Washington — The United States apparently is increasing efforts to make Honduras a military bulwark against Nicaragua, its neighbor to the south. Use of US helicopters to ferry Honduran troops into battle against Nicaraguan Sandinista forces takes place against this background: The Pentagon plans to continue upgrading facilities in Honduras. The fiscal 1988 budget will request $1 million for a runway at San Lorenzo for US intelligence-gathering drone airplanes.
Honduras will be allowed to upgrade its aging Air Force with purchase of fighters that require US permission to be exported.
In the past Honduras has, for the most part, avoided confrontation with the Sandinistas. When Nicaraguan government troops crossed the border and pressed into Honduras in search of anti-Sandinista contra forces, Honduran soldiers in the area would usually melt away from the fighting.
Only once before, in the last week of March of this year, did Honduran forces step in to repel a Sandinista incursion. At that time US helicopters brought the Honduran soldiers into the remote border area.
Now Honduras is clashing with Nicaragua again, and again US Army Chinook helicopters are carrying some of the troops and supplies. The Chinooks are flying from western Honduras to Jamastran, a US-refurbished airfield 17 miles from the Nicaraguan border.
In flying so close to Nicaragua, the US choppers may be violating a restriction that Congress placed in the bill authorizing $100 million in aid for the contras in 1986. Under the bill, US troops are not supposed to operate within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border.
Honduras has one of the larger concentrations of US military strength in Central America. Joint Task Force Bravo, based at the Palmerola air field, currently has about 800 uniformed personnel, a Pentagon spokesman says. Though up to 1,000 National Guard or reserve troops are often training in Honduras, the only such contingent there now is a group of 100 Florida national guardsmen, according to the Pentagon.
Palmerola is probably the only installation that could fairly be called a US military base. But US troops on exercises have left military infrastructure all over the Honduran countryside. They have installed radar facilities at Cerro la Mole, dug a 10-mile antitank ditch near Choluteca, and constructed a 3,000-foot dirt runway at San Lorenzo.
Critics in the US Congress have long charged that the Reagan administration is little by little militarizing Honduras with an ever-larger US presence. Pentagon officials deny this is the case. US activities in Honduras ``are temporary in nature and will continue to function for as long as the situation in the region requires and the Honduran government approves our presence,'' wrote Deputy Defense Secretary William Taft IV in a letter to Congress earlier this year.
In its fiscal 1988 budget, however, the Pentagon will ask for money to begin the first phase of a four-phase effort to improve living conditions at Palmerola.
US military officers say they consider Honduras one of the linchpins of their Central American activities. With Nicaragua to its south and El Salvador to its west, it is strategically placed.
Gen. John Galvin, commander of US forces in the region, said in an interview earlier this year that the Sandinistas ``are certainly trying to undermine Honduras.''
Helping the Honduran military help itself is one way US military planners say they want to attack this strategic problem. Thus the fighter plane sale. Honduras has the only Air Force in the region with jets, except for Mexico. But administration officials say that to keep the military balance in the region Honduras needs new planes, and so the US is reportedly set to give permission for Honduras to buy US-made F-5Es, or Israeli Kfirs.