The introduction of 300 to 400 new anti-aircraft missiles, including the United States-made Redeye, into Nicaraguan rebel arsenals could significantly change the outlook of the civil war, according to rebel and diplomatic sources here. The new missiles are scheduled for delivery to the contras as part of the final $40 million installment of the $100 million US-aid package approved by Congress last fall.
Besides the missiles, the rebels will receive heavy mortars, machine guns, and aircraft to augment an adequate but precarious supply network for rebel troops inside Nicaragua, these sources said.
The new supplies come as the rebels are escalating their war to topple the Sandinista government. Currently, there are about 11,000 contra troops in Nicaragua, the rebels say, and the number is expected to reach 15,000 by summer.
The rebels will add the new missiles to the 50 already in their inventory, said Indalecio Rodr'iguez, a director of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the contras' largest army.
No Redeyes have been deployed by rebel troops yet, a contra source said. Contras, who are trained in firing missiles, are receiving training in their use.
The contra source did not know when they would arrive in the field.
An undetermined number of the new missiles will be the US-made Redeye, which is more sophisticated than the Soviet-made SAM-7s already in use, according to the informed and rebel sources.
The missiles are used to counter the overwhelming advantage the Sandinistas have because of their use of Soviet helicopters, which have devastated contra operations.
Since the helicopters were first used in combat in 1985, the rebels have had to change their battlefield tactics.
In the past, different rebel military leaders have admitted they have had to break large units into small groups and stay away from open areas of Nicaragua where there was no cover to hide from helicopters.
The impact of the missiles now in contra hands has already been felt on the battlefield. The contras claim to have downed eight Sandinista helicopters since the beginning of 1987. A US official confirmed the rebels had downed two. A Western diplomat here with access to Western intelligence reports says: ``They [the Sandinistas] are not using the helicopters as aggressively as they should'' because of fears of the missiles.
The Sandinistas, with a limited number of helicopters - around 50, according to some reports - cannot afford to lose large numbers, the diplomat added.
``If they [the contras] get enough missiles, they will have a significant impact on [the Sandinista Army's] tactics,'' thus allowing the rebels greater freedom of movement, the diplomat said.
While superior to the Soviet SAM-7s, the Redeye by itself will not change the face of the war, according to a knowledgeable military source says. The Redeye and the SAM-7s both work with infrared tracking systems that lock onto the ``heat signature'' given off by a flying helicopter.
The Redeye has a slight advantage in technology that allows it to better home in on its targets, the military source said.
The biggest advantage the Redeye provides is its reliability. It is less prone to failure, according to the military source, than the SAM-7s after being exposed to damp conditions. This is an important consideration since the contras will carry the missiles through the Nicaraguan rainy season, which usually begins in May and goes through November.
Another key to success on the battlefield is the ability to resupply rebel troops in Nicaragua. Those troops are currently receiving sufficient supplies, but the entire supply operation is being carried out with only two airplanes (a DC-3 and a DC-6), which are flying from bases in Honduras, a second contra source said.
If the contras should lose the planes, their resupply operations would be severely hampered. New planes purchased with the $40 million, including at least one more DC-6, are meant to ease the dependency on the two aircraft, the contra source said.
Besides the missiles and the airplanes, the rebels will receive 81-and 122-millimeter mortars and heavy machine guns.
The weapons are light enough to be used by ground forces, but heavy enough to attack major targets, according to the informed source said.