A leak of high-authorization F-16 Fighting Falcon documents was posted to the War Thunder discussion forum in mid-January, sparking questions about the security and reasoning behind some U.S. federal document restrictions.
War Thunder is an online multiplayer combat video game developed by Gaijin Entertainment. The game features air, ground, and sea vehicles from the interwar period up until the late 1970s. A recent content update to War Thunder added the American F-16 Fighting Falcon and Soviet MiG-29 for players to battle with.
On January 15, 2023, user “spacenavy90” was discussing the new addition to the game when he made a note about the fighter jet’s radar system, claiming that the jet would equip experimental missiles and use special radar modes for enemy detection during testing. To back up this information, he cited four technical reports by U.S. government contractors.
A day later, another user, called “MiG_23M,” asked spacenavy90 about the restriction status of the provided documents. Soon after, forum moderators and users learned that each document was labeled X or E, which are the distribution codes for “Export Controlled” and “DoD [Department of Defense] Only.”
Within the next day, the documents were deleted and the War Thunder community manager contacted spacenavy90 to discuss proceedings from that point forward.
Gaijin Entertainment made a statement to PC Gamer, where it states, “…As far as we know, these documents are considered export restricted and are not meant to be shared or used by unauthorized people. We always delete posts containing classified or restricted information from our forum as soon as possible. We forbid our users to share documents like this on our platforms. We remind our users again and again that it’s both illegal and pointless, so they should never do that. We never use documents like this in our work…The documents themselves were in fact posted via links to a third-party Discord server, so they were never actually uploaded to our own servers. In any case, we made sure that those links are not available to the visitors of our forum or our employees.”
While it’s an unexpected source for a leak incident, it might be surprising to hear that this isn’t the first or even second time that the War Thunder forum’s users have leaked restricted military documentation. By some counts, it’s the fifth. Some of the highlights include:
- Classified images of Britain’s still-in-use main battle tank, the Challenger 2 in July of 2021.
- Classified statistics and details on the turret of the Leclerc Séries 2, France’s still-in-use main battle tank in October of 2021.
- Classified images and information pertaining to China’s newest 125mm APFSDS (Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot) rounds in June of 2022. These are the main tank-killing rounds of the People’s Liberation Army.
All of the aforementioned leakers had their posted content deleted, but their accounts remained in good standing, except for the user who leaked information on the Chinese shell. His account was permanently deleted.
It may be instinctual to see these scandals and laugh, but they also beg two questions that are imperative to confront and resolve.
First, the information revealed admittedly is likely no longer a threat to national security—the U.S. has long phased out the old models of F-16 that the testing documents were referring to, and the experiments in the mentioned projects are now a footnote in aviation history. Why was such information restricted, and what else is the U.S. government keeping from historians and modern researchers?
Second, assuming there was some obscure reason for the information to still be restricted, if gamers can easily find and leak restricted information, sometimes without being noticed for days, how can governments and companies like Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman claim to be able to keep real secrets on technological intricacies to keep citizens safe?