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.
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.