The US Navy is carrying out the biggest overhaul of its top-secret undersea surveillance network since the 1950s in an effort to contain the threat of China’s rising naval power.

The revival of the multibillion-dollar project, known as the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS), comes as China has ramped up military exercises around Taiwan, heightening concerns about a potential conflict over the democratically ruled territory, which Beijing wants brought under its control.

The IUSS revamp project involves modernizing America’s existing network of underwater acoustic spy cables and retrofitting a fleet of surveillance ships with cutting-edge sensors and subsea microphones, moves aimed at boosting the military’s ability to spy on its foes.

The Indo-Pacific has become the main arena for military competition between the United States and China. Beijing’s increased aggression towards U.S. ally Taiwan, its territorial disputes with neighbors, and its opposition to the long-standing American naval presence in the region, which China views as provocative, have increased friction between the two superpowers

The U.S. Navy’s surveillance push is driven by the meteoric rise of China as a sea power and the potential for its vessels to attack Taiwan or sabotage critical undersea infrastructure, including oil pipelines and fiber-optic internet cables.

The surveillance arms race between Beijing and Washington is further fuelled by the two world power tussle of supremacy to secure underwater territories to install sensitive underwater sensors, artificial intelligence and sea drones. Adding to the urgency of protecting subsea internet cables crisscrossing the ocean floor, a global network that carries transcontinental internet traffic.

Brent Sadler, a former U.S. Navy submarine officer, now a naval warfare fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, while addressing World Press said “We have to invest faster in next generation capabilities. We’re losing the lead, and the Chinese are rapidly catching up.”

Meanwhile, China is working on its own maritime spy program, known as the Great Underwater Wall. A system already under construction, consists of cables fitted with sonar listening sensors laid along the seafloor in the South China Sea, a tense arena due to territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbors. China is also building a fleet of under water and surface sea drones to scour for enemy submarines.

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