Defense Secretary James Mattis has tapped Admiral Phil Davidson, a four star admiral with expertise in anti-submarine and electronic warfare, to take command of the U.S. Navy’s troubled Pacific Fleet. With what some have characterized as a “grueling” operational tempo and a rash of tragic and embarrassing incidents involving surface vessels in the Pacific over the last year, Davidson faces a complex set of challenges.

As the Pacific Fleet commander, Davidson will have to find a way to manage a cultural shift within his fleet, while participating in force wide readiness and modernization efforts and continuing to serve as America’s “big stick” in what is perhaps the most contested waterway on the planet. However, according to Davidon’s own testimony at his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Forces last week, those challenges are just the beginning.

Davidson’s expertise regarding submarine warfare was display during the hearing, as he laid out a troubling forecast of Chinese military expansion throughout the Pacific, and particularly in the South China Sea. In recent years, China has rapidly expanded their ship-building infrastructure, launching more than twenty new warships since 2016 and quickly moving toward launching two additional aircraft carriers. However, according to Davidson, the most troubling advancements China’s navy has been making have been beneath the surface.

The United States maintains a significant asymmetric advantage in undersea warfare, but the [People’s Liberation Army] is making progress. China has identified undersea warfare as a priority, both for increasing their own capabilities as well as challenging ours.” Davidson told lawmakers.

“The Chinese are investing in a range of platforms, including quieter submarines armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons, unmanned underwater vehicles, new sensors, and new fixed-wing and rotary-wing submarine-hunting aircraft.”

Last November, it was announced that the Chinese Navy had successfully tested a magnetic propulsion drive that could be used for nearly silent submarine propulsion. The system uses superconducting magnets to produce powerful magnetic fields that are claimed to force water past a metal rim and through a shaft – propelling a submerged vessel without any moving parts in the engine system. The lack of mechanical moving parts significantly reduces the amount of sound produced by the submarine, which is among the primary methods of detecting stealthy submerged vessels.

They have new submarines both on the ballistic-missile side and on the attack submarine side, and they’re achieving numbers in the build of those submarines as well,” Davidson said. “And they’re also pursuing other technologies to give them better insights into our operations in the undersea domain.”

However, some of the biggest challenges Davidson expects to face in the form of Chinese submarines is quite a bit more familiar than exotic propulsion systems: American tech stolen by Chinese spies.

One of the main concerns we have, sir, is cyber and penetration of the dot-com networks,” Davidson said. “Exploiting technology from our defense contractors, in some instances. And certainly their pursuit in academia is producing some of these understandings for them to exploit.”

Those concerns were echoed by Andrew Lewis, senior vice president of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China accounts for a majority of economic cyber espionage against the United States (perhaps three-quarters of the losses are from Chinese spying),” he wrote in an analysis last month.

According to Davidson, China is already working to leverage their advancing tech and expanding navy to encompass far more than the waters around Chinese shores.

China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support required to regularise and sustain deployments in the Indian Ocean region.” He explained. “This larger overseas logistics and basing footprint will enable Beijing to project and sustain military power at greater distances from China.”

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy