This spring's United States-Honduras military exercises - which began in March and will continue for several months - will focus more attention on El Salvador than previous exercises.
The previous joint military maneuvers focused on Nicaragua. This spring's maneuvers will add El Salvador to the spotlight because the US is expecting heavier fighting there in the months ahead, US government and Honduran opposition sources say.
Informed observers say the Reagan administration expects Salvadorean guerrillas to step up their attacks because (1)the Salvadorean Army's morale was weakened by military setbacks in December a d January and (2)the Salvadorean guerrillas are believed to think that the likelihood of direct US intervention in the Salvador war will increase if President Reagan wins reelection. Thus the guerrillas would like to gain as much ground as possible before the US election.
According to both US government and Honduran opposition sources, US troop exercises in Honduras are taking on a permanent look. The six-month Big Pine II exercises, which ended in February, were swiftly followed by the first of a new series of exercises in late March. A larger US presence in Honduras could give the US greater flexibility in the S Oadorean conf,yct, informed observers say. It could eventually permit the Reagan administration to take a series of steps escalating US presence to a point stopping barely short of a direct military intervention in El Salvador.
Most guerrilla-controlled areas of El Salvador lie close to the Salvadorean-Honduran border. Thus, the above observers say, a strong US presence on the Honduran side of the border could be useful in stepping up US pressure on the guerrillas. Such a US presence could help stop the occasional use of Honduran territory as a fallback position for the guerrillas.
A larger US presence on the Honduras side of the border could also help in reconnaissance-gathering on guerrilla positions in Salvador. Later, according to these sources, US and Honduran forces could more easily bomb and strafe guerrilla strongholds from the border areas, if they chose such a course of action. Observers also speculate that the US public could gradually become accustomed to occasional incursions of US forces into Salvadorean territory.
Two sets of military exercises are planned for the next few months. The major maneuver is called ''Grenadero'' and is essentially a continuation of the Big Pine II exercises, which ran from August to February. The main Grenadero exercises will begin in May. But preparatory phases of the maneuvers are already under way. A group of US Army engineers are in Honduras paving the way for the May exercises.
The Grenadero maneuvers will involve US, Salvadorean, and Honduran troops. There is even a possibility that Guatemalan troops will be invited to participate. Observers estimate that the number of US troops taking part will be in the low thousands. The maneuvers will begin near the center of the country, then fan out toward El Salvador and Nicaragua.
A series of smaller maneuvers called ''emergency rapid deployment exercises, '' which include Honduran and US forces (principally from the US Southern Command in Panama), started up before the March 25 Salvadorean election and are scheduled to run through June. These smaller exercises, which are directed principally toward the Salvadorean border, are basically short one- or two-day maneuvers. Informed US observers say they will involve parachute jumps, air reconnaissance, and some group exercises. In conjunction with the exercises, Honduran troops moved to the Salvadorean border in mid-March.
Recent reports from Washington indicate that the US and Honduran governments are discussing the establishment of a permanent military base in Honduras. The Honduran government has denied the existence of such plans, but regional military sources and observers with close ties to top-level Honduran Army officers confirm that both the Honduran government and the Pentagon hope to have a joint naval base in Puerto Castilla on the Honduran Atlantic coast. These sources emphasize that the establishment of such a base depends on the approval of the US Congress.
At present Puerto Castilla is the site of a regional training center where US instructors provide military instruction to Honduran and Salvadorean troops.
The training of Salvadorean troops, however, is creating ripples of discontent in the Honduran officer corps, according to Honduran sources with close ties to the military establishment. El Salvador, with a large population and limited territory, has traditionally coveted land from its neighbor. Ever since the 1969 ''football war'' between the two countries, Honduran military strategy has been oriented toward fighting Salvador. Many Honduran Army officers still see war as inevitable.
Many Honduran observers also believe that US instruction of Salvadorean troops on Honduran soil will contribute to the growth of anti-American sentiment. The dismissal last weekend of Honduran armed forces commander Gustavo Alvarez Martinez is expected to spur new demands that this US training be discontinued.
A source close to top-level Honduran Army officers says that - despite its involvement in maneuvers that are focusing on El Salvador - the Honduran Army is increasingly leery of involvement in the Salvadorean conflict. He says the Army-dominated Honduran National Security Council decided several weeks ago that Honduras would not become involved in a military conflict with El Salvador unless the US takes the lead in an overt intervention.
The top echelon of the Honduran Army thinks the morale of the Salvadorean Army is at a low point and that Salvador's armed forces are riddled with corruption, says the source with connections to top-level Honduran Army officers. The Honduran military command thinks that Salvadorean guerrillas get arms and ammunition by capturing these supplies from the Salvadorean Army, by receiving shipments from Nicaragua, and from corrupt Salvadorean armed forces officers who make direct sales to the guerrillas, these sources say.
A mid-level Salvador guerrilla source estimated that at least 15 percent of rebel arms and 20 to 25 percent of their ammunition are obtained in this fashion.
A knowledgeable foreign observer believes that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are retreating from a more militant position taken last fall. In September, military representatives had met with Gen. Paul Gorman, chief of the US Southern Command in Panama, and decided that Central American troops, with US logistic support, could move into El Salvador. But they appear to have pulled back from this position.