Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to mention Gaijin’s origins, expansion, and allegations of its supporting separatists in the Donbas.
Last week, a user on the War Thunder gaming forum named BarteG98PL posted a complete technical manual for the AH-64D Apache Longbow – a modernized iteration of the long-serving helicopter gunship that entered service in 1997 and continues to fly for the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and several other nations. Based on our research, this could be as high as the 30th time a document of this sort has found its way into War Thunder’s forums.
With yet another batch of restricted documents now apparently leaked on forums associated with this popular game, these breaches of security have gone from semi-comedic novelty to what sure seems like a legitimate threat to the national security of more than one nation… But are they really?
In this era of internet trends collecting steam as they roll down the hill of online hyperbole, it can be difficult to assess just how grievous these breaches truly are, let alone how or why these leaks keep happening. But based on our findings, the ever-growing tale of War Thunder leaks seems to be less of a story about secrets being revealed by gamers, and more like media outlets and social media users really liking the idea of secrets being revealed by gamers.
What is War Thunder anyway?
War Thunder touts itself as “the most comprehensive free-to-play, cross-platform, MMO military game” available on various computer operating systems and console platforms. That modern acronym, MMO, stands for Massively Multiplayer Online, which denotes the ability to play in a single server shared with a large number of other real players.
The game advertises the player’s ability to control a wide variety of very real military platforms, ranging from aircraft to armored vehicles, to various warships and more. And it’s that ability to simulate combined-arms combat, along with its apparent dedication to realism, that has inspired a loyal fanbase since its initial beta release in 2012, followed by a mobile version of the game released for smartphone users just this year.
“The game is great for a combination of realism for some players, and arcade for others,” explains U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Ethan Long. Long is a Patriot Fire Control Operator and Maintainer by day, and a popular TikTok and YouTube content creator who goes by the name Habitual Line Crosser by night.
War Thunder‘s ability to pit vast numbers of real people against one another in highly realistic combined-arms battles, as well as the ability to play the game for free, has cultivated a massive player community. According to the gaming statistics site ActivePlayer.io, War Thunder sees a jaw-dropping 500,00 to 700,000 players each day. But War Thunder‘s online presence extends far beyond the confines of the game itself, with countless digital communities devoted to game-related discussions found throughout the world’s digital common areas like Steam, Reddit, and, of course, War Thunder’s official forum.
At the time of writing this piece, the official forum on Warthunder.com has a stated 31,885 users, and the War Thunder subreddit has more than 391,000. And despite writing this at 11 AM on a Wednesday morning, Steam not only shows more than 100,000 discussion threads related to War Thunder, but a mind-boggling 82,667 users currently playing the game through its platform and 3,000 more in the game’s group chat.
It’s safe to say that, while the MMO aspect of this game may scare off some old-timers like me, War Thunder has a massive following that includes many military technology enthusiasts and even many who are currently serving or have served in military forces around the world. But while its realism serves as a big part of War Thunder‘s international allure, it can also become the subject of some seriously heated debates within the game’s various online communities.
Why do leaks keep happening on War Thunder forums?
For most players like Long, War Thunder’s realism adds to the fun of the game.
“The realism and simulation modes take [War Thunder] to the next level,” Long tells us. Aside from managing his growing media empire and serving on active duty, Long is also an avid gamer. “Level of penetration, weapons range, angle of the target, location of ammo storage… All of these things are taken into account.”
Long says that players who study real military systems often excel during gameplay, but for a handful of obsessive players, any departure from that realism can quickly become a sore spot… or even, an obsession. Debates about system capabilities are commonplace in the War Thunder forums, and sometimes, these debates lead to players posting restricted documents as proof that they’re right.
As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, there have been between 11 and 30 leaks of restricted documents in War Thunder forums so far (depending on how you count them), with the earliest dating back to July of 2021 and the most recent occurring just a few days ago. The problem has become so prominent that the War Thunder Wikipedia page has an entire section devoted to these leaks, though, to date, only 11 of the leaks we’ve identified are listed within it.
Of course, not all of the leaks that we could confirm to date came as a result of digital mudslinging. Some of these leaks came from motivated players who wanted to see their favorite platforms hurried into the game. They hoped that by providing very real technical data to the programmers at Hungarian-based Gaijin Entertainment – the developers behind War Thunder – they could expedite the process of getting them fielded on the virtual battlefield.
Gaijin, it is worth noting, may be headquartered in Budapest, Hungary these days, but it was actually founded in Moscow in 2002 by twin brothers Anton and Kirill Yudintsev. In 2012, the firm expanded into Germany and has since opened additional offices in Latvia, Cyprus, Armenia, and the United Arab Emirates. More than one gamer has accused War Thunder of embellishing the capabilities of Russian military hardware to give them an advantage, though these claims are hotly disputed by others within the player community.
The company was accused of providing indirect financial support to Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine in January of 2021 after logos for War Thunder and another popular Gaijin game, Crossout, were seen in a video tied to these groups. The company denied any involvement in the video in a statement released soon thereafter.
“We do not provide political support to anyone anywhere. We know nothing about politics and prefer to stay out of it. Our agency that ordered an ad in the video in question took it down when they realized they might drag us into a political discussion. We have nothing more to comment regarding this, we prefer to talk about games and games only,” reads the Gaijin statement.
So, with all that context out of the way, let’s run through each of the leaks to date, the systems or platforms that were compromised, and the severity of the breach in security to see if we can’t assess if the War Thunder community poses a serious threat to national security… or if it’s just prime headline and meme-fodder in a world full of sensational takes.
I want to make sure to credit Steam user VoidVexy, as his list of leaks in Steam’s War Thunder guide was the most extensive I could find in my research.
All of the War Thunder leaks so far (and how serious each was)
UHT-665 Eurocopter Tiger
Date of Leak: Possibly 7/16/2021
System’s Nation of Origin: France/Germany
What was leaked: According to media sources, the armor layout of the Eurocopter Tiger. This leak is particularly difficult to nail down, as the post has been deleted and different media sources claim the leak occurred in July of 2021, while other sources claim it occurred in late 2022.
Severity: Because this rotorcraft has been in service across multiple nations over the span of two decades, it’s unlikely that adversary nations do not have any reference material regarding its armor layout, but without more information regarding exactly what was leaked, assessing its strategic value is difficult.
Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank
Date of Leak: 7/17/2021
System’s Nation of Origin: U.K.
What was leaked: A player who self-identified as a Challenger 2 Tank commander in the UK military posted excerpts from the tank’s AESP (Army Equipment Support Publication) to prove that the game developer didn’t “model” the Challenger 2 properly in the game. The AESP is, for lack of a better term, a user manual of sorts, which outlines things like maintenance and repair operations for operators.
The player claimed to be a Challenger 2 tank commander out of the Tidworth garrison in Wiltshire, which is the home of a Challenger 2 regiment. He also claimed to be a former member of the UK’s Armoured Trials and Development Unit and a qualified instructor in armored fighting vehicles and tank gunnery among other things.
The user wrote:
“Linking those screenshots with the following edited image from the AESP’s which is meant to show the relationship of the various components. The image isn’t exactly to scale as its only meant to show the position of components relative to each other but it works for the point I’m trying to make here. The trunnion’s sit centrally of the rotor. The trunnions support the rotor in the turret structure and the GCE sub components as previously stated are all mounted to the rotor.”
According to multiple sources, the documents had the words, “UK RESTRICTED” crossed out, with an “unclassified” stamp over them, and did have some portions covered over.
According to a forum moderator, they received written confirmation that the images posted remained classified at the time. They posted the following response:
Severity: While certainly restricted, the document leaked was, in effect, the Challenger 2’s user manual, which is fairly widely distributed to all Challenger 2 crewmen and maintainers both within and beyond the UK’s borders. As such, it’s somewhat unlikely that this leak provided adversary powers with information they were not already able to gain access to during the quarter-century this tank has been in service.
LeClerk Main Battle Tank
Date of Leak: 10/6/2021
System’s Nation of Origin: France
What was leaked: During a debate about the turret rotation speed of the LeClerk main battle tank, one user – who claimed to be a LeClerk crewman in the French Army – resorted to posting portions of the tank gunner’s manual along with some details about the speed in which the turret in the LeClerk Series 2 tank they served in could rotate.
After the user’s claims were not taken at face value during the debate:
The same user then returned to post portions of the platform’s gunnery manual in an attempt to prove that they were correct.
Within a few hours, the document was taken down and the moderators served up a heap of admonishment for the breach of security.
Severity: Once again, despite the information in this manual being restricted, the manual itself is fairly widely distributed among tank crews and maintainers. As a result, it’s unlikely that adversary nations gained any new insight into the platform or its performance as a result of this leak.
DTC10-125 Armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS)
Date of Leak: 6/5/22
System’s Nation of Origin: China
What was leaked: In the first leak to emerge in the War Thunder forums from a non-NATO nation, a debate about the penetration capabilities of the Chinese DTC10-125 tungsten penetrator, a tank-killing round leveraged by a variety of China’s tanks, one user posted an image of the round resting atop what appears to be a previously unreleased technical diagram of the weapon.
Severity: Although the technical diagram shown in the image does not appear to have ever been released to the public, we were able to verify that most of the information visible has been released in various foreign sales brochures and similar documentation (though to be clear, it’s possible that some of this information hadn’t been previously).
Likewise, we found multiple reports that this image had been shared on other websites previously, particularly some within Chinese internet websites, but we were unable to conclusively prove it. However, because we were able to verify much of this information was already publicly available rather quickly, it seems unlikely this leak truly compromised secret details about this weapon.
F-15E Strike Eagle
Date of Leak: 1/18/2023
System’s Nation of Origin: U.S.
What was leaked: In what may be among the largest leaks of restricted documents, a slew of Operational Flight Program (OFP) software manuals for various F-15E Strike Eagle systems were all uploaded at once by an overzealous user. The list included manuals for the AN/APG 70 radar, as well as more specific manuals for the radars operating in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes, among others.
Severity: All of these documents were dated between 1998 and 2000, and to be clear, they’re all from Operational Flight Program Suite 3, which has been subject to a series of updates and replacement efforts in the years since. The Air Force fielded OFP Suite 9.1 in the Strike Eagle in Fall, 2022 – making these documents rather dated. That does not, however, mean there are no commonalities between the dated systems and their more modern iterations.
The documents themselves were declassified, though their distribution is still considered restricted. Nonetheless, because of the age and fairly widespread dissemination of these documents, it’s unlikely they produced any revelations for adversary nations.
F-16A Fighting Falcon
Date of Leak: 1/18/23
System’s Nation of Origin: U.S.
What was leaked: Shortly after the F-16 Fighting Falcon was introduced to the game, one user took to the forums to highlight something about how the F-16A leveraged America’s long-serving radar-guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missile, or AMRAAM, along with documents to support his position.
“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”,” the user wrote.
In this context, TWS stands for “track while scan,” MFD stands for “multi-function display,” and SCP stands for “Stores Control Panel.” The Stores Control Panel has since been replaced by the Multi-Function Display.
Severity: As you might imagine, documentation associated with the F-16A, which is the earliest iteration of the fighter that began production more than 45 years ago, is rather dated – and the documents themselves have been declassified. However, moderators argued that sharing these documents still amounted to a violation of America’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export manual.
With 25 or so countries operating the F-16 and these documents being both widely distributed and rather dated, it’s unlikely this leak resulted in any actionable intelligence for foreign adversaries.
Date of Leak: 1/31/23
System’s Nation of Origin: China
What was leaked: Despite entering service in 1980, China’s J8 can be thought of, to some extent, as an enlarged and improved version of China’s previous J7 – itself a licensed copy of the Soviet MiG-21 that’s been flying since the 1950s. The J8-B, however, saw significant reworking, incorporating more modern design elements borrowed from aircraft like the MiG-23 and F-4 Phantom to keep it competitive.
This time, the leak came as a result of a user’s complaint about the game’s depiction of the J8-B’s avionics – specifically, its ballistic computer in the Heads Up Display lacking a Constantly Computed Impact Point (CCIP) to show the pilot where their ordnance would impact.
Along with his argument, the user also posted a file called “Printout for the modification of J-8II, pt. Flight Operations,” said to be “composed by Institute 601, Ministry of Astronautics Industry.”
Severity: Despite being rather dated, the J-8 is actually still in service, transitioning from its original interceptor role to serve as a “scout aircraft” in China’s air force. Because these aircraft have not been sold to foreign operators, it stands to reason that documentation regarding its avionics may be limited, so it is possible this leak resulted in some gained insight into the fighter’s onboard systems, but significant value remains unlikely, particularly since the aircraft’s radar and fire control systems were updated in 2000.
Eurofighter Typhoon DA7
Date of Leak: 8/30/23
System’s Nation of Origin: France/Germany
What was leaked: In a first for War Thunder leaks, this time a restricted document wasn’t uploaded to win an argument, but instead because the user really wanted another aircraft added to the game as a playable platform. To expedite that process, the user uploaded a complete 730-page manual for a specific Typhoon prototype known as Development Aircraft 7 (DA7). The DA7 prototype was built for testing by the Italian Armed Forces.
Severity: Once again, nothing in the document posted was considered “classified,” with seven of its pages marked as “NATO Unclassified” and the rest marked as “NATO Restricted” – denoting that these portions were not meant to be shared outside of NATO member nations.
This specific document has been available online in other places for a few years now, which is likely where the user got his hands on it in the first place. As such, it’s unlikely this leak resulted in any actionable intelligence for adversary nations.
Date of Leak: 9/11/23
System’s Nation of Origin: U.S.
What was leaked: According to multiple media sources, one user in the War Thunder forums leaked a series of screenshots taken of the F-117A’s flight manual, allegedly showing engine specifications, sensor locations, and more. Unlike in previous instances, where moderators simply removed the documents uploaded, the entire thread was taken down after the leak was identified.
Severity: Once again, this leak was not of “classified” materials, but rather material that is generally considered to be restricted, despite its availability to the public. In fact, a simple Google search for the F-117’s flight manual produces a number of interesting results that share more information than could be gleaned by these War Thunder leaks.
AH-64D Apache Longbow
Date of Leak: 9/15/23
Nation of Origin: U.S.
What was leaked: The Apache Longbow began production in 1997 and remains in service for a long list of nations including the United States. Once again, a debate between users prompted one to post a link to the helicopter’s technical manual in an effort to prove a point. The post was once again taken down by moderators and the user who uploaded it has been suspended.
Severity: Once more, the document uploaded is considered unclassified, though the documents themselves are said to have been marked “DOD AND DOD CONTRACTORS ONLY.” However, once more, you can easily find this manual in its entirety online with the right search terms, suggesting the intelligence value of this leak was all but moot.
MiG-29 and Su-57
Date of Leaks: 12/22 – 1/23
Systems’ Nation of Origin: Russia
What was leaked: In the first leak out of Russia, debate about the capability of the nation’s 4th and 5th generation fighters ultimately led to the posting of two different documents. One of these leaks highlights the Sukhoi Su-57’s radar cross-section, while the other focuses on the radar system capabilities of the MiG-29.
Severity: Once more, despite the restricted nature of at least one of these documents, the information contained within was hardly groundbreaking. While the thread has been taken down, the document showing the Su-57’s poor stealth performance was likely the Sukhoi patent paperwork that has been making the rounds on the internet for some time. Likewise, the excerpts from the MiG-29 user manual are equally easy to come by. In fact, the entire manual itself is available for download from multiple sources online.
So, what’s the real story with the War Thunder leaks?
As is so often the case when stories about military technology reach the mainstream media, the real driver behind media coverage of these “leaks” isn’t their technical value at all, but rather, the public’s general interest in the story as a seemingly endless source of highly meme-able hot takes.
Throughout our research into these War Thunder leaks, we have been unable to identify anything that might provide foreign adversary nations with any truly valuable intelligence. In fact, aside from a few cases where the language barrier may have inhibited our ability to search through foreign websites, we were able to locate alternate sources for these documents all over the web. Often, these alternate sources had been hosting the documents for years, and in many, the documents remain available even after War Thunder moderators nuked the leaks on their forum.
Of course, that isn’t to say that posting these documents in an online forum is a good idea. It, of course, isn’t. But the truth is that national governments devote significant resources to gaining access to legitimately classified documents and designs, scour digital spaces for actionable intelligence, and go to great lengths to manipulate program insiders into revealing the latest breakthroughs in Defense technology.
For these War Thunder leaks to have real value to adversary nations, it would suggest that these nations have access to the War Thunder forums… but not the rest of the internet where these documents remain available.
At the end of the day, the War Thunder leaks story is an exploration into how pop culture shapes media coverage — with a number of outlets bending over backward to infer the severity of these leaks, but few making much of an effort to determine their actual severity at all. In a real way, a great deal of the coverage associated with these leaks could be summed up by the old adage, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.“
Of course, as our friend Habitual Line Crosser puts it, serious or not, “the cyber training guy would be very disappointed in War Thunder players.“
Read more from Sandboxx News
- Complete the mission or follow the rules? Air Force tests AI in flight experiment
- The Navy SEALs’ two original and little-known missions
- The US Intelligence Community has a new strategy for the future
- How will I do when that time comes? Men in combat
- Ingenious and effective improvised weapons created by US troops