Every type of journalism has its repeats. Real estate journalists will write ‘House prices rise again’ a hundred times in their career, political journalists will be forced to declare ‘Government announces policy U-turn’ most weeks, and sports journalists will wear out the rubber on ‘Lewis Hamilton wins grand prix’. In games journalism, our repeat is: ‘War Thunder players leak military documents’.
Since 2019, players of the multiplayer military sim have shared restricted and classified military documents numerous times. Sometimes it’s just to show off something they’ve discovered about a vehicle they love to pilot in the game, other times, it’s been to win an argument. This week may be a new record, however, with two separate leaks of armament manuals.
The first leak was in a discussion of the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet. Players were discussing what weapons could be fitted to the plane, when user Spacenavy90 shared a document, saying, “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 stores control panel ‘SCP’.” Though this may seem like an innocuous, if jargon-laden claim about the specifications of a fighter jet, it turned out there was more going on than you might expect.
A reply to Spacenavy90’s post pointed out that the document was only supposed to be distributed within the US Department of Defence and authorized US Government agencies because it contained “export-controlled technical data”.The punishment for sharing export-controlled data can be as much as $1m per violation and a 10-year prison sentence.
Moderators quickly deleted the document.
One more for luck
You’d think that would be enough federal law-breaking for one week, but two days later, in a thread about the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet, user RanchSauce39 shared a stack of technical manuals about an early version of plane. According to Aerotime, these documents date back to 1998 - 2000, but, while more modern versions of the jet are now available, the F-15E Suite 3 may still be in use today.
The documents appear to have been declassified but, as with the F-16 leak, their dissemination is likely restricted.
After deleting RanchSauce39’s post, a War Thunder community manager posted, (in, I imagine, a slightly strained tone), “Guys, I'm going to say this very clearly for everyone. If you cannot definitively prove something is legally publicly available, fully declassified and without any restrictions, do not post it at all.”
On the surface, this can seem like a funny story about passionate war game fans sharing things they’ve found without thinking. And you would hope that they wouldn’t be able to lay their hands on too sensitive a document without a clearance level that would bring a level of responsibility with it. But, that isn’t always the case.
Back in 2019, a player claiming to be a Challenger 2 tank commander tried to convince developer Gaijin Entertainment that it hadn’t modeled the vehicle correctly. To make their point, they shared extracts from the tank’s user manual. They had blanked out bits of information, but the UK’s Ministry of Defence contacted Gaijin’s moderators to tell them the document was still classified and sharing it violated the Official Secrets Act, a crime that can carry a two-year prison sentence. It’s also worth noting that earlier this month, the UK Government sent 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, so these are not military relics, but weapons systems in active use.
Basically, if you want to make a point on a game forum, don’t share a classified military document – just make a meme like everyone else.
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Julian's been writing about video games for more than a decade. In that time, he's always been drawn to the strange intersections between gaming and the real world, like when he interviewed a NASA scientist who had become a Space Pope in EVE Online, or when he traveled to Ukraine to interview game developers involved in the 2014 revolution, or that time he tore his trousers while playing Just Dance with a developer.