Caterpillar Drive

Media Outlets Sunk By April Fool’s Prank of the Navy’s New “Caterpillar Drive” Stealth Submarine

In a twist that would have made novelist Tom Clancy proud, several news outlets and social media users took a deep dive into fiction this April 1st, falling for an April Fool’s prank that the U.S. Navy had discovered the “Holy Grail of naval warfare,” and the development of cutting-edge stealth submarine technology.

Naval News, a reputable source for maritime news, published a seemingly groundbreaking article claiming the U.S. Navy was outfitting its Virginia class submarines with a revolutionary magnetohydrodynamic drive, or “caterpillar drive,” that “promises to make the submarine virtually undetectable.” 

“Submarines use stealth to dominate the seas, presenting an illusive yet deadly threat,” the Naval News article reads. “Now U.S. Navy submarines will take stealth to a new level. American submarines will now be fitted with magnetohydrodynamic drive.” 

Unfortunately, several niche media sites that later circulated the story didn’t realize they were sharing a concept straight from fiction. Specifically, Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller “The Hunt for the Red October,” where a stealth submarine equipped with a magnetohydrodynamic drive is a crucial plot element.

The prank showcased the fine line between fact and fiction and served as a stark reminder of the importance of critical media consumption in the digital age.

In fairness, given the nature of today’s technological progress, which frequently resembles science fiction, it’s understandable why some could be misled by Naval News’s seemingly credible announcement. Equally, the idea of magnetohydrodynamic drive is more than just the stuff of imagination. 

A Magnetohydrodynamic drive (MHD) is a conceptual method of propulsion that uses only electric and magnetic fields to accelerate a liquid or gas propellant using the principles of magnetohydrodynamics. 

In recent years, engineers have been exploring the potential of plasma propulsion engines using magnetohydrodynamics for space exploration. The goal is that a magnetohydrodynamic drive would offer a more continuous propulsion system than traditional chemical rockets.

Furthermore, since the 1960s, scientists and military researchers have been studying the use of magnetohydrodynamic drives for submarine propulsion. This technology leverages the magnetic properties of water to move the submarine forward, thereby eliminating the need for moving parts, such as traditional propellers. 

Another kernel of truth from the Naval News article is that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently attempting to develop a workable magnetohydrodynamic drive under its “Principles of Undersea Magnetohydrodynamic Pumps” or “PUMP” program. 

However, the concept remains largely theoretical, and the leap from experimentation to an operational caterpillar drive , especially in the context of creating a “stealth submarine,” is a significant one.

The idea of a completely stealth submarine, undetectable by enemy forces, has been a coveted goal for global navies and could justifiably be considered the “Holy Grail of naval warfare.” 

The concept of a magnetohydrodynamic-drive stealth submarine was popularized in the 1990 film adaptation of Tom Clancey’s literary spy thriller “The Hunt for the Red October.” In the film, the Soviet Typhoon-class ballistic missile sub the “Red October” is outfitted with a “caterpillar drive,” which renders it undetectable to passive sonar. 

Due to its lack of moving parts, a magnetohydrodynamic-driven submarine would theoretically significantly reduce noise levels, a key advantage in underwater stealth. However, a magnetohydrodynamic drive wouldn’t make the vessel completely silent, nor would it result in a fully stealth submarine.

The electric currents required to generate the magnetic fields for a magnetohydrodynamic-driven submarine would produce detectable gasses and noise. The magnetic fields produced by the MHD would likewise create a distinct magnetic signature that could be easily traced by modern anti-submarine warfare (ASW) technology.

Moreover, contemporary anti-submarine warfare has evolved to include a range of detection techniques beyond just listening for the sounds a submarine makes. Today, leading sub-detection methods include measuring temperature gradients in the water, variations in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by a sub’s large metal hull, thermal imaging, chemical sensors, and airborne LIDAR that can identify changes in water depth or disturbances. 

As part of its initiative to field “Non-Traditional Airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare” technology, the U.S. Navy is suspected of possessing a highly classified system that uses synthetic aperture radar to identify the wake caused by a submarine passing through water that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye. 

In short, a magnetohydrodynamic drive would not suddenly render a sub “stealth,” as The Hunt for the Red October or Navel New’s prank article implies. 

Nevertheless, this didn’t stop a handful of publications from spreading the fictitious word about the Navy’s supposed leap in stealth submarine technology. 

One of the outlets that aggregated the story was Marine Insight. “World’s No. 1 complete maritime information website,” the “About” page reads on Marine Insight’s website. “Since 2010, Marine Insight has been informing and educating people around the world about the maritime industry.” 

Marine Insight has since removed the article about the fictitious magnetohydrodynamic drive. However, the headline “U.S. Navy Unveils World’s First Submarine Equipped With Silent Caterpillar Drive” still populates under the site in Google News. 

A YouTube channel called “Military Defense News” published a nearly three-minute video of a computer voice program reading the article, complete with still images of U.S. submarines and dramatic background music. 

A Ukrainian news site, GaGadget, even added details not contained in the original article. “The submarine’s appearance and characteristics are currently being kept secret, but it is known that the propulsion system is located inside the hull, which means there is no traditional propeller,” GaGadget’s Mykhailo Stoliar wrote. 

The fictitious article was mainly shared by social media-only “news” sites, with varying follower counts ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of followers. 

Aside from the article’s publication date, April 1st, some seemingly overlooked clues should have called to question claims of the U.S. Navy subs being outfitted with new stealth propulsion drives. Most prominently, editors posted, “Important update on this article: April Fool’s” at the beginning of the article. 

Less obvious, the article notes that the Virginia-class attack submarine, the USS Montana (SSN-794), was expected to conduct sea trials with the new caterpillar drive on the Penobscot River in Maine. In Clancey’s fictional spy thriller, Soviet sub-captain Marko Ramius stealthily navigates the Red October to the Penobscot River to defect to the United States.  

It’s important to note that the fictitious story caught traction primarily among smaller, niche publications rather than mainstream media. The incident underscores the critical need for media consumers to question and verify the sources of their information, particularly in an era where fly-by-night “news” outlets can easily and rapidly spread sensational claims thanks to social media.  

Ultimately, Naval News’s April Fool’s joke served as a humorous reminder of the enduring allure of stealth technology in naval warfare and the importance of skepticism and due diligence in news consumption. 

Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan.  Tim can be reached by email: or through encrypted email: