Navy dropping 'draconian' policy on warship Wi-Fi, admiral says

The navy is adding Wi-Fi hot spots to warships and revisiting policies about how long sailors spend at sea. The head of the navy says the prohibition on internet connectivity was "crazy," considering other navies allow their crews to Facetime with family back home.

Finding work-life balance for sailors forces navy to revise decades-old policies

HMCS Toronto practises high-speed manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean, off Somalia in 2007. The navy has begun installing Wi-Fi aboard its warships so sailors can stay connected with families at home during long deployments. (Master-Cpl. Kevin Paul/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

For the navy's most senior enlisted man it was a seminal moment.

It was — in today's terms — the most ordinary of scenes, but the fact it was taking place in a mess aboard the frigate HMCS Charlottetown was extraordinary.

Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Michel Vigneault was amazed to see a sailor having a Facetime conversation with family back home on a smartphone.

The moment neatly captured the conundrum he and the top brass have faced in making the navy, which has for a decade been perpetually short of sailors, an appealing place to work.

The moment encapsulated two issues: the longstanding prohibition on Wi-Fi coverage aboard warships and the amount of time sailors are away from home.

Both have become central to the retention and recruiting makeover that is underway as part of the Liberal government's recently introduced defence strategy.

The ban on Wi-Fi was an obvious irritant.

"I realized then how important it is. Maybe not for my generation, because we didn't grow up with that, but for younger sailors, being connected is very, very important," Vigneault told CBC News is a recent interview. "Everything we can do to enable that for the benefit of the sailor and his or her family is very, very important."

Infrequent chats

The navy has dropped what its top sailor called the "draconian" policy on the technology and has embarked on a program to install Wi-Fi on each of its warships.

"There are other navies that operate with NATO that have Wi-Fi in far more spaces than we do." said Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. "And we're saying 'No you can't have it aboard' — period? That's crazy."

The U.S. navy began installing 4G LTE networks aboard its ships in 2012, while Canadians sailors have over the same period of time been forced to stow their cellphones while at sea — particularly when in secured areas — and rely on the occasional satellite phone conversation with family at home.

Those infrequent chats conducted through "morale phones" were largely dependant on the warship's jammed-up operational network.

Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Michel Vigneault, right, sits with Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, centre, and Chief Petty Officer 1St Class Thomas Riefesel at a change of command ceremony last August. Vigneault says connectivity aboard warships is an important step for maintaining morale of sailors. (Cpl. Michael J. MacIsaac/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Lloyd said last summer the crew of HMCS Toronto bought a Wi-Fi kit and installed it for use in non-secure locations aboard the ship, demonstrating it could be done expeditiously.

The coastal patrol ship HMCS Summerside had done the same, according to a navy publication.

The Wi-Fi works while a warship is in port — home or otherwise — and Lloyd said they are working on creating access while the ship is at sea, in much the same manner airlines now offer connectivity for passengers in the air.

Aside from obvious security issues, which the navy insists it has a handle on, the introduction of Wi-Fi brings with it questions about privacy, social media addiction and, potentially, policing of content. Many of those issues are covered by the military's overall social media policy, but until recently they were not matters individual ship commanders had to routinely consider.

The navy is examining how much time sailors spend at sea as part of a strategy to be more family friendly. (Private Dan Bard/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Work-life balance

Getting the quality of work-life balance right has also forced the navy to revisit and revise long-standing deployment policies.

The shortage of sailors has meant an increase in what is known as "attached postings," which has seen crew members do back-to-back deployments at sea for months on end.

Lloyd says they are now measuring, down to the sailor, how many attached postings there are.

"There is nothing worse than going from ship to ship," he said.

A flag officer — namely a fleet admiral or task force commander — will now have to sign off on deploying a sailor for more than 180 days per year.

And ideally, Lloyd said, the navy is trying to avoid sending someone to sea for that length of time years in a row.

It is a sea change for an institution that, for decades, gauged its effectiveness not by how long individual sailors were away but by the numbers of days its individual ships spent on the ocean.

Just how far out of step the navy has been with the rest of society was underlined when senior brass met recently with pollsters to discuss, among other things, getting millennials interested in a career at sea.   

Lloyd said the research found the navy was — in some instances — going in precisely the opposite direction to the expectations of the next generation.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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