Back in 1990, “The Hunt for Red October” presented American moviegoers with a unique perspective into the Soviet military.  Far from the traditional Storm Trooper vilification of most Cold War era depictions of Russians, Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius was, in many ways, the hero of the film, despite his role as a senior leader in an enemy nation’s military. Ramius saw his new submarine as such a powerful weapon that it could potentially be the catalyst that brought about global nuclear war, and as such, he betrayed his nation in the interest of what he believed to be the greater good for all of mankind.

The only Russian captain with a Scottish accent. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

That submarine, like many employed by both American and Soviet navies, was equipped with nuclear tipped missiles and would have been called upon to fire in the event of nuclear war, but what made it so dangerous wasn’t its armament, but rather, its propulsion system.  The film devotes a fair amount of time to discussing the submarine’s new power plant, which pushes water through magnetic turbines to move the ship nearly silently through the water.  The danger the submarine presented wasn’t that it could fire missiles, but that it could move, undetected, through American defenses in order to position itself at the best possible location to rain its hellfire down onto the American populous.

Even in 1990, this form of magnetic propulsion system was technically possible, but it wasn’t employed by the submersible behemoths employed by the U.S. and Russia, nor is it today – however, another country, eager to expand its Naval footprint and establish itself as a new world power, China, has now reportedly successfully tested just such a system.

China’s test isn’t the first time such a magnetic propulsion drive has been installed in a seaworthy vessel.  The concept was particularly popular in the 1980s and continued testing past the release of the film.  In the early 90s, for instance, the Japanese Yamato-1 was able to bring its magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) propulsion system online and propel the prototype ship up to around 8 knots.  However, the massive amounts of power required for the system to function ultimately proved to be its undoing.

That is, until now.  The MHD system works by using superconducting magnets to produce powerful magnetic fields, which drive seawater through a shaft and past a metal rim, pushing the craft forward through the water without the engine needing to employ a single moving part.  Submarines are often located and tracked through the sound of the (often) diesel power plants humming within their hulls.  Without moving parts, the submarine is incredibly quiet, an integral part of submarine stealth capabilities.

Very little has been revealed about China’s recent test which they characterize as a “success.”  China’s official military website does not even disclose the type of vessel it was tested aboard.  It’s possible that China’s new vessel employs a nuclear power source, or a more efficient series of diesel electric motors, than were available in the 80s and 90s when this technology was last under development by nation-state level endeavors.  If so, a new MHD powered submarine may offer China’s rapidly growing Navy a distinct advantage over larger Naval powers, like the United States.

China’s prototype ship, which is docked at a naval base in Sanya according to an official statement from the People’s Liberation Army, was reportedly tested earlier this month, on October 18th.  The Chinese government claimed only that it “then reached the designated speed.”