In the sixth such instance, excitable players of the free online War Thunder game posted sensitive documents of another military platform, this time of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, on the game’s discussion forum.
As usual, the game company’s developers and forum moderators took down the documents, which were otherwise not classified, but still had restricted distribution authorization.
French, British, US & Chinese Weapons Compromised
Since 2021, War Thunder players have posted sensitive information about the British Challenger-2 Main Battle Tank (MBT), French Leclerc, Chinese DTC-10215 anti-armor shells, its Type-99 MBT, and the Eurocopter attack helicopter.
However, a section of military observers believes that while the data is sensitive, it does not entirely compromise the weapons platform. Moreover, private weapons manufacturers sometimes publicize key performance and technical specifications to attract buyers.
Such commercial issues are also intrinsically linked to the gaming industry’s proliferation, spurred by a spurt in military affairs, conflicts, and wars over the last decade.
That the players’ motivations in posting such documents are convincing either the developers or other players of the actual physical characteristics of the weapons and expecting that to reflect in the in-game experience is a testament to this phenomenon.
The game, developed by the Budapest headquartered Gaijin Entertainment, involves players battling each other with an array of historical and modern military vehicles. A post by user ‘spacenavy90’ on the game’s chat forum on January 16, 2023, triggered the latest controversy.
“Interesting thing I found during my research. During early AMRAAM testing, you can see how F-16A would equip the AIM-120 and use TWS on the non-MFD store’s control panel ‘SCP,'” the user said.
The moderator immediately pointed to the “Restricted” label on the document and that publishing it would be banned before immediately removing it. Although the restricted nature of the document has expired, its distribution is still controlled and can be interpreted to violate national security laws.
Interestingly, the F-16 is one of the aircraft Ukraine had been initially keen on getting from the United States to change its aerial campaign against Russia from an air denial to an offensive mode.
However, the US and European allies have long ruled out sending larger offensive platforms to prevent escalating the war and being directly drawn into the conflict.
War Thunder Has THUNDERED With Military Leaks Before
The first leak involved Britain’s Challenger-2 MBT in 2021, where one player, identifying himself as a Challenger 2 commander, posted its user manual to convince the game’s developers to revamp the in-game model of the tank and bring it closer to reality.
The document was an Army Equipment Support Publication (AESP), sort of like a user manual, that nevertheless had the label “Restricted” crossed out, stamped as “Unclassified,” and had large parts redacted. This and the fact that the user claimed to have served in Tidworth – home to the Royal Tank Regiment – meant it is unlikely he was lying, and the document was indeed not deemed technically sensitive.
The British MoD still replied to Gaijin that the document remained classified, which the moderator communicated on the forum and took it down.
This must have been for safety reasons. Not to mention how it is still embarrassing to have detailed technical specifications of an MBT sitting on the internet, on an unserious platform like a computer game, for the frivolous desire of more realistic virtual entertainment that undermines real-world military concerns and from someone as senior as a tank commander.
This was followed by another user, claiming to have served in a French army tank unit, revealing the French Leclerc S2’s turret rotation speed. This, however, isn’t a very serious revelation since armament experts and military watchers can draw accurate estimates of the same by watching publicity videos.
Subsequently, restricted documents about the Chinese DTC10-125 anti-armor shells and Type-99 MBT were also uploaded. This was followed by posting documents about the Eurocopter Tiger’s armor layout. Immediately after the F-16 leak, there was another post about the US’ F-15E Strike Eagle, which too was deleted by the moderator.
Passion Over Prudence
While Gaijin has repeatedly modified the forum rules, reached out to players with warnings, and taken down the posts promptly, it has been in vain. Discussions on military technology get passionate and heated and drive players to prove their point by posting such documents.
EurAsian Times spoke to a former Indian Army Military Intelligence Corps officer, who said cyber agencies have long been worried about espionage through inadvertent internet disclosures.
“But these involve honey trapping of serving military personnel and other forms of phishing scams on social media. They seek information not available on open source internet, so these documents are not very serious.
Documents that are top secret about military projects that a country wouldn’t want other nations to know would not be online in the first place and would be carried by a spy in a separate memory device for his handlers. Had they been severe, there would have been news reports about the game users and the military personnel being arrested,” he added.
The former spy isn’t entirely wrong. What has been posted so far have been user manual-like documents that are otherwise not vital to a battle plan or how an enemy can counter a piece of military equipment.
Even the players claiming to be military men, as in the Challenger and the Leclerc case, might be regular persons with mere knowledge of military administrative jargon with which they claimed their service history. But the game becoming a platform for major operational security (OPSEC) violations cannot be ruled out either, calling for tighter controls by military authorities of its personnel and their internet activities.