Critics try to block US sale of advanced fighter jets to Honduras. But administration says F5 jets simply replace an aging fleet

Critics of United States policy in Central America are urging the Reagan administration to delay its proposed sale of advanced fighter jets to Honduras. Congressional opponents of the sale say the introduction of 10 F5-E and two F5-F jets to Honduras could escalate military tension in the region at a time when the five Central American presidents are preparing to hold a summit to discuss a Costa Rican peace plan.

Besides its potential for disrupting the June 25 meeting in Esquipulas, Guatemala, the F5 deal could provide Nicaragua with an excuse to acquire fighter jets of its own, the critics add.

The administration maintains that the planes are comparable replacements for Honduras's aging fleet of 1950s fighter jets and that they are needed to maintain Tegucigalpa's deterrent against Nicaraguan aggression.

Honduras has wanted F5s since at least 1983, but until last fall Washington had refused, fearing that such a move could provide Nicaragua with an excuse to obtain Soviet-made MIG-21s, according to US officials.

But the administration decided in October to grant Honduras's request because Tegucigalpa's Super Mystere fleet is ``rusting,'' Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified Tuesday. The Super Mystere has provided Honduras with control of Central America's skies, he said, arguing that this advantage is Honduras's only deterrent against Managua's ``deliberate campaign to intimidate a weaker neighbor.''

There are 75,000 troops in Nicaragua's army, along with another 45,000 reserves and militia, Mr. Abrams said, compared to less than 20,000 in the Honduran armed forces. Air superiority is the ``most cost efficient means'' of defending Honduran sovereignty, he said.

The F5's top speed is 300 miles an hour faster, its maximum payload is nearly three times heavier, and its combat radius is 165 miles wider than those of the Super Mystere, according to Pentagon statistics.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega told Managua's El Nuevo Diario newspaper last week that his government ``would be able to acquire MIG-type aircraft'' if the US delivered F5s to Honduras. But Washington has threatened to destroy any MIGs discovered in Nicaragua.

The sale's critics admit they will probably fail to muster enough votes to block the deal in Congress, but say they are determined to force the administration to defend this aspect of its Central American policy.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted last month to prohibit the use of US funds to introduce advanced fighter jets into Central America. This month 59 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Reagan asking that he postpone the sale, while 11 senators sent a similar message.

``Prospects for peace in Central America will be damaged by the F5 sale,'' Rep. Gerald Kleczka (D) of Wisconsin told a House subcommittee Tuesday. ``At the very time that Central American presidents are actively considering proposals to reduce armament levels, we should not be introducing a new generation of combat aircraft'' into the region, he said.

The administration notified Congress on May 12 that it intends to sell the F5s to Honduras over the next four years. Congress has until June 11 to block the request.

Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut warned that the sale could signal a ``dangerous beginning of a ratcheting up of the arms race in the region.'' He joined other lawmakers in charging that ``the more likely purpose of this sale is to buy continued Honduran support for the contras.''

Abrams testified that the new jet ``does not represent a new capability for Honduras; rather it is an incremental improvement of an existing one.''

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