the two Soviet forces too far apart to easily support each other. Doing this would be like fighting two separate battles at the same time, an unlikely approach for a Soviet commander.

Some key indicators of where the actual COA is are:

  • Concentrated artillery targeting NATO units along the route of the COA,
  • Strong tank forces in contact
  • Infantry following the tank forces
  • Airstrikes along the route of the COA
A combination of these any one of these along with the presence of the tanks is a strong confirmation that the attack in question is the Soviet main effort. On discovering the main effort my plan will need to be adjusted to bring forces to bear to disrupt it.
Plan based on terrain analysis and COAs

Therefore, my plan needs to account for the following:

  1. COA-2 will almost certainly be part of the attack. It will either be the main effort or will support either COA-1 or COA-3 as the main attack. I need to position forces to deal with this COA.
  2. COA-1 and COA-3 has to covered by sufficient forces to slow the Soviet advance if they turn out to be the main effort. Once the advance is slowed I can reposition forces from around Buchholz to defend against the advance along COA-1 or COA-3.
  3. Even though the northern forest route is unlikely, I need to screen it with some recce troops in the event that Ivan gets clever.
My plan then is as follows:
  1. Companies A, B, and C of the 3-41 Infantry will position on the high ground north and south of the Buchholz gap and in the village of Trelde. These companies will be tasked with stopping any Soviet advance west from Buchholz.
  2. Companies C (mech infantry) and D (armor) of the 4-41 will position in the high ground in Holm-Seppensen to stop any Soviet advance along COA-3.
  3. Company D 3-41 Infantry (armor) will arrive after an hour or so and position along the N3 south of the A1. Artillery will emplace FASCAM mines along the A1. D Company will cover the minefield with fire to slow or stop any advance along COA-1.
  4. TF Scout Section 1 will position in the covered high ground north of Holm-Seppensen. This allows them to cover the road and bridge leading from Buchholz to Holm-Seppensen. Scout helicopters will provide observation for forces in Holm-Seppensen and the Scout Section.
  5. TF Scout Section 2 will locate in Eversen-Heide and Sieversen to screen the northern flank of the TF and conduct counter-recon along the northern forest road. The section’s scout helicopters will conduct observation of the A1 and areas east of the hills north of Buchholz.
  6. Reinforcements will be assigned to support forces in contact as the situation develops.
The above is essentially a Warning Order for elements of the 3-41 and 4-41 Infantry battalions, the primary US forces under my command at the start of the battle. With that done, let’s go see how well my plan works.
Planning map with Engagement Areas and future plans marked.

I’ve place the three mech infantry companies of the 3-41 Infantry in positions to overwatch the gap west of Buchholz from three directions. Likewise, I’ve placed two companies of 4-41 Infantry on high ground in Holm-Seppensen in a position to observe and fire on the stream valley to the southeast. What I have in mind is that these are both areas that I anticipate the enemy entering and where I’ll have a good field of fire where I can concentrate force – and ideally they’ll be at something of a disadvantage. These two areas are where I intend to engage the enemy,  or Engagement Areas. In the map above I’ve marked them “EA Buffalo” and “EA Toledo.”

When planning, it can be helpful to mark these on the map so you have a good idea where you want units to open fire and concentrate their firepower. Knowing where your engagement area is can be important so you don’t open fire too early with one unit, causing the enemy to deploy before he’s in range of or observation from the rest of your units. In all honesty this concept isn’t quite as useful in FPC:RS, because you can’t tell your units to hold and open fire, but you can arrange them (as I did here) to make use of the concept.

Its’s also important to realize that your planning doesn’t stop when you have your initial positions and strategy picked out. The battlefield is a chaotic, fluid environment and “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Even if things are going well, you’re likely to be getting reinforcements, and you need to know what you’re going to do with those before they show up on the battlefield. Deciding on a whim when they arrive will probably have them headed to a hot spot – and that might not actually be where you need them to do the most good.

This is known as “Future Operations” and is actually the domain of a staff officer, the S5. The S5’s job is to develop contingency plans, to survey the action and anticipate how current plans will need to change in a few hours to stay relevant, and to make plans for the arrival of reinforcements. Here I’ve planned for the arrival of several reinforcements: first, D Company of the 3-31 Infantry, which will move down the A1 and take up positions to overwatch the autobahn as it crosses a wooded ridge, and two artillery batteries of the 4-41. The artillery batteries will stay in place and provide fire support.

The battlefield in the pre-dawn darkness. As we start the scenario we find a substantial Soviet force nearly in our faces to the southeast of Holm-Seppensen. These guys are already sitting right on the edge of EA Toledo.
The center and north of the map are clear. Note that due to setup zone restrictions, A, B, and C Companies of the 3-41 are positioned in Buchholz. I’ll have to order them to move to their battle positions. I also intend to use the company HQ units to blow the bridges in Buchholz to slow down any Soviet movement through the town. FPC:RS doesn’t have dedicated Engineer units (yet) and this seems the most realistic way of representing them.

In the dark, the Soviets can’t spot my units in Holm-Seppensen but thanks to thermal imagers I can see them. Immediately 4-41 starts to claim kills in EA Toledo.

At the end of the first US order cycle, just under 30 minutes, it looks like my plan is working well so far. Strong tank forces, at least three battalions and about a Motorized Rifle Battalion (MRB) tried to push across the Seeve and attack Holm-Seppensen. In the dark it was a shooting gallery for the soldiers of C and D Companies of the 4-41. At the cost of one Bradley and one M1A1, they rendered what looks to be a Tank Regiment combat ineffective. Red crosses denote Soviet unit kills.

The Scout section positioned to the north of the town was also able to observe what looks like another MRB headed north toward Buchholz. The attack at Holm-Seppensen displayed signs of it being a major effort by the Soviets. The MRB moving north may indicate that the Soviets intend on attacking using both COA-2 and COA-3. If that’s the case the attack at COA-3 has been dealt a serious setback.

Claimed kills at the end of about 30 minutes. 4-41 killed 166 enemy units in EA Toledo, 90 of which were tanks and 25 of which were APCs. Even more damaging are the 14 HQ vehicles destroyed. That’s most of a tank regiment.

Moving into the next order cycle. The Mech Infantry platoons of 3-41 are in position. The HQs have blown the bridges and are ordered to perform hasty moves to join their companies. None of the recce units can see the enemy yet here in the center, but smoke columns on the horizon make it obvious that the Soviets have hit the line of mines to the east of Buchholz. They’re on the way.


There’s no indication that the Soviets are trying to use the A1 to advance westward yet, which is lucky since I have nothing positioned to stop them. My scouts on the forest road are trading fire with Soviet recce units, though.

End of the first hour in the Holm-Seppensen sector. Another tank battalion tried to get across the Seeve, supported by elements of a MRB. I think these were remnants of the attack by the reinforced regiment earlier. A few tanks made it as close as 500 meters from the positions of the 4-41, mostly because my soldiers are tired and some of the tanks are out of ammunition. The Soviet artillery has come online too. Between that and the improved visibility letting the T-80s shoot back, the 4-41 took more casualties than they did in the first order cycle. In the end the attack went nowhere though.


In the Buchholz sector, things are heating up. A Soviet Combat Reconnaissance Patrol (CRP) reached the position of the southern bridge, destroying the section of the 522nd MI placed there to observe movement and taking out part of the HQ of C/3-41. At least a battalion of T-80s is pushing south along the N75, where they wrecked the HQ platoon of the 522nd and killed all the vehicles of the HQ of A/3-41, which is now in danger of being trapped and destroyed. Only the HQ for B/3-41 manages to move out of Buchholz without casualties.

3/A/3-41 is positioned on the high ground north of the gap such that it can fire on the advancing tanks, and it kills several. Return fire wrecks over half the platoon’s vehicles and infantry, unfortunately. Meanwhile, C/3-41 takes revenge for the HQ casualties and kills the entire CRP at the south bridge.

In the north sector the recon/counter-recon fight goes on. More ominously, a second CRP speedbumps the last section of the 522nd MI and captures the eastern objective along the A1. Usually where there’s a CRP there are more Soviet units following…

Overview at the end of the first hour

I’ve stopped the Soviets at Holm-Seppensen for the moment. That part of the plan worked well. Around Buchholz my infantry are in position, HQ’s racing to get to shelter before the Soviets throw bridges across the streams. I’m prepared to hit them in EA Buffalo – but how strong a force am I looking at? Will the 3-41 be enough without tanks?

D/3-41 has arrived. I’ll need to move them quickly to get them into position to stop, or at least delay whatever is coming along the A-1. Fortunately my two artillery batteries have shown up and can support my thin lines.

I have had strong tanks and infantry in the south, supported by artillery. I see tanks and infantry at Buchholz; not as much as I saw south so far, but this may be the tip of the iceberg. Both COA-2 and COA-3 seem to be in effect. I don’t know enough about COA-1 yet. The presence of a CRP may just be a probe to see if the path is open, or it may be the precursor to a full attack. I may be dealing with all three COAs being in effect. Time for the S2 (Intelligence) and the S5 to put their heads together and work out some contingencies.

Remnants of a Soviet Tank Regiment at Holm-Seppensen

The Phase Matrix

Prior to participating in the Staff Wargaming sessions at Origins I was familiar with OCOKA (or OACOK as we were actually taught) and the idea behind COAs. What I’d never been exposed to though was something I found to be an invaluable tool: the Phase Matrix. Mark Graves, my invaluable mentor in all thing MDMP, tells me that despite how useful this tool is, many actual military units don’t use it. Certainly how I’m going to use it is a much reduced and simplified version of how it would be actually used, but I think if you can take the time to do it you’ll be very pleased at the results.

In short, the Phase Matrix (as I use it here) is simply a spreadsheet listing all available units on one side and all of the phases of the current operation along the top. Your job when formulating your plan is then to specify in the resulting matrix what each unit is supposed to be doing in each phase of the operation. At the level of command simulated in Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm you can usually get away with doing this for battalions. Certainly there’s not much need to get more specific than companies except in special cases.

For this scenario I’ve planned at the company level. Here’s what part of the matrix looks like:

Phase Matrix for 3-41 Infantry

You can download a copy of the full Phase Matrix here.

Coming up with the list of units you have to work with isn’t tough; most games will provide you with an Order of Battle (OOB) for your forces. FPC:RS also provides a listing of when various units are expected to arrive as reinforcements. Between the two you can get a sense of what you’ll have and when you can expect it, which will dictate a fair amount of your plan.

Developing phases is a combination of knowing what you’ll have when, your terrain analysis, and the COAs you’ve developed. To help figure out the phases of the operation and develop my Phase Matrix, I make use of a final type of graphical control measure; the phase line.

Planning map with Phase Lines

Phase lines are a graphical control measure used to help coordinate the actions of units and to provide a common frame of reference for the flow of action on the battlefield. On the map above I’ve added Area of Operations boundaries north and south for the brigade task force, and between these drawn phase lines to represent what I believe are going to be key divisions of the battlefield.

PL Vampire represents the line where I expect to have initial contact with the Soviet forces. When enemy troops cross this phase line, I know that I’m in Phase 1 of my plan as defined in the Phase Matrix.

PL Zombie represents the line where Soviet forces will have penetrated far enough that my initially deployed units are in danger of being flanked or overrun. Enemy troops crossing this line  in force anywhere along its length are an indication that we are now in Phase 2 of the plan, and that I should begin withdrawing my forces to a safer position while delaying the enemy. Later, if all is going according to plan, elements of 2-66 Armored crossing this line going east is an indication that we’ve entered Phase 4 of the plan and the battle of annihilation has started.

PL Werewolf is positioned along the critical defensive river line that defines the forward edge of the task force rear area, as well as the best place to try and stop a runaway Soviet attack that has punched through my defenses. If you check the Phase Matrix, most of the units I’ve positioned in reserve are on or near this line. If enemy troops cross this line, again in force, it’s an indicator that I need to commit my reserves to stop the incipient breakout. Also, if everything is going to plan, this is the line of departure for 2-66 Armored in Phase 3, the US counterattack.

So, with those phase lines defined, an OOB and a reinforcement schedule, I can plan, company by company, where each unit needs to be when. I can also define some triggers for when unit behavior needs to change and when each phase of my plan kicks off.

Of course, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” There’s no question as the situation develops that the Phase Matrix and overall plan are going to become outdated. On an actual US Army staff that’s where the S5 will earn his pay, updating the plan and developing contingencies in advance, trying to anticipate those changes. So, despite having a plan you should always be asking yourself “what happens if the enemy does this?” and envisioning alternatives to what you’ve planned.

Now that we have a plan, let’s return to the battle in progress and see how things conform to our planning.

As we enter the second hour of the battle, the Soviets haven’t thrown in the towel down south. C and D companies 4-41 are hit with an attack by an MRB supported by artillery and tanks. My troops are tired (low readiness) and running out of ammo from the intense fight against the Tank Regiment in the past hour. This allows the MRB to gain a foothold in Holm-Seppensen and contest the victory location.

In the center sector, there can’t be much doubt that the Soviets are making use of COA-2. At least a Tank Battalion and an MRB seem to be pushing for the Buchholz crossings and into the gap.

The Soviets keep the pressure on as the battle advances into the third hour. D/3-41 is slow taking up positions southwest of the A1-N3 junction. That allows a Soviet CRP to scoot all the way across the A1 unopposed and head south along the N3, threatening the route I’d planned to use to pull back A/3-41 and flanking B/3-41. That’s enough force to convince me that we’ve entered Phase 2. I start to pull back the infantry companies of 3-41. To aid the withdrawal, I order ICM strikes on some of the lead Soviet units and have dropped some mines to block the roads.

I’ve been too slow in pulling back B/3-41 and the company takes a pounding. The other two companies are battered, but the TOWs and cannon of their M2A1s, along with artillery and mines, have taken a toll on the advancing Soviets. There are Soviet troops west of the N3-N75 junction though, and not much to stop them.

At that moment A/4-41 arrives as reinforcements. My Phase Matrix assigns them to a reserve position at Todtglusingen, but in light of the situation, I order them to take up positions in Kakenstorf. That should take some pressure off of the retreating remnants of B/3-41 and deny the crossing at Kakenstorf to the Soviets until more help can arrive. I hope.

Meanwhile, vicious house-to-house fighting continues in Holm-Seppensen. The Soviets have thrown in a couple of more tank companies, and the exhausted soldiers of C and D companies 4-41 are barely hanging on. Control of the objective flips back and forth as the battle rages.

The Soviets push southwest along the N75, driving for the Kakenstorf crossing. A/4-41 races to get into position to stop them while the infantry companies of 3-31 struggle to get to their fallback positions while under fire. I pound the advancing Soviet columns with artillery, TOW and cannon fire.

We’re around four hours into the battle now. Soviet losses are high. I’ve lost more than I’d hoped, but the Soviet advance is showing signs of bogging down. To the northwest, around Hollenstedt the recce unit of the 2-66 arrives and is sent toward their specified destination of Wenzentorf.

A/4-41, backed up by artillery, stops the Soviet drive on Kakenstorf cold. A pair of Tank companies turns north and tries to advance up the N3 but are seriously depleted by the finally in position D/3-41.

Stopping the Soviet advance around the N3-N75 junction seems to have been enough for them. Soviet loses are at 70% while I still have 75% of my force intact. This is unquestionably a NATO victory at this point, even if FPC:RS decides to call it a “Marginal Success.”

If I’d been a bit earlier in starting to pull back 3-31, Soviet casualties might have been a bit less at this point – as would have mine, which is what I was actually intending.  It can be very difficult to disengage under fire.

Normally I’d probably allow the battle to end at this point, rather than risk further casualties, but where would be the fun in that? I want to see how my plan for a counter-attack by the 2-66 plays out.

Another mistake I made was not being sufficiently flexible in Holm-Seppensen. I’ve tried to hold the victory location rather than backing off to the high ground  and letting ranged fire and artillery bleed the Soviets before launching a coordinated counter-attack. As a result, C & D companies are battered and I’ve largely been pushed out of the town.

All companies of 2-66 but B/2-66  have arrived. I begin to position them to launch Phase 3.

Planned movements for Phase 3. A/2-66 was slotted to attack the A1-N3 road junction, but after the CRP passed through there’s been no further Soviet movement in that sector. D/3-41 is positioned to stop any future movement there, so I redirect A/2-66 to attack the N3-N75 junction, securing a route of advance for B/2-66, originally tasked with this assault.

To the south, C/2-66, in reserve at the K75-Este crossing, is sent to clean the Soviets out of Holm-Seppensen, and then turn north to drive into Buchholz from the south – again an adaptation of the original plan.

Finally, D/2-66 will attack from the N75-Este crossing along the K72 and retake Sprotze, guarding the southern flank of the main attack by 2-66. A/4-41 will go into reserve along the river line.

A little over six hours elapsed. 2-66 closes on PL Zombie to kick off Phase 4.

2-66’s attack on the N3-N75 junction and Sprotze kicking off Phase 4. I got a little sloppy here and allowed D/2-66 to attack an intact Soviet Tank company in Sprotze piecemeal, by assault. That bit of hubris cost me most of the company. One day I’ll remember that NATO does best at stand-off distances…

The remainder of 2-66’s attack, backed by artillery and a pair of A-10s simply steamrollered the remaining Soviet units. As you can see from the VP totals and the kill claims, the Soviet battle group has essentially ceased to exist. A bit more careful management of my troops could well have saved me enough casualties to give me the 84% necessary for a Decisive Success.

The final tally

Full view of the battlefield at the end of the battle. There are no Soviet units left. The red crosses clearly show the Soviets used a combination of COA-2 and COA-3

All-in-all, it seems like my plan worked pretty well this time, with some minor adjustments. While this isn’t always the case, taking the time to use some of the planning processes I’ve outlined in this series of posts does seem to do what the Army wants it to do – help you win battles. Some of the tools might seem to be time consuming to implement at first but with some practice can be used easily and effectively in a wargaming situation. In real combat and training situations, planning like this takes hours, as it should when the stakes are that much higher.

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