The Nicaraguan government will boost the ranks of its armed forces to 600,000 by 1995 under a defense agreement with the Soviet Union and aims to acquire advanced Soviet-made MIG fighter planes, missiles and artillery, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega said Saturday.
Ortega also admitted that the Sandinista government continues to help leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, with training in anti-aircraft weapons.
The defense minister made the disclosures apparently to blunt the damage of anticipated public revelation of statements by his former chief of staff, Maj. Roger Miranda Bengoechea, who defected to the United States in October. Sandinista officials had previously denied aiding the Salvadoran rebels.
Interviewed in Washington
Miranda was interviewed by reporters at the State Department in Washington last week and, among other things, said that secret military agreements have been negotiated with the Soviet Union and Cuba that call for a major military build-up, including the delivery of MIG-21 jets and enough arms for a Sandinista military force of 500,000 full- and part-time soldiers, the Washington Post reported.
The massive troop mobilization described by Ortega on Saturday--twice what the Sandinistas had disclosed before--would put nearly one of every five Nicaraguans in the Sandinista army, militia, reserves or security forces. It would make this impoverished nation among the most militarized in the Americas.
In a speech to labor leaders, Ortega said U.S.-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas are on the verge of defeat. But he said the military must expand and acquire more modern weapons to discourage a U.S. military intervention to end Sandinista rule.
Ortega, the brother of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, said that 250,000 men and women are now under arms and "soon we are going to be 300,000."
"We need to have an adequate defense in case another (President) Reagan comes along, not to mention what Reagan can do before his term is over," Ortega said.
Miranda, who had access to top-level meetings and sensitive documents here, is being debriefed by the CIA in Washington. During an interview that lasted more than four hours, he revealed to the Post details of the Sandinistas' 15-year military covenant with Moscow, dating from 1980, and covert aid to the Salvadoran rebels.
The Post said that Miranda was interviewed in a guarded State Department conference room on the same day that Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev were discussing easing military tensions in Nicaragua at the White House. The interview was arranged and monitored by State Department officials, the Post added.
News of the interview was scheduled to be made public this weekend.
Without mentioning Miranda, Ortega in his speech in Managua, said that the Reagan Administration is preparing "a campaign of slander to confuse public opinion and achieve congressional approval of $270 million" in new aid to the Nicaraguan Contras.
Defends Right to Ties
"They are trying to make people think it is something illicit, something terrible that Nicaragua, a sovereign country, has relations with the socialist bloc in the field of defense," he said. "Well, Nicaragua has the right to have relations with any country in the world."
Under the 15-year pact with the Soviets, which runs through 1995, Nicaragua plans to acquire modern radar, air defense systems, artillery, tanks, MIG jet fighters and coastal patrol boats, Ortega said.
The Reagan Administration has threatened to destroy MIGs on the ground if Nicaragua acquires them. Ortega did not say when he expected Nicaragua to receive the MIGs, but as he has done before, he declared that the Sandinistas' have the "right to possess these planes, whether Reagan likes it or not."
Ortega gave no other details about the planned acquisitions but said that "several thousand" Nicaraguan soldiers are taking courses in the Soviet Union, Cuba and other socialist countries to learn to operate the new weapons systems.
The United States has closely monitored Nicaragua's military acquisitions from the Soviet Bloc since the Marxist-led Sandinistas defeated President Anastasio Somoza's National Guard in the climax to an insurrection in the late 1970s and installed a leftist revolutionary government here.
Size Surprises Observers
But Western military observers said they were surprised by both the current and projected sizes of military manpower outlined by Ortega. They had estimated the number of Nicaraguans currently under arms at no more than 200,000.
The size of the military given by Ortega includes about 85,000 regular army troops and 15,000 security police. The rest are militiamen and reserves.
In addition to what he said about a Nicaraguan arms buildup, Miranda also made the following assertions during his interview last week, according to the Washington Post:
-- That top Sandinista leaders have adopted a secret strategy to turn a regional peace plan signed by Nicaragua and four other Central American countries into a "weapon" to consolidate Sandinista control over Nicaragua and to eliminate the U.S.-backed Contras.
-- That in the event of an expected U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas' secret defense plan calls for taking U.S. Embassy officials hostage and spreading the conflict throughout the region, including dropping bombs on targets in Costa Rica.
-- That the effects of the six-year Contra war have begun to take their toll inside Nicaragua, and that the Contras' greatest failure has been their inability to tap the discontent in Nicaragua's urban centers.
-- That acting on Humberto Ortega's direction, he oversaw the diversion of $1.4 million in Defense Ministry funds to a numbered Swiss bank account for the defense minister's personal use; that top Sandinista military officers have used a slush fund set up in Panama for personal expenses; and that Interior Minister Tomas Borge allegedly accepted bribes from drug traffickers.
In his speech here, again never mentioning Miranda's name, Ortega referred to allegations that he and others in the government had put money into foreign bank accounts and received drug funds, calling such assertions "another kind of slander" inspired by U.S. officials.
"They're looking for ways to discredit our revolution, but it is their country that has the biggest consumption of drugs in the world. It is they who have created the possibility of this evil."
In defending a costly military build-up here, Ortega acknowledged its drain on the economy but asserted, "A revolution that doesn't know how to defend itself isn't really a revolution."
Rejecting U.S. assertions that Managua wants to export its revolution, he said: "We are not going to have an offensive army capable of attacking other states, but we need all the modern arms necessary to defend the country." He recalled the 1983 U.S. invasion of Marxist-controlled Grenada and he declared, "That will not happen here."
One Western military specialist said the Sandinistas apparently want to expand the army as a political tool to indoctrinate youngsters drafted into the army and reserves for two-year periods.
"Looking at Cuba as a model, it's a convenient way of mobilizing the population, controlling it politically," he said. "I seriously doubt the Sandinistas really think the United States is really going to invade them."
Cuban President Fidel Castro, citing the threat of a U.S. invasion, has built up his army with Soviet assistance since taking power in 1959. Cuba has 1.7 million of its 10 million citizens under arms, now the largest proportion in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Western military specialists are skeptical that the Sandinistas can support an army of 600,000 people. "It would take a hell of a lot more organization than they have shown so far," said one. He said Nicaragua might have to increase the number of Cuban military advisers, now estimated at 2,500 to 3,000, to achieve its target.
Under the Central American peace accord signed Aug. 7, Nicaragua and four other countries are to negotiate limits on military manpower, hardware and foreign advisers.
Ortega reaffirmed Nicaragua's willingness "to discuss this question of armaments" but he added, "This does not mean we are renouncing the right to have the armament we need to have."
The peace accord also prohibits any Central American nation from letting insurgent forces use its territory to attack another.
Since the treaty was signed, the U.S.-backed government in El Salvador has accused the Sandinistas of continuing to arm the Salvadoran guerrillas. President Ortega said recently that Nicaragua aided the guerrillas in the early 1980s but had stopped.
Defense Minister Ortega said Saturday that Managua is now training Salvadoran rebels in the use of anti-aircraft missiles captured by the Sandinista army from Contra forces in Nicaragua.
Western military specialists say they have long suspected the Sandinistas of channeling some of their own Soviet-supplied SAM-7 and SAM-14 missiles to the Salvadoran rebels. But the United States does provide SAM-7s to the Contras.
"What authority does Reagan have to complain that the Sandinistas are training Salvadoran guerrillas in the use of missiles when he has given hundreds of these missiles to the Contras?" Ortega asked.
The disclosures were expected to increase Nicaragua's difficulties with its neighbors, which have long been suspicious of Sandinista intentions. The five Central American presidents are due to meet next month to review the peace accord.
A negative judgment on the accord's effectiveness could help the Reagan Administration win congressional approval for new Contra aid. The Administration clearly timed Miranda's declarations to influence an upcoming vote on non-lethal aid to the rebels.
Miranda, a veteran of the insurrection against Somoza, was considered a model Sandinista before his defection. He had served as Ortega's deputy since 1981 and was one of 25 military officers on the 104-man Sandinista party assembly.
In September, Miranda traveled to the United States to visit his 15-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in San Jose, Calif. It was there, Ortega asserted, that the CIA "seduced" him.
Miranda then returned to Managua, collected, copied and memorized military documents before leaving the country for good. At a press conference shortly thereafter, the defense minister called Miranda a "little worm" and the "biggest traitor" ever to the Sandinista cause.