The Reagan Administration, in a major addition to the firepower of El Salvador’s air force, has decided to provide 12 Bell UH-1M attack helicopters to the Central American nation, officials said Wednesday.
The heavily armed UH-1M will be the most powerful combat helicopter in the Salvadoran fleet, which is taking a leading role in an expanding air war against leftist guerrillas.
State Department officials said the new shipments reflect U.S. confidence that air attacks on the guerrillas have been a key factor in reducing the insurgency.
“It’s a continuation of the kind of support we’ve been providing in the past, although these are more powerful weapons than what they’ve had before,” said one official, who refused to be identified because the arms shipment has not yet been officially announced.
“It’s a quite significant increase in their capability,” said a Democratic congressional aide, who also refused to be quoted by name.
The new shipments will increase the size of El Salvador’s helicopter force from 49 to 61. Six of the 12 new helicopters already have been delivered, a State Department official said, with the other six expected soon.
The guerrillas and human rights groups have charged that the Salvadoran air force bombs and strafes civilian villages indiscriminately. But few specific reports of such casualties have surfaced and the U.S. and Salvadoran governments claim that attacks are carefully targeted to minimize harm to civilians.
The UH-1M is armed with rapid-fire 7.62-millimeter “mini-guns,” which can spray a target area with up to 6,000 bullets per minute. Most of the attack helicopters now used by the Salvadorans are armed with .50-caliber machine guns, which fire more slowly.
The UH-1M also carries rocket launchers, sophisticated sighting and firing devices and night-vision equipment that could enable the Salvadorans to pursue guerrilla columns moving in the night, officials said.
The Administration has also decided to provide additional mini-guns for four Hughes 500 helicopters in the Salvadoran air force, the congressional aide said. The choppers now carry a single mini-gun each but will be modified to carry two.
A pilot once described the mini-gun’s effect in rural areas as being like “hay going through a threshing machine.” Military officials often boast that it can blanket an area the size of a football field with bullets in a matter of seconds.
The new weaponry is being provided under existing military aid appropriations for El Salvador, which will reach a total of $127 million in the fiscal year ending Oct. 1.