New RAN Chief takes helm amid AUKUS focus

HMAS Rankin
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Collins-class submarine HMAS Rankin is pictured during a combined exercise with the Indian Navy in 2021. Under the AUKUS programme, from the 2040s the RAN will begin replacing the Collins fleet with an SSN fleet. (Commonwealth of Australia)

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has a new chief, as the service and Australia’s wider defence community increase focus on delivering the capability outputs of the Australia-UK-US AUKUS agreement.

Vice Admiral Mark Hammond took over as Chief of Navy (CN) on 6 July 2022, handing over from outgoing CN Vice Admiral Michael Noonan.

The AUKUS agreement, announced in September 2021, is designed to increase co-operation between the three strategic partners, and in particular to develop a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) capability for the RAN.

Under current AUKUS plans, the RAN’s future SSN fleet will number at least eight boats. According to Australian media reports in June 2022, the Department of Defence (DoD) is expected to reveal further details in March 2023 on preferred platform options for delivering the SSN fleet.

One challenge facing the new CN will be to address how to bridge any submarine capability gap that may appear between the withdrawal of the RAN’s in-service Collins-class diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), which are scheduled to retire between the mid-2030s and late 2040s, and the planned arrival of the new SSNs from the 2040s onwards. One issue here is whether an interim submarine will be required to bridge any such gap.

Vice Adm Hammond’s experience is highly relevant to the coming AUKUS debates and decisions. He is a career submariner who commanded the Collins-class SSK HMAS Farncomb, he has experience onboard French, UK, and US SSNs, and in his previous appointment he was Commander Australian Fleet.

Beyond just the underwater environment, security challenges have grown across the Indo-Pacific’s maritime domain. “It’s an important time to be part of the navy, and we will continue to work closely with industry and our international partners to maintain maritime security and a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Vice Adm Hammond said, in a DoD statement on 6 July.

Vice Adm Hammond will also be CN at the start of a period (out to 2040) during which the RAN plans to grow its personnel numbers from the current level of over 15,000 to 21,000.

by Dr. Lee Willett, London