July 14, 2009: The Royal Australian Navy's recruiting woes continue. It was believed that the recession would bring in more recruits, but that didn't happen. The number of civilians inquiring about joining has gone up by over a third, but very few of those additional prospects actually joined. Part of that is because the recession has not hit Australia as hard as it has the rest of the world. In the last two years, the Australian unemployment rate has gone from 4.4 to 5.8 percent. Not enough to help the navy.
The basic problem is that being an Australian sailor is a tough job. Partly because of geography (Australia is, well, isolated) and partly because the Australian navy is a very professional force. You get that way through hard work and lots of training. Combine that with the physical isolation, and you have sailors spending lots of time at sea, working their butts off. For recruiters, that's a tough sell.
The hardest hit branch of the navy is the submarine service. This is a small community, with less than eight percent of the active duty strength of about 13,000 sailors. Of the 50 ships and boats in the navy, only six are submarines. These are seen as the most powerful vessels in the fleet, at least against enemy ships. Because of that, Australia is planning to expand its submarine fleet to twelve boats. But this year it was discovered that only one of the six current subs was available for service. Four of the boats are undergoing maintenance, and another one is undergoing several months of repairs to fix a problem with its batteries. Even if all six boats were ready for services, there are only sufficient crews available to send three of them to sea.
The navy is doing everything possible to remedy the staffing problem. For example, the number of sailors required to stand watch when a sub is in port has been cut. Crew sizes have been increased 25 percent, to cut the work load. Internet access on the subs has been improved and on shore housing has been upgraded. Meanwhile, re-enlistment bonuses of up to $60,000 are being offered to keep key sailors in. The navy also has a program of recruiting foreigners, who possess needed technical skills. Australia is a nation of immigrants, and the admirals point out that recruiting a foreigner is cheaper than training an Australian to do these tasks. Another problem is the submarine bases. They are on the west coast, which is hot, dry, thinly populated, and far away from most Australians, who live on the east and southeast coasts.
Despite all these problems, Australia recently decided to make the submarine the key component of its fleet in the near future. Over the next decade, Australia will double the number of subs in service, from six to twelve. This will mean that more than half (12 out of 23) of their major warships will be subs. The purpose of this shift is to provide a naval force more capable of dealing with any Chinese moves into Australian waters. The Chinese fleet is undergoing rapid expansion, and it's believed that this poses a potential threat to Australia.
To make this new strategy work, Australia has to fix the problems with recruiting, and retaining, sufficient sailors to man the submarine fleet. The problems are numerous. The principal one is the relative isolation of the submarine sailors within the Australian navy. Because of that, and the smaller crews of subs, few submarine officers achieved high rank in the navy. But the admirals have come to recognize, for all that, the submarine is the best warship for Australia's needs (defense against a superior surface fleet, or enemy subs seeking to blockade the nation).
Currently, the Australian Navy has six Collins class subs, and the sailors who serve on these boats are not happy. This has been a problem for years. Recently, the navy surveyed the submarine sailors and were told that the submarine crewmen felt unappreciated and overworked. Half of them were getting out of the navy as soon as their current enlistments were up. Many found the work boring, and felt they spent too much time at sea. As a result, only enough qualified sailors are available to provide crews for three of the six Collins class subs. Each boat required a crew of 45 highly trained sailors (eight of them officers), now it's 54 sailors. But it's still a tough job, and you have to be highly skilled and disciplined to run a sub.
The Australian navy has been suffering from a serious geek shortage for several years now. With a total strength of 13,000, being short a few dozen people in some job categories can have serious repercussions, and that's what happened to the submarine force. For example, the navy is short about a third of the marine engineering officers it needs. There are less serious shortages in officers specializing in electrical systems and weapons systems. Australian warships have been active in the war on terror, resulting in many crews being away from home for up to six months at a time. There are shortages of both officers and sailors with technical skills.
All Western navies have similar problems, and have applied similar solutions, with some degree of success. U.S. subs have the advantage of being larger (because of the nuclear propulsion) and with larger crews (nearly three times the size of the Collins class boats). This apparently helps. Other nations have small, modern, diesel-electric boats like the Collins class, but do not send them off on long voyages. Australia can't avoid the long voyages, because Australia is surrounded by vast oceans areas, that require a lot of time to traverse. It is boring to transit all of that, and that was exactly what the dispirited sailors reported when asked.
The navy leadership has, in deciding to double the size of its sub fleet, agreed to either fix the morale and recruiting problems, or risk seeing most of those boats rarely going to sea, and manned by inexperienced crews when they did. The solution appears to be a combination of more pay, and using larger crews, so that everyone does not have to spend so much time at sea, or carry more people on cruises and reduce the workload for each. Another option is having two crews for each boat, a practice long used for American SSBNs (ballistic missile subs) and some surface ships. Another solution is the larger size of the next class of subs, that will provide, literally, more living room.
But before you can make military life more attractive for sailors, you have to get enough civilians to volunteer to be sailors in the first place. So far, the Royal Australian Navy is still a recruiting problem in search of solution.