In late 2016 the Chinese navy launched a second “crew support ship” for maintaining morale among Chinese sailors or other military personnel serving far from home. The first crew support ship entered service in 2011 and, like the second one 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. This served the Chinese government desire to keep sailors away from the locals but they also found the crew support ship could be used to boost morale for peacekeepers stationed overseas and, during a natural disaster, be used to house relief workers and provide some more medical facilities.
What prompted the first crew support ship was the need to maintain morale for Chinese sailors serving in the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Since December 2008, China has regularly sent task forces (two warships accompanied by a supply ship) which usually spend four months off Somalia plus a month to get to and from China. So far over 60 Chinese navy ships and some 20,000 sailors have participated. Opinion surveys indicated that the crew support ship concept worked. Building a second morale ship indicates China plans on having more warships spending a lot of time far from China.
This all began when Chinese naval commanders noted that many months at sea put more strain on sailors than the usual shorter (and deliberately more intense) training voyages. To deal with this problem the Chinese have, since 2011 developed a morale program for the long voyages and the crew support ship is only one part of it. Also important was appointing a morale officer aboard each ship and supplying 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 by identifying and encouraging sailors who could sing, play instruments, or otherwise amuse their shipmates to do so. 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. In 2010 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, so far, not China. Instead, China developed the crew support ship. The "morale ship" could not be stationed there all the time which is why the navy polled sailors who had served off Somalia about that they missed most and that led to permanent changes throughout the fleet (Internet Café, an email connection, better food) that 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.
The concept to doing what was needed to maintain morale among sailors far from home is not new. For example the U.S. Navy has developed some unique ships dedicated to morale building. This was often essential as was the case during World War II in the Pacific. There naval task forces often spent months at a time on the high seas (out of sight of land). But when the Gedunk Cruiser showed up there was much joy. This ship, an old transport equipped to produce lots of ice cream, was nicknamed the Gedunk Cruiser because it produced ice cream. Navy slang for ice cream (or other sweet treats) was "gedunk". Aircraft carriers were large enough to provide crew amenities like an ice cream shop (“Gedunk Bar”). But to supply ice cream to the rest of the fleet the navy took one an older transport and turned it into a floating ice cream factory. This Gedunk Cruiser could produce up to 20,000 liters (5,000 gallons) of ice cream an hour, making her one of the most popular ships in the fleet. Sort of like Christmas in August for most sailors in the task force.