Epaulettes of commander-in-chief of November Uprising Jan Skrzynecki

A commander-in-chief is the commander of a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces. In the latter case, the force element may be defined as those forces within a particular region or those forces which are associated by function. As a practical term it refers to the military competencies that reside in a nation-state's executive, head of state or government. Often, a given country's commander-in-chief need not be or have been a commissioned officer or even a veteran, and it is by this legal statute that civilian control of the military is realized in states where it is constitutionally required.

The role of commander-in-chief derives from the Latin, imperator. Imperatores (commanders-in-chief) of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire possessed imperium (command) powers. In its modern usage, the term was first used by King Charles of England in 1639. A nation's head of state usually holds the position of national commander-in-chief, even if effective executive power is held by a separate head of government. Colonial governors are also often appointed commander-in-chief of the military forces in their colonies. Examples are Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces North, or Commander-in-Chief East Atlantic.

A Commander-in-Chief is sometimes referred to as Supreme Commander, which is sometimes used as a specific term. The term is also used for military officers who hold such power and authority, not always through dictatorship, and as a subordinate (usually) to a head of state. The term is also used for officers that hold authority over individual branches or within a theatre of operations[1]

Within NATO and the European Union, the term Chief of Defence (CHOD) is usually used as a generic term for the highest military commanders of the NATO and EU member states, irrespective of their actual title.



Under chapter II of section 68 titled Command of the naval and military forces, the Constitution of Australia states that: "The commander in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor General as the Queen's representative."

The current Queen of Australia is HM Elizabeth II and the current Governor General is Quentin Bryce.

In practice, however, the Governor-General does not play an active part in the ADF's command structure, and the elected Australian Government controls the ADF. The Minister for Defence and several subordinate ministers exercise this control.


The Commander-in-Chief is the President, although executive power and responsibility for national defense resides with the Prime Minister. The only exception was the first C-in-C, General M. A. G. Osmany, during Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, who was commander of all Bangladesh Forces, reinstated to active duty by official BD government order, which after independence was gazetted in 1972. He retired in April 7 of 1972 and relinquished all authority and duties to the President of Bangladesh.[2]


Article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 states that the supreme commander of the Armed Forces is the President of the Republic. That office is currently occupied by Dilma Rousseff.


Currently His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces.


Queen Elizabeth II of Canada in her role as Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Militia, Naval, and Air Forces, pictured with the crew of HMCS St. Laurent in Stockholm, Sweden, 11 June 1956.

The current Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces (in French: Commandant en chef des Forces canadiennes) is Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. The powers of this position are constitutionally vested in the Canadian sovereign and are delegated by him or her to the Governor General of Canada, who may also use the title Commander-in-Chief. Government ministers may sometimes exercise the powers of command; however, it is ultimately the monarch who has constitutional power over the armed forces and in whose name it is exercised. The sovereign may also stop any attempts to use the Canadian Forces unconstitutionally.


According to the Croatian constitution, the President of Croatia is the Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia. In peace, the Commander-in-Chief exercises his command through the Minister of Defense. In war and in cases where the Minister of Defense is not fulfilling orders, the Commander-in-Chief exercises his command directly through the chief of General Staff.


According to the Constitution of the Denmark, the head-of-state is the commander-in-chief. The head-of-state of Denmark is the Queen, however, the government of Denmark is the actual commander-in-chief although no military action that does not serve the purpose of defending Danish territory require approval by the Danish parliament (Folketinget).


In Egypt the President of the Republic holds the ceremonial title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces while a member of the Government holds the position Commander-in-Chief. This person tends to be the Minister for Defence. The President still remains the only individual capable of declaring war. So far all Egyptian presidents have been former military officers, and during the Yom Kippur War the President played a major role at all levels of the planning of the war, and was in a literal sense Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces giving direct orders to the commanders from the headquarters during the war as field marshal of the army, colonel general of the air force and air defence forces and admiral of the navy. Anwar el-Sadat often wore his military uniform, while Hosni Mubarak, the last permanent president to date, had abandoned this tradition.


According to the Finnish constitution, the President of Finland is the Commander-in-Chief of all Finnish military forces. In practice, the everyday command and control is in the hands of Chief of Defence and the Commander of the Finnish Border Guard. The economic administration of the Finnish Defence Force is the responsibility of Ministry of Defence. Since the constitutional reform of 2000, the minister of defence has the right to be present while the president uses her command powers, unless the matter is of immediate concern. In questions of strategic importance, the prime minister has the same right.

The President commissions officers and decides on the mobilisation of the Defence Forces. If Parliament is not in session when a decision to mobilise is taken, it must be immediately convened. A declaration of war is made by a presidential decree, which must be afterwards accepted by the parliament.


In France, the President of the Republic, currently Nicolas Sarkozy holds the title of "Chef des Armées" ("Chief of the Armies"). He is the supreme authority for military affairs, and is the only competent authority for the use of nuclear weapons.

Since the reign of Louis XIV France has been strongly centralized. After crushing local nobles engaged in warlordism, the Kings of France retained all authority with the help of able yet discreet Prime ministers (Mazarin, Richelieu).

The 1789 Revolution transferred the supreme authority to the King (in the context of the short-lived constitutional Monarchy), then to the multi-member Comité de Salut Public during the Convention, and later to the Directoire, before being regained in the hands of Consul Napoléon Bonaparte, later Emperor Napoléon I, alone.

The Restoration restored authority of the King, in an absolute, then constitutional way before being overthrown by the Second Empire. The following Third Republic was a parliamentary system, where the military authority was held by the President of the Council (Prime Minister).

During World War II, Maréchal Philippe Pétain assumed power and held the supreme authority in Vichy France, while Général Charles De Gaulle, acting on behalf of the previous regime, founded the Free French Forces, upon which he held supreme authority all through the war.

The following and short-lived Fourth Republic was a parliamentary system, which was replaced by the present Fifth Republic, a semi-presidential system.



During the German Empire, Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, whoever was head of state---the Kaiser to 1918, the Reichspräsident to 1934 and Adolf Hitler from 1934---was Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Each branch had its own commander-in-chief, holding the highest rank---in the case of the Reichsheer, a Generaloberst; in the Reichsmarine, an Admiral.

When Adolf Hitler assumed power, he granted his war minister, Werner von Blomberg, the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. However, in 1938, Hitler took the title of Commander-in-Chief himself and assumed personal command of the Armed Forces.

West Germany (later united Germany)

Upon the remilitarization of West Germany in 1955, when it joined NATO, the Grundgesetz was amended to include constitutional provisions for command of the armed forces. In peacetime, the Federal Minister of Defence (Bundesminister der Verteidigung) is the commander-in-chief of the Bundeswehr. If the Bundestag (parliament) declares the state of defence (Verteidigungsfall), the Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) assumes command of the German armed forces. As of 2011, this has never happened.

East Germany

The parliament of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Volkskammer, enacted on 13 February 1960 the "Law on the Formation of the National Defense Council of the GDR", which established a council consisting of a chairman and at least 12 members. This was later incorporated into the GDR Constitution in April 1968. The National Defense Council held the supreme command of the GDR's armed forces (including the internal security forces), and the Council's chairman (usually the General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party) was considered the GDR's commander-in-chief. The GDR joined with the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990, upon which the GDR's constitution and armed forces were abolished.

Hong Kong

When Hong Kong was a British colony the Governor was ex officio Commander-in-Chief of British Forces Overseas Hong Kong. (After the transfer of sovereignty the commander of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison are PLA personnel from the mainland China.)


The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces vests in the President, although effective executive power and responsibility for national defence resides with the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. This is discharged through the Ministry of Defence headed by Defence Minister, which provides the policy framework and resources to the Armed Forces to discharge their responsibilities in the context of the defence of the country.

On August 15, 1947, each Service was placed under its own Chief Commander. In 1955, the three Service Chiefs were redesignated as the Chief of the Army Staff (General), the Chief of the Naval Staff (Admiral) and the Chief of the Air Staff (Air Chief Marshal) with President of India as supreme commander.


Before 1979, the Shah was the commander-in-chief in Iran. After the inception of the Islamic Republic, the president of Iran was initially appointed that task with Abolhassan Bani Sadr being the first commander-in-chief. However, Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached in 22 June 1981 when it became known he was a member of the Mujahedin-e Khalq terrorist organisation and had purposefully made decisions that had led to the death of thousands of Iranian soldiers[citation needed]. It was after this event that the role of commander-in-chief was given to the Supreme Leader of Iran.


In Ireland, the Supreme Commander of the Irish Defence Forces is the President of Ireland.


The Constitution of Italy, article 87, states that the President of the Republic: is the commander of the armed forces and chairman of the supreme defense council constituted by law; he declares war according to the decision of the parliament[3]; however, since the president has no direct executive power, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence have the actual control of the armed forces, while the president retains a supervision role.


In accordance with Article 41 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, the King is Commander-in-Chief of the Federation's Armed Forces. As such, he is the highest-ranking officer in the military establishment. As the Supreme Commander of the Malaysian Armed Forces, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong appoints the Chief of the Armed Forces Staff, on the advice of the Armed Forces Council. He also appoints the service heads of each of the three branches of the military.

The Malaysian Constitution establishes that the office of Supreme Commander is attached to the person of the Federal Head of State, Yang di-Pertuan Agong:

  • Federal Constitution, Article 41 - The Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall be the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Federation.

The Federal Armed Forces Act was passed by the Federal Parliament in order to consolidate in one law all the regulations governing the three services ( Army, Navy and Air Force ), it establishes the function and duties of the Federal Head of State in his capacity as Supreme Commander.


In the Republic of Mauritius, the President it is the Head of state and therefore the commander-in-chief.


Before gaining independence in 1968, it was the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II at the time) who was the head of state and therefore commander-in-chief.


After obtaining independence in 1968, Mauritius continued to recognize the Queen as Head of State and commander-in-chief, who was represented by a Governor-General.

After 1992

After the country was proclaimed Commonwealth Republic, the new constitution stipulated that a President would assume the position of the Head of State and hence commander-in-chief.


In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, before the 1973 Constitution, the head of the Army, i.e., the Chief of the Army Staff, was referred as Commander-in-Chief.[citation needed] The term was replaced by Army Chief per recommendation of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission's report.[citation needed] The report also recommended that the President, being the head of state, be referred to as Supreme Commander. (The role of President is only a ceremonial position since the real power rests with the elected Prime Minister, who is the Chief Executive of the state.)[citation needed] Since 1973 these roles have been changed. Today, the President of the Federation holds the real power since most of the Presidents (especially Dictators and Army Rulers) have played a more significant role.[citation needed]

People's Republic of China

Article 93 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China places the authority to direct the armed forces of the PRC in the Central Military Commission. However, Article 80 gives the President of the People's Republic of China the power to proclaim martial law, proclaim a state of war, and issue mobilization orders upon the decision of National People's Congress, the highest state body. Since the mid-1990s, it has been standard practice to have the President, the CMC Chairman, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China be the same person although the differences in the start of terms means that there is some overlap between an occupant and his predecessor.

Republic of China

As stipulated in the national constitution of the Republic of China (commonly known as "Taiwan" since the 1970s), the President of the Republic of China is also the Commander-in-Chief of the ROC's Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Special Forces, and Space program.


In Poland, President is the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. However, the art. 134 ust. 4 of the constitution states: The President of the Republic, for a period of war, shall appoint the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on request of the Prime Minister. He may dismiss the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in accordance with the same procedure. The authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, as well as the principle of his subordination to the constitutional organs of the Republic of Poland, shall be specified by statute.

During the interwar period, the General Inspector of the Armed Forces was appointed the commander-in-chief for the time of war (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces). However, after the war this function ceased to exist thus it is expected that in case of formal participation in war by Poland, Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces will be appointed Supreme Commander.


The President of the Portuguese Republic is the constitutional Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Portugal. However, the operational command is delegated in the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.


According to the Constitution of Russia, the President of Russia is the supreme commander in chief of the Armed Forces. He approves the military doctrine and appoints the defense minister and the chief of the general staff.


In Slovenia, the commander-in-chief is formally the President of Slovenia, although he or she does not exercise this position in peacetime. Instead, this role is usually assumed by the Minister of Defence.


The King of Spain (as of present Juan Carlos I of Spain) is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish Armed Forces.

Sri Lanka

As head of state, the President of Sri Lanka, is nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The National Security Council, chaired by the President is the authority charged with formulating and executing defence policy for the nation. The highest level of military headquarters is the Ministry of Defence, since 1978 except for a few rare occasions the President retained the portfolio defence, thus being the Minister of Defence. The ministry and the armed forces have been controlled by the during these periods by either a Minister of State, Deputy Minister for defence, and of recently the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. Prior to 1978 the Prime Minister held the portfolio of Minister of Defence and External Affairs, and was supported by a Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External Affairs.

Responsibility for the management of the forces is Ministry of Defence, while the planning and execution of combined operations is the responsibility of the Joint Operations Command (JOC). The JOC is headed by the Chief of the Defence Staff who is the most senior officer in the Armed Forces and is an appointment that can be held by an Air Chief Marshal, Admiral, or General. The three services have their own respective professional chiefs: the Commander of the Army, the Commander of the Navy and the Commander of the Air Force, who have much autonomy.


In Suriname, the constitution gives the president "supreme authority over the armed forces and all of its members".[4]


In Sweden – under the Instrument of Government (1809), and until the adoption of the constitution of 1975 – the Monarch was the Commander-in-Chief of all Swedish Armed Forces (Swedish: Krigsmaktens högste befälhavare).

After the new constitution came into effect: the Cabinet, which in turn is led by the Prime Minister of Sweden, holds the highest Executive Authority and is thus the Swedish Commander-in-Chief. Some Government decisions regarding the Armed Forces may be delegated to the Minister for Defence, under the supervision of the Prime Minister and to the extent laid down in law.

However, the Monarch of Sweden (as of present King Carl XVI Gustaf), is still a four-star general and admiral à la suite in the Swedish Army, Navy and Air Force and is by convention the foremost representative of the Swedish Armed Forces. The King has, as part of his Royal Court, a Military Staff. The Staff is headed by a senior officer (usually a General or Admiral, retired from active service) and is manned by military officers serving as aides to the King and his family.

To add to some confusion, the title of the commanding officer of the Armed Forces is actually Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces (Swedish: Överbefälhavaren).


In peacetime, the Armed Forces are led by the Chief of the Armed Forces who has the rank of "Corps commander" (Korpskommandant or Commandant de corps. Ranking OF-8 in NATO equivalence). In a time of declared war or national emergency however, the Federal Assembly appoints a General (OF-9 by NATO) as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The General acts as the highest military authority, but is subordinate to the Federal Council, which holds the supreme authority.

Four generals were appointed in Swiss history, General Henri Dufour during the Swiss Civil War, General Hans Herzog during the Franco-Prussian War, General Ulrich Wille during the First World War, and General Henri Guisan during the Second World War ("la Mob", "the Mobilisation"). Although Switzerland remained neutral during the latter three conflicts, the threat of having its territory used as a battlefield by the much bigger war parties of Germany and France required mobilization of the army.


President of the Republic of Turkey has the constitutional right to represent the Supreme Military Command of the Turkish Armed Forces, on behalf of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and to decide on the mobilization of the Turkish Armed Forces, to appoint the Chief of the General Staff, to call the National Security Council to meet, to preside over the National Security Council, to proclaim martial law or state of emergency, and to issue decrees having the force of law, upon a decision of the Council of Ministers meeting under his/her chairmanship. With all these issues above written in the Constitution of Turkey, the executive rights are given to the President of the Republic of Turkey to be represented as the Commander-in-Chief of the nation.

United Kingdom

Then Chief of the Defence Staff General The Lord Walker (centre) presenting new colours to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 2005.

As head of state, the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is the de jure Head of the Armed Forces.[5] Longstanding constitutional convention, however, has vested the exercise of Royal Prerogative Powers in the Prime Minister, thus making the Prime Minister the de facto Head of the Armed Forces.[6] The Queen, however, remains the "ultimate authority" of the military and retains the power to prevent its unconstitutional use.[7]

The Ministry of Defence is the Government department and highest level of military headquarters charged with formulating and executing defence policy for the Armed Forces; it employed 103,930 civilians in 2006.[8][9] The department is controlled by the Secretary of State for Defence and contains three deputy appointments: Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Minister for Defence Procurement, and Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Responsibility for the management of the forces is delegated to a number of committees: the Defence Council, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Defence Management Board, and three single-service boards. The Defence Council, composed of senior representatives of the services and the Ministry of Defence, provides the "formal legal basis for the conduct of defence".[9][10] The three constituent single-service committees (Admiralty Board, Army Board, and Air Force Board) are chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Chief of the Defence Staff is the professional head of the Armed Forces and is an appointment that can be held by an Admiral, General or Air Chief Marshal (four-star officers). Before the practice was discontinued in the 1990s, those who were appointed to the position of CDS (head of the Armed Forces) had been elevated to the most senior rank in their respective service (a five-star officer).[11] The CDS, along with the Permanent Under Secretary, are the principal advisers to the departmental minister. The three services have their own respective professional chiefs: the First Sea Lord who is also Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff.

Each of the three services also has one or more Commands with a Commander-in-Chief in charge of operations. These are currently Commander-in-Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET - sharing a Command HQ with Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command (CINCNAVHOME)), Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces (CINCLAND) and Commander-in-Chief Air (CINCAIR). Previously, there were also territorial Commands, e.g. Commander-in-Chief Far East.

United States

President George W. Bush, as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, seen walking with NFO Lt. Ryan Phillips towards Navy One at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, May 2003.

The Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces is the President of the United States, according to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution.[12] The current Commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces is Barack Obama, the 43rd person to hold the position.[13]

The amount of military detail handled by the president in wartime has varied dramatically. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and in day-to-day operations during the American Civil War, 1861–1865; historians have given Lincoln high praise for his strategic sense, and his ability to select and encourage commanders such as Ulysses S. Grant.[14] President Lyndon B. Johnson kept a very tight personal control of operations during the Vietnam War, which historians have sharply criticized.[15] On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson paid very little attention to operational military details, and had very little contact with General John J. Pershing, who commanded the armies in the field.[16]

Since 1949, the Secretary of Defense, a civilian appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, is by statute second-in-command over those armed forces which are part of the Department of Defense, i.e. the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marine Corps.[17]

As of 2011, there are nine Combatant Commanders. Six have regional responsibilities, and three have functional responsibilities. The operational branch of the chain of command runs from the President to the United States Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands.[18] Before 2002, the Combatant Commanders were referred to in daily use as "Commanders-in-Chief" (for instance, "Commander in Chief of the U.S. Central Command") even though the office in fact was designated as "Combatant Commander" in the law creating the position.[19] On October 24, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that the use of "Commander-in-Chief" would thereafter be reserved for the President only.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may transmit communications to the Combatant Commanders from the President and Secretary of Defense, but the Chairman does not exercise military command over any combatant forces.


The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is the President of Vietnam, though this position is nominal and real power is assumed by the Central Military Commission of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. The secretary of Central Military Commission (usually the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam) is the de facto Commander. The Minister of National Defense oversees operations of the Ministry of Defence, and the VPA. He also oversees such agencies as the General Staff and the General Logistics Department. However, military policy is ultimately directed by the Central Military Commission of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.

See also


  1. ^ Dupuy, Trevor N., Curt Johnson, and Grace P. Hayes. "Supreme Commander." Dictionary of Military Terms. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1986.
  2. ^ Bangladesh : General M.A.G. Osmani (1918-1984) - C-IN-C Liberation Forces 1v MNH 1986
  3. ^
  4. ^ Suriname Constitution See Article 100
  5. ^ Queen and Armed Forces, In Britain, the term "commander-in-chief" is in fact used for the highest military command of the land forces.
  6. ^ United Kingdom (05/06),
  7. ^ "Whose hand is on the button?". BBC. 2 December 2008. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  8. ^ Civilian personnel by budgetary area and grade equivalence, at 1 April each year,
  9. ^ a b Defence Organisation,
  10. ^ Defence Council and Chief of the Defence Staff,
  11. ^ Hansard (1998), House of Commons Written Answers,
  12. ^ Joseph G. Dawson, ed. Commanders in Chief: Presidential Leadership in Modern Wars (1993)
  13. ^ Carol E. Lee, "President Obama's evolution as commander-in-chief" (2010)
  14. ^ James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander in Chief (2009)
  15. ^ Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (1991)
  16. ^ John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009) ch 18
  17. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 113
  18. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 162
  19. ^ 10 U.S.C. § 164)

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  • Commander in chief — Commander Com*mand er, n. [Cf. F. commandeur. Cf. {Commodore}, {Commender}.] 1. A chief; one who has supreme authority; a leader; the chief officer of an army, or of any division of it. [1913 Webster] A leader and commander to the people. Is. lv …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • commander-in-chief — commander in chiefˈ noun (pl commanders in chief) The officer in supreme command of an army, or of the entire forces of the state • • • Main Entry: ↑command * * * comˌmander in ˈchief [commander in chief commanders in chief] (abbr …   Useful english dictionary

  • commander in chief — n. pl. commanders in chief 1. the supreme commander of the armed forces of a nation, as, in the U.S., the President 2. an officer in command of all armed forces in a certain theater of war …   English World dictionary

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  • commander in chief — pl. commanders in chief. 1. Also, Commander in Chief. the supreme commander of the armed forces of a nation or, sometimes, of several allied nations: The president is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. 2. an officer in… …   Universalium

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