How the Hunt for Red October Movie Revealed Classified Information About U.S. Submarines

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 2 2013 3:40 PM

How the Hunt for Red October Movie Revealed Classified Information About U.S. Submarines

Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October

Paramount Pictures

Tom Clancy, who died yesterday at age 66, was renowned for the technical detail of his best-selling military thrillers. This attention to detail was present in his first published novel, The Hunt for Red October, which centers on the attempt to defect by a Soviet submarine commander named Marko Alexandrovich Ramius. (Ramius pilots an experimental nuclear submarine called the Red October.) Clancy’s book was the first work of fiction published by the Naval Institute Press, an imprint of the U.S. Naval Institute. Clancy had a relationship with the press because he had written articles for their magazine, Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Given those origins, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the book includes remarkably fine-grained technological details about submarines. At one point in the book we learn that the Red October uses “a highly sensitive device called a gradiometer, essentially two large lead weights separated by a space of one hundred yards. A laser-computer system measured the space between the weights down to a fraction of an angstrom. Distortion of that distance or lateral movement of the weights indicated variations in the local gravitational field,” the book explains. “With careful use of gravitometers in the ship’s inertial navigation system,” Ramius “could plot the vessel’s location to within a hundred meters.”

In fact, “no Soviet vessel actually carried such elaborate gear.” But something like it was in use by the U.S. Navy. “In the 1970s, driven by both navigation and missile launching requirements, the U.S. Navy spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing a system to measure gravity gradients,” as Robin Bell explains in a 1997 article for the Leading Edge, a geoscience journal. The U.S. system “was somewhat more complex than the fictional one Clancy installed on the Red October,” Bell explains. It was also classified. Using gravimetry, “the measurement of the strength of a gravitational field,” to pilot a submarine had serious benefits for covert operations. While “using sonar involved sending off sonic ‘pings’ that would reveal your location to any submarine in the near area,” a submarine “that could navigate using a gravimeter ... would be able to, in effect, ‘run silent.’ ” In a recent piece for Offshore Engineer, Andrew McBarnet says the system was “designed ostensibly for covert navigation, but most probably also for the passive detection of gravity field changes that might indicate the presence of a silent enemy submarine.” In any case, when this technology was first developed by the U.S. Navy, it was reportedly “deployed on only a few Ohio-class Trident submarines.”


That’s where the movie version of The Hunt for Red October comes in. As retired CIA officer Bill Hadley writes in the journal Studies in Intelligence, some “senior U.S. naval officers” were “convinced the movie would do for submariners what Top Gun had done to boost the image of U.S. Navy jet fighter pilots.” And so they “provided unprecedented access to their submarines and training in submarine steering” for the movie’s stars, Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, and Scott Glenn. “The navy even allowed the use of its subs in the film.”

And at one point in the movie, a crew member trying to make contact with the Red October says that they have detected “milligal anomalies.” A milligal is “a unit of acceleration used extensively in the science of gravimetry.” So, for anyone who understands such things, this bit of recondite jargon appears to acknowledge the use of gravimetry by a U.S. submarine.

“Tellingly,” Hadley writes, the use of such technology on U.S. submarines “was declassified a few months after Red October was released.” Though whether the movie was really responsible seems unclear to me: The technology, by that point, was fairly old, and the Cold War was nearly over. But Tom Clancy and his movie may have finally pushed it to the surface.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.