The story broke via local media outlets just a day ago: Oleg Mikhaylovich Tishchenko, reportedly a developer at Eagle Dynamics - makers of Digital Combat Simulator (DCS: World) - has been arrested for "conspiring against the United States", for purchasing real-world manuals online for 4-current generation US Air Force fighters.
The manuals, allegedly for the F-16 Falcon, F-35 Lightning, F-22 Raptor and A-10 Thunderbolt, landed the developer in hot water after he brought them back to his base in Russia, traditionally not an ally of the U.S. where he sourced the material.
If convicted, Tishchenko could face 10 or more years behind bars for smuggling the manuals.
This begs the question: Amidst increasing tensions in the real-world, will this affect the quality of our aircraft in our far removed flight-sim world? In other words: Is there a legal ceiling to the flight sim recreations of real-world aircraft?
It perhaps makes sense now that we've all read this latest story on Tishchenko's arrest that developing military aircraft of any age/current combat readiness is a complex task.
Obviously, both the manufacturer of the real-world fighters and the nations employing these aircraft in their Air Force fleets would never want the secrets of their defensive line revealed to anyone, let alone their enemies.
This is where I see the real-world start to leak into our little corner of the gaming/flight-simming community. Although it may seem as though X-Plane is not at risk from such actions by the powers of the real world, I fear for the future of high-quality renditions of military aircraft not only for Laminar's sim, but also those in the ESP-world and obviously those in DCS too.
Should this arrest set the precedent for military representations in future, I foresee the military development community being forced to a crossroads, making the options for high-quality mil-spec aircraft increasingly limited.
One option is to partner with the powers giving them so much grief. Working together with, for example, Lockheed-Martin (though ironically this could cause issues for sims other than Lockheed's Prepar3D) and the US Air Force would give the developer access to all the vital documents, visual accounts and other information required to create an in-depth simulation of an aircraft like those in their current fleets. This approach I've seen utilised by Military Visualisations over on the Prepar3D side of the fence, with the US Air Force using MilViz aircraft in their simulators.
This approach has one problem, though. Price. Partnering with the manufacturer of the real-world, multi-million dollar aircraft inherently means a certain budget is required to license the aircraft, it's systems, and now most glaringly, it's documents. Obviously, the additional costs of production would be pushed on to consumers, resulting in an incredibly well-developed aircraft for a much higher price than we're all used to. Whether the aircraft is worth the price or not is a totally different question though, and a conversation best left for another time.
The other option I see some smaller military developers being forced to take is a slow-down in the levels of systems depth we see on new products. This is where I see the “ceiling” coming into play - because not all developers can afford the higher costs involved with official licensing, or worse, the multi-national aircraft manufacturers could straight deny a partnership request, or even take legal action against one-man-teams for even considering a replica of their aircraft. So without access to any documents and facing increased scrutiny from both the nations of the world and aircraft makers, small flightsim developers may be forced to put a lid on the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the flightsim space so that the system depth of any given aircraft is not representative enough of the real-world aircraft to pose any problems to the powers that be.
I can only hope that developers such as FlyingIron Simulations and their latest F-117 Nighthawk project (for X-Plane) can manage side-stepping all the regulations regarding recreating a spy plane such as the one they've undertaken.
It's not just military developers that might need to watch their backs in future - airliner developers could be finding themselves aboard a similar boat soon too.
Remember the infamous ‘Sky King’ incident back in August 2018? In case you can't, or weren't around for it, here it is briefly.
A Horizon Air (Alaska Air's subsidiary) employee stole a Q400 from Seattle-Tacoma Airport and took it on a brief joyride, before losing control and crashing on an island near the city. In the radio transmissions he had with controllers on the ground, he mentioned and I quote: "I've played video games before so I know what I'm doing a bit".
It's certainly not out of the reign of thought that something like this could happen again. A joyrider, or worse, a hijacker, could train on the in-depth representations of real-world aircraft present in X-Plane, Prepar3D and more and use them in the real-world for nefarious purposes.
Should something like this happen, I’m sure that once again our little community will be put under the microscope, undoubtedly raising questions about whether true-to-life models of real-world aircraft should even be allowed.
This is again where I see the “ceiling” concept. Close, but not close enough to the real thing.
In conclusion, in wake of this latest incident involving the DCS developer, I feel as though the military simulation community (if not the flight sim community as a whole) may well be put under additional scrutiny by both traditional media as well as the multi-nationals whose aircraft developers attempt to recreate.
Further oversight by not only manufacturers but also real-world media could lead to some bad press regarding our little corner of the world, especially if there's another "Sky King", or hijacking incident.
I see this as a catalyst for further investigation from external sources to make sure we don't know "too much" about their treasured aircraft to pose a threat to domestic security - and if we do, there's the possibility for a "cap" to be put in place - A line that no-one can cross, so the desktop simulations of tomorrow aren’t close enough to the aircraft to pose a threat to the real-world, immediately stifling the incredible innovation in systems depth we're seeing now.
As for Eagle Dynamics, others I spoke too forecasted the end of the brand - one of their developers is facing a decade in jail, no-doubt with the U.S. government poking their nose into any and all future endeavours, so it’s reasonable to assume they might have trouble in future producing any more high-fidelity aircraft renditions. Whilst my own viewpoint isn't quite as drastic, I'm still pretty sure any plans for official partnerships with U.S.-based manufacturers will probably be out the window with these latest developments.
I may well be overstating how calamitous the future for military aircraft may be, however, I feel it’s naive to think that after this incident the USAF will just forget about it, to dismiss it as a one-off…
No. They’ll certainly pay more attention to our little community - so we don’t know “too much” about their precious machines of war.
Image Credits: Eagle Dynamics, FlyingIron Simulations.
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