- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

CANBERRA, Australia# | Australia’s navy gets a big Christmas gift this year:two months’ paid vacation for most sailors. It’s intended to ease the effects of a recruiting slump but makes the service Down Under look something like a part-time operation.

The navy hopes that by making life on the sea more family-friendly, it will attract the extra 2,000 sailors it needs to achieve its target strength of 15,000.

Critics say the so-called shutdown, which on Tuesday inspired the front-page newspaper headline “Navy Closes For Christmas,” will worry Australia‘s major defense ally, the United States.

“Mothballing your ships for two months sends totally the wrong message to our region and to our allies,” opposition defense spokesman David Johnston told Associated Press. “I’ve never heard of anything like this. I’m flabbergasted.”

All 55 navy ships and submarines that are not on operational deployments have been ordered home for Christmas, and the number of sailors who stay aboard docked ships as sentries will be reduced to skeleton crews.

It is not clear how many sailors will take extra time off.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the two-month break for sailors, which begins Dec. 3, is “just a way of saying thank you and encouraging them to stay in the service.”

Mr. Fitzgibbon said a shortage of troops was the biggest challenge facing the Australian Defense Force, and making military jobs more family-friendly was part of the solution.

“The family-work balance is a very, very important part of the equation,” Mr. Fitzgibbon said.

Australian Navy Deputy Chief Rear Adm. Davyd Thomas said the break will not adversely impact national security.

An Australian navy frigate would remain in the Middle East guarding oil wells over Christmas, and seven patrol boats would guard Australia’s northern waters from illegal fishers and smugglers, he said.

Two ships also would be on standby, one on the east and the other on the west coast, to respond to any emergency at sea, he added.

Adm. Thomas said the navy always had a shutdown period over the southern summer, although this one will be longer.

“We’re trying to become an employer of choice. We want people to want to be in the navy and want to serve here,” Adm. Thomas told reporters. He said he expected most naval personnel would take the time off.

Neil James, executive director of the independent security think tank Australian Defense Association, agreed the shutdown was not radically different from in previous years, although it would be a few weeks longer and would involve more ships remaining in dock.

He said the length of vacation would vary depending on the individual, and some could expect to be recalled at short notice.

He said military chiefs had been considering longer Christmas vacations for years because the navy has the worst retention rate of Australia’s three military services.

“The bottom line driving this is the retention problem,” Mr. James said.

“If you look at the exit surveys of people serving in the defense force, the biggest single cause of dissatisfaction is family-work life balance,” he said.

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