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U.S. to Offer F-5 Jets to Honduras : Introduction of Advanced Fighters Would Escalate Region’s Arms Race

Times Staff Writer

The Reagan Administration has decided to offer F-5 jet fighters to Honduras, an action that would introduce the first advanced warplanes to Central America, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The move, an escalation in Central America’s arms race, is designed to maintain Honduran air superiority in the face of a steady buildup in the armed forces of leftist-ruled Nicaragua, Honduras’ neighbor to the south.

But it is also aimed at outflanking an attempt by Israel to sell its Kfir combat fighter to Honduras instead of the U.S. plane, which is manufactured by Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles.

“There is an approval in principle,” a State Department official said. “There has been no final decision on the details. But we are committed to maintaining Honduras’ air superiority, so there is no reason to play games about what planes they can and cannot have.”

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Honduras has one of the smallest armies in Central America and has long relied on its air force, generally considered the best in the region, for defense.

Aging Fighter Squadron

But the air force’s core, a single squadron of 14 French-made Super-Mystere fighters, dates from the 1950s, and the Hondurans have long been asking the United States for new planes.

Until recently, however, the Administration had delayed such a move, arguing that the Hondurans did not yet need advanced fighters and, in any event, could not afford them.

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18 to 24 Aircraft

U.S. officials said no final decision has been made on how many F-5s Honduras should buy, but they said that 18 to 24 were under consideration.

If Honduras buys either the F-5 or the Kfir, it will have easily the most advanced combat aircraft in Central America. The only other jet fighters in the area are eight aging and little-used French Ouragans in El Salvador--except, of course, for the nearby air forces of Cuba and the United States.

Leftist Nicaragua has frequently declared its intention to accept fighters from the Soviet Union, and has reportedly trained pilots on MIG-21 jets in Bulgaria and Cuba.

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But the Administration has hinted broadly that the United States would destroy any such planes if they are delivered to Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas have quietly dropped the idea.

There are still several hitches before a sale to Honduras goes through, however. For one thing, Israel offered its fighters to the Hondurans first. But when the Hondurans reportedly signed a preliminary contract for the sale, the Administration objected to the deal, effectively blocking it. The Israeli-made Kfir is powered by U.S.-made engines, and thus needs U.S. approval for any sales.

Besides, officials said, the Hondurans planned to rely on U.S. military aid to buy the planes from Tel Aviv.

Said U.S. Would Pay

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“The Israelis actually told the Hondurans that we would finance the sale of their plane, a sale that we hadn’t approved,” said one State Department official. “Can you believe that?”

Now the Hondurans are caught between two offers.

“The Hondurans haven’t made a decision on what they want,” a senior Pentagon official said.

“They’re looking ahead a couple of years for a replacement aircraft,” he said. “The F-5 . . . will be around for a while,” with replacement parts available, though that is true for the Kfir as well.

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It is also uncertain how Honduras, the poorest country in Central America, will pay for the aircraft.

Israeli Plane Cheaper

Israeli officials have told the Hondurans that the Kfir would be cheaper, at about $200 million for 24. A congressional aide estimated that the F-5 packages under consideration could cost as much as $350 million.

U.S. aid to Honduras last year, both military and economic, totaled about $132 million.

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“Nobody has any idea where the money is going to come from,” the aide said.


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