The Challenger 2 is a main battle tank that’s been in service with the British Army since 1994, during which time it has seen operational service in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Iraq. It can also be found in War Thunder, Gaijin Entertainment’s free-to-play online war game: The War Thunder wiki describes it as “a force to be reckoned [with] on the battlefield, thanks to competent grades in firepower and armour,” although a number of distinct shortcomings means that it really needs a skilled commander to make the most of it.
There’s a fair commitment to accuracy in the game: The “Simulator Battle” mode goes all-out on realistic vehicle and weapon physics, and players partake in spirited, granular discussions about its hardware in the War Thunder forums. The rollout of the Challenger 2 tank in 2019, for instance, sparked this thread, 319 pages long and still growing.
Things got out of hand earlier this week, however, when one player demonstrated a little too much commitment to realism. The player, who claims to be a real-life Challenger 2 tank commander and former member of the British Army’s Armored Trials and Development Unit, complained that War Thunder’s in-game model is significantly off the mark in ways that leave it much more vulnerable to enemy fire than it is in the real world—and then to prove the point, they posted classified images from the Challenger 2 Army Equipment Support Publication, which is basically the tank’s user manual.
According to the UK Defense Journal, the images were heavily redacted and carried “UK Restricted” labels, but those were crossed out and a stamp of “Unclassified” was added. Gaijin, understandably, reacted with extreme caution, saying that “proof of this document’s declassification will be required as well as where it was sourced from” before any action based upon it could be taken.
Shortly after that, a senior technical moderator weighed in to say that the Gaijin had been in contact with the UK Ministry of Defense, which had informed it—in writing—that the manual is in fact classified.
“I can confirm that it does appear to be a genuine extract,” a representative of Defense Equipment and Support at MoD Abbey Wood told the site. “It certainly has not been released under FOI previously by DE&S or considered for redacting. We also do not recognise the ‘Unclassified’ stamp as something that has been used in DE&S.”
“By continuing to disseminate it you are in violation of the Official Secrets Act as stated by the warning on the cover of the document, an offence which can carry up to a 14 year prison sentence if prosecuted,” the moderator wrote in response to the classified post.
“Of this you are already aware, as a service person you have signed a declaration that you understand the act and what actions it compels you to take. Every time you post this you place us (International representatives of Gaijin), especially any UK citizens, in hot water as the warning so helpfully states that unauthorised retention of a protected document is an offence.”
It’s not known yet whether the player in question is actually a tank commander, or a member of the UK military at all, although as the UK Defense Journal notes, their claimed location of Tidworth, Wiltshire is the home of the Royal Tank Regiment, which operates Challenger 2s. It’s also possible that this isn’t a nefarious act of treason in pursuit of a better videogame experience, but simply an error in declassification.
But even if it was an honest mistake, the entire incident is fascinating. For one thing, it all started over a dispute in the size of the gap between the main turret structure and hull—a minute detail, you might think, but one that this guy takes very seriously. This is also apparently not the first time something like this has happened: In its initial response to the post, community manager Smin1080p wrote, “Last time such a document was shared that was claimed to be ‘unclassified’ it was in fact still classified and was confirmed that it should never have been shared.” How many times have people shared classified military secrets in the War Thunder forums?
Maybe best of all, though, it seems that while sharing classified MoD documents in the War Thunder forums might be a violation of the Official Secrets Act, is it apparently not a bannable offense: The account that posted the images is still valid and, by all appearances, in good standing.
Unfortunately for the dedicated War Thunder player in question, their efforts to make the Challenger 2 a tougher tank were for naught: The documents posted may have been accurate, but because they’re classified, they’re not acceptable as “valid source material” and so no changes will be made. I’ve reached out to Gaijin for more information, and will update if I receive a reply.