It’s becoming increasingly clear that the quickest way to expose U.S. military secrets is to become a gamer.
Case in point: A War Thunder player recently posted images from the F-117 Nighthawk’s flight manual on a forum that players frequent, marking the 12th time that classified or sensitive information has been shared in the video game’s community, according to Brandon Lyttle, of the Niche Gamer website.
War Thunder, which is developed by Gaijin Entertainment, is a multiplayer game that attempts to give users a hyper-realistic simulation of U.S. and foreign military technologies. The forum’s focus on realism has proved to be its Achilles heel, as players have repeatedly violated OPSEC to make a point or settle an argument.
In this case, the data about the stealth fighter posted by the War Thunder user included locations of its sensors, engine specifications, and firing angles, Niche Gamer first reported on Monday.
Konstantin Govorun, head of public relations for Gaijin Entertainment, confirmed that a user had posted information from the F-117 manual on War Thunder.
Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.
“Our moderators quickly nuked the post, deleted the files and banned the user,” Govorun told Task & Purpose on Thursday. “This is probably 12th time this happens.”
After making its first flight in 1981, the F-117 Nighthawk made its combat debut eight years later as part of the U.S. invasion of Panama. F-117s then flew 1,271 combat sorties during the 1991 Gulf War. In March 1999, an F-117 was shot down over Serbia and the pilot was later rescued. Four years later, F-117s flew the first airstrikes of the Iraq war.
Even though the Air Force retired the stealth aircraft in 2008, the service has continued to fly F-117s from the secretive Tonopah air base in Nevada. Plane spotters occasionally post pictures of those F-117s passing overhead, including some flights spotted over Los Angeles. Those aircraft are widely believed to be testbeds for new technologies. As of 2019, the Air Force still had 51 F-117 stealth fighters in storage.
When asked about the posting of information about the F-117 on War Thunder, an Air Force spokesperson told Task & Purpose that the U.S. government has urged companies to avoid allowing the distribution of information that is “detrimental to public safety and national security.”
This is the latest example of classified or sensitive information being posted on War Thunder. In 2021, a War Thunder player who claimed the video game had not accurately depicted what the British Challenger-2 main battle tank is capable of posted an image taken from the tank’s technical manual. The following year, War Thunder users posted sensitive information about the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagles.
Anton Yudintsev, founder of Gaijin Entertainment, told the Washington Post in 2022 that his company takes down information that looks as if it is classified as quickly as possible.
“We explain to the users again and again that it’s pointless to give us any documents that we cannot and won’t use, but we probably can do more to explain this,” Yudintsev told the newspaper. “Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent people from publishing something on the internet. We delete the posts and permanently ban those who break the rules, so our users know that they risk everything essentially for nothing.”
The issue of video gamers sharing sensitive data is not limited to War Thunder. In April, the FBI arrested Airman 1st Class Jack Douglas Teixeira for allegedly leaking classified information in a video game chatroom on Discord.
Prosecutors claim that Teixeira boasted on Discord that he was posting information from the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, or JWICS, a Defense Department database, according to court documents.
Army Col. Roger Cabiness, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Wednesday about specific platforms, such as War Thunder or Discord.
“As we have said before, any unauthorized disclosures of classified or sensitive information are a serious threat to national security and something that the Department takes very seriously,” Cabiness told Task & Purpose.
UPDATE: 09/14/2023; this story was updated with comments from Konstantin Govorun, head of public relations for Gaijin Entertainment.