CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's navy has been sent on a two-month Christmas vacation, with military chiefs saying on Tuesday the long shutdown would not leave the country unprotected and was the only way to deal with staff shortages.
Navy commanders ordered all ships not on overseas operations to return to port over the traditional holiday, while docked vessels would have only a skeleton staff to maintain on-board security as other staff took leave.
"The stand down will not impact operations and is to ensure that our people who are not required on operations are able to take a meaningful period of time off and spend time with their families," Deputy Navy chief Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas said.
The navy, one of Asia's most advanced, faces serious staff shortages, with 2,020 skilled vacancies and a 27-percent yearly recruitment shortfall, exacerbated by 11 percent of staff quitting the service each year.
In March this year, the 12,000-strong navy admitted having only enough qualified submariners to operate half its six-boat submarine fleet, as the nation's mining boom was drawing seamen to higher paying jobs in outback mines.
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the Christmas shutdown from Dec. 3 until Feb. 3 would help the navy become more family-friendly and be more flexible about childcare arrangements and work-from-home needs for personnel.
"There's no reason why we can't have a longer stand down period each Christmas and we're looking at all sorts of ways of encouraging people to stay," he told state radio.
Conservative opposition lawmaker David Johnston took a different view. "I have never seen a defence force charged with the protection of Australia saying 'we are going to have six to eight weeks off over Christmas because we think it is a good thing for the mums and dads'," he told reporters.
The navy, the smallest of Australia's military services, has been hardest-hit by resignations, with the drop-out rate rising from 6.8 percent in 2003 to 16 percent in 2005, before falling back slightly.
Thomas said 500 sailors would remain on active duty across Australia's north and in the Persian Gulf over the break to maintain security and deter people-smugglers after the interception of five vessels in recent weeks.
A patrol boat exercise with Indonesia began this week, while any emergency would see sailors immediately recalled to duty.
Australia, a close Washington ally, was an original member of the coalition which invaded Iraq and Afghanistan after the 2001 airliner attacks in the United States.
The country has embarked on $60 billion, 10-year defence buildup, including new missile destroyers, amphibious assault ships, tanks, helicopters and radar-evading fighter aircraft. The army is also recruiting extra combat soldiers.
The Australian Defence Association, representing military personnel, said the stand down was good news for sailors trying to manage careers and families.
"Lesser priority tasks at sea, particularly training, can be wound down a bit," association Executive Director Neil James told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.