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Access, control of sea essential to Australia’s security and prosperity: Chief of Navy

Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, AO, RAN, speaks at the opening ceremony of the Indo-Pacific Sea Power Conference, Sydney, 2023 (Source: Defence Image Library)

Australia’s Chief of Navy, VADM Mark Hammond, has used recent media engagement to stress the centrality of the Indo-Pacific’s maritime environs on Australia’s national security and prosperity as debate continues to swirl around the future of the Royal Australian Navy’s future surface fleet.

Australia’s Chief of Navy, VADM Mark Hammond, has used recent media engagement to stress the centrality of the Indo-Pacific’s maritime environs on Australia’s national security and prosperity as debate continues to swirl around the future of the Royal Australian Navy’s future surface fleet.

Perhaps more than any other developed nation, Australia’s economic prosperity and stability, as well as our national security, is intrinsically and unbreakably linked to the global maritime commons.

Recognising this fundamental strategic and tactical reality, the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, released in late-April 2023, has moved to fundamentally reshape the Royal Australian Navy.

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This realignment of Navy’s force structure and capability is part of government’s recognition that the Australian Defence Force as a whole is no longer fit for purpose in the era of increased great power competition and multipolarity, heralding a shift away from the Defence of Australia-era of a “balanced force” towards a “focused force”.

First and foremost is the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical, tactical, and strategic situation emerging across the Indo-Pacific, necessitating the development of a flexible, future-proofed force capable of reliably responding to the tactical and strategic requirements placed upon the service by the nation’s policymakers.

Highlighting this emphasis, the Defence Strategic Review states, “Australia’s Navy must be optimised for operating Australia’s immediate region and for the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade.”

Second is Australia’s planned fleet of nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines to be delivered as part of AUKUS Pillar 1.

Lastly is the necessity to fundamentally overhaul the Navy’s surface fleet in order to deliver “An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances.”

As part of this broader endeavour, the Albanese government announced at the release of the Defence Strategic Review that the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet would be undergoing a “short, sharp” review into the constitution of its force structure to support the delivery of the nation’s new defence posture of “impactful projection”.

All of these factors are set against the backdrop of repeated reminders by the government that we live in a truly unpredictable, dangerous, and competitive period of global history, not experienced since the interwar years.

For the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, this combination of factors, both foreign and domestic, must be used to inform the Australian public about the importance of the Navy and its role in maintaining our security and prosperity in this era of renewed great power competition.

I wish we were in a different place intellectually

One of the seminal challenges facing the nation’s response to the increasing likelihood is the disconnect between much of the Australian public and the reality of our new and increasingly context global paradigm.

Despite our cultural connection to the ocean, Australians for the large part, especially among younger generations, are far removed from the reality of dependence the nation has upon the unmolested access to the global maritime commons as a lifeblood for our own economic prosperity and security.

VADM Hammond explained this, speaking to Brendan Nicholson stating, “I wish that we were in a different intellectual space as a nation. We’re a three-ocean island-trading nation. We owe our economic prosperity to the sea. We’re custodians of the planet’s third largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ). We have an annual import-export trade of about $900 billion per year that comes and goes by sea.”

Largely, this cultural belief stems from the post-Second World War domination of the global maritime commons by our great and powerful friend” in the United States and its commitment to maintaining the freedom of access to the lifeblood of the global economy.

Now, however, that period of unrestricted and unrivalled US dominance is rapidly accelerating, with a number of peer and near-peer powers seeking to expand their own influence and interests in the region, something many Australians are either innocently unaware of, or, worse, completely and purposefully ignorant of.

Stressing this, VADM Hammond states, We’ve seen a breakdown of diplomacy and deterrence and a disregard for international law ... And most of the rest of our prosperity is derived from connectivity to the international financial system enabled by seabed cables, not by satellites. We have an absolute economic dependence upon the sea. We import nearly 80 per cent of our liquid fuel with very low strategic reserves and limited refinery capability. Access to the sea is an existential issue.”

Responding to these challenges, VADM Hammond articulates the increasing importance of the Navy in the nation’s public discourse and strategic planning.

If we cannot assume access to the sea, I firmly believe we should take steps to assure it. That means a very strong maritime capability, and in my lane, a very strong Navy,” VADM Hammond explains.

Clear eyes, friendship, diplomacy and deterrence preferable over conflict

Australia as a nation has always prided itself on its preference for diplomacy over coercion, with Australian travellers a potent form of soft power, enhanced by our active programs of diplomacy, engagement, and aid.

This is all essential to maintaining trust and building stronger regional partnerships essential to maintaining regional and global peace and security.

VAMD Hammond details this, stating, Our nation believes in solving problems through diplomacy. We’re in a very challenging environment where some commentators say the risk of conflict is at its highest since World War II. We’re a peace-loving nation that would prefer to invest in diplomacy and deterrence and partnerships to avoid conflict in the first place. The Navy exists to defend the nation.

It’s an age-old responsibility and role of navies, and one that I think we’re particularly good at. Our nation has good convening power. Our Navy is welcome in international ports, and we have extensive relationships across the Indo-Pacific and the globe which we develop and nurture,” VADM Hammond details.

Given the fiscal, materiel, and personal limitations on the Royal Australian Navy, this approach provides much needed mass; however, we need to be clear-eyed for the challenges we’re facing and our role in it.

VADM Hammond explains this, stating, We need to be clear that in the context of great power competition, we are not the central player – we’re one of the affected communities in the Indo-Pacific and we’re not seeking to stand alone. We’re part of an international community bound together by shared interests, shared values. We’re looking to leverage those aspects of diplomacy, partnerships, and alliances to strengthen regional stability and our ability to protect our national interest.”

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

A robust, capable, and adaptable Navy is essential to delivering these opportunities and securing our long-term national security and interests in this era of renewed great power competition, but more needs to be done.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need to break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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