The Izumo is the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest destroyer, but it has only one section where internet access is available. The photo was taken in June 2019 in waters off the Philippines. (Yoshitaka Ito)
Crew members aboard Japan’s defense vessels will be able to more easily connect their mobile devices to the internet under a policy change aimed at attracting recruits to the depleted Maritime Self-Defense Force, sources said.
The MSDF plans to drastically ease restrictions on smartphone use by expanding the areas on vessels where wireless local area network (WLAN) services are available, the sources said. That way, MSDF sailors can read and write e-mails and view news reports in mess halls and in their quarters.
Currently, they must undergo the often-troublesome task of wandering to the limited areas on their vessels where they can go online.
“Crew members will be able to check e-mails from their families and the latest news while lying on their beds when they are off-duty,” a senior MSDF official said. “The common image of maritime operations will change.”
The official said the MSDF plans to start upgrading the ships for wider internet availability by the end of this fiscal year.
The MSDF hopes the image change will help to address the serious personnel shortage it now faces.
The Ground, Maritime and Air SDFs have failed to reach their numerical targets for recruitment for five straight years. Collectively, they could achieve only around 70 percent of the goal in fiscal 2018.
The slump in recruitment can be partially attributed to Japan’s low birthrate and hiring increases among private companies.
But the situation is especially tough for the MSDF, which recorded the lowest recruitment achievement ratio of less than 60 percent in fiscal 2018.
Young people may not be attracted to MSDF duties, which can require them to work for long periods at sea far from home.
And under strict rules, MSDF personnel had long been prohibited from using their own cellphones on their ships.
After many sailors asked that they be allowed to contact friends and family members via smartphone, the MSDF started offering WLAN access on its ships in fiscal 2018.
But services were limited to certain areas on destroyers.
“It cannot be said that an environment has been created where online services can easily be used,” an MSDF crew member said.
Under the plan for wider access, crew members will have to use a dedicated website to send and receive e-mails and get the latest news. They can communicate directly with outside people through the site if the contacts are registered in advance.
They will be prohibited from using conventional search sites or social networking services to ensure confidentiality of the destroyers’ locations and other important information, according to MSDF sources.
“Although the decision (to expand areas with internet access) was partly inspired by the trends of the time, the change does not mean our discipline will be weakened,” the senior MSDF official said. “Relaxing as much as possible while off-duty instead of simply continuing to work hard will lead to improved performance in operations.”
Another MSDF officer said, “I feel the move represents an arrival of a new era, but work-style reform is essential, even on destroyers.”
Crew members of the Izumo, the MSDF’s largest destroyer, complained about internet access when the ship was navigating waters off the Philippines in the summer.
The Izumo, characterized by its huge flat deck, will be effectively turned into an aircraft carrier. Its body measures 248 meters, longer than the height of the Tokyo metropolitan government office skyscraper.
A sign in a corridor in the multi-layered area below the deck shows where WLAN access is available.
“The age has ended where all communications are cut off once vessels leave port,” said a crew member there holding a mobile device.
But online access was provided in only that section of the huge destroyer.
“I had some difficulty just reaching here,” said another crew member. “I would like online access to become available in bedrooms and elsewhere as well.”
The MSDF has also started efforts to attract more female recruits. It now has more ships equipped with dedicated zones for female crew members and is trying to deploy women to submarines for the first time.