The United States intelligence community (IC) has likely gone to great lengths to obtain any classified details about Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 (NATO reporting name “Felon”). Yet, likely all they had to do was to scroll through the forums for the online free-to-play military simulation War Thunder, where information was recently posted about the fifth-generation fighter.
It is hardly the first time that gamers have shared details about classified military hardware. It was two years ago information about the British Army’s Challenger 2 main battle tanks (MBTs) was posted to the forums, while just six months later manuals for the French Leclerc Série 2 MBT were also shared.
In both cases, operators of the tanks had attempted to dispute the game’s depiction of the respective vehicles and to win arguments with other players.
Just last month, manuals for the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon were posted also on the game’s forums for similar reasons, and so too were key attributions of the Su-57. According to reports, just days after the F-15E and F-16 details were posted to the forum, gamers also shared a classified document regarding the Russian aircraft’s radar cross-section, while additional information shed light onto the Su-57’s airframe. Additional documents – purported to be from a “declassified” manual – provide insight into the Russian MiG-29’s radar properties and armament capabilities.
All of those documents have been deleted by War Thunder forum moderation teams, and the game publisher continues to warn users not to share some classified information. However, as most Internet users know, once the Genie is out of the bottle, it isn’t going back in.
It is unclear how much “secret” information may have been actually gleaned about the Su-57 from last month’s leak. Still, the Kremlin has been increasingly tight-lipped when it comes to releasing any details about the fighter – while at the same time attempting to hype its capabilities.
For years, Russian experts have suggested it is as capable as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and could even receive upgrades that would enhance its abilities to the point that the Su-57 could almost be considered a “sixth-generation” fighter. And yet, Russia has employed few over the skies of Ukraine – and by all accounts, it has been used at most in a handful of sorties, launching weapons at targets while still safely in Russian airspace.
In fairness, Moscow likely wouldn’t want to risk its expensive new fighter, especially as it has failed to maintain air superiority over Ukraine. Losing one would be a costly embarrassment, to say the least.
Development of the twin-engine, single-seat fighter began in 2002. Still, according to a 2020 analysis by the UK-based Royal United Services, the aircraft has not actually matured to a credible frontline weapons system. According to reports, The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) was on track to receive around twenty-two of the fighters by the end of next year, while that number was set to reach seventy-six by 2028.
It is unclear if the war in Ukraine has impacted the delivery schedule. Still, Moscow is no stranger to delays and setbacks when it comes to introducing the latest military hardware.
In the meantime, those in U.S. intelligence should continue to monitor the War Thunder forums closely. There is sure to be much more to read up on about the Su-57. Analysis need only go online and dispute any claims made about the aircraft, as someone will almost surely post something classified to prove their point.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.