Every type of journalism has its repetitions. Real estate journalists will write “House prices are rising again” a hundred times in their careers, political journalists will be forced to announce “The government announces a turnaround in politics” most weeks, and sports journalists will run out of rubber on “Lewis Hamilton wins big prize”. In gaming journalism we say, “War Thunder players reveal military documents.”
Since 2019, military simulation multiplayer gamers share proprietary and classified military documents many times. Sometimes they just want to show off something they’ve discovered about a vehicle they love to pilot in the game, other times to win an argument. This week, however, could be a new record with two separate leaks of the weapons manual.
The first leak was in a discussion of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Players were discussing what weapons could be mounted on the plane when user Spacenavy90 shared the document (opens in a new tab)saying, “An interesting thing I found during my research. Early AMRAAM testing could see the F-16A equipping the AIM-120 and using TWS on the non-MFD “SCP” stores control panel. While it may seem like a harmless, if jargon-filled, claim about fighter specs, it turned out that there is more going on than you might expect.
Reply to Spacenavy90’s post (opens in a new tab) pointed out that the document was to be distributed only within the U.S. Department of Defense and authorized U.S. government agencies because it contained “export-controlled technical data.” The penalty for sharing export-controlled data can be up to $1 million per violation (opens in a new tab) and 10 years in prison.
Moderators quickly removed the document.
One more for luck
You’d think that would be enough for breaking federal law for a week, but two days later, in a thread about the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle, user RanchSauce39 shared a stack of technical manuals for an early version of the plane. According to Air time (opens in a new tab)these documents date from 1998-2000, but while more modern versions of the jet are now available, the F-15E Suite 3 may still be in use.
The documents appear to have been declassified, but as with the F-16 leak, their dissemination is likely limited.
After deleting RanchSauce39’s post, published the War Thunder community manager (opens in a new tab)(I imagine, in a slightly tense tone): “Guys, I’m going to say this very clearly for everyone. If you can’t conclusively prove that something is legally open to the public, fully declassified and unrestricted, don’t publish it at all.”
At first glance, this may seem like a funny story about avid wargame fans who share the things they find without thinking. And you’d hope they wouldn’t be able to get their hands on an overly sensitive document without a level of permission that would carry a level of responsibility. But that’s not always the case.
In 2019, a player claiming to be a Challenger 2 tank commander tried to convince developer Gaijin Entertainment that he had not modeled the vehicle correctly. To prove their point, they shared excerpts from the tank’s manual. They erased bits of the information, but the UK Ministry of Defense contacted Gaijin’s moderators to tell them that the document was still classified and that releasing it violated the Official Secrets Act, an offense punishable by two years in prison. It is also worth noting that earlier this month the UK government sent 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, so these are not military relics but active weapon systems.
Basically, if you want to say something on the game forum, don’t share a secret military document – just make a meme like everyone else.