January 19, 2013: Last month China made a big deal (in the local media) about the 4th anniversary of the first Chinese "Naval Escort Task Force" sent 7,900 kilometers to participate in the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Since December 2008, China has sent 13 of these task forces, which usually spend four months there, plus a month to get to and from China. The usual task force is two warships accompanied by a supply ship. In that time 38 Chinese navy ships and 10,000 sailors have participated. While off Somalia the Chinese would usually escort small convoys of merchant ships (of any nationality) through pirate infested waters. Over 5,000 commercial ships were safeguarded during some 500 convoy escort operations. In addition to the anti-piracy duties, these escort task forces also made more than twenty good-will visits to foreign countries (including India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore).
One thing Chinese naval commanders noted was that many months at sea put more strain on sailors than the usual shorter training voyages. To deal with this problem the Chinese have, over the last two years, developed a morale program for the long voyages. This involves appointing a morale officer and some additional equipment. Noting that some sailors and officers brought laptops with them for game playing, the navy set up "Internet Cafes" on the warships and supplied wi-fi for sailor laptops and smart phones. Limited Internet access was provided (mainly for email) and the PCs in the computer room were networked for gaming. These PCs could also be used for training. The morale officer also organized entertainment using sailors who could sing, play instruments, or otherwise amuse their shipmates. The navy also changed the menu, including easier (than Chinese food) to prepare Western items. These are popular with the young sailors, as Western fast food is all the rage back home.
Earlier, more expensive solutions for improving morale were tried. Three years ago a Chinese hospital ship arrived off Somalia. It was not there to treat sick Somalis but to provide a rest stop for Chinese sailors participating in the anti-piracy patrol. The hospital ship then visited ports in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, and Bangladesh to provide free medical treatment for locals and then returned home.
Morale for the Chinese sailors was particularly important because China has not allowed its navy to establish a base for shore leave in the region. All other navies have such arrangements but not China. Instead, China launched a special crew support ship. It's a converted cruise ship, with expanded medical facilities (to treat any victims of local diseases or those injured on duty). But recreational and entertainment spaces have been left largely unchanged, so sailors can get a few days of rest and relaxation without going ashore anywhere.
The "morale ship" could not be stationed there all the time, so commanders asked for suggestions and what most sailors missed most was an Internet Café type establishment. The Chinese Navy cannot provide much Internet access for its sailors but a LAN equipped computer game room was found to be a good substitute. The special food options were also popular, and that included the storable (like MREs) Chinese dishes. The "morale ship" is still available occasionally but the Internet Café, an email connection, better food, and the morale officer are there all the time.
All nations that send peacekeepers overseas find they have some morale problems with their troops. Western navies, which have long sent their warships on extended voyages, have learned how to maintain morale. Peacekeepers on land have more local options for entertainment, but must also learn to adapt to unique challenges in some areas (disease, crime, drugs). Wherever the peacekeepers are, you want to maintain morale, as that helps to maintain performance as peacekeepers.