WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration, embroiled in an investigation of secret aid to the Nicaraguan contras, today entered a new controversy by announcing it intends to provide Honduras with 10 sophisticated F-5E fighter planes over the next two years.
The $72-million package represents the first sale of U.S. jets to a Central American country in 20 years, key senators who have been urging against the move said.
The sale is another element in U.S. efforts to deter Honduras' southern neighbor, Nicaragua, which the Administration maintains is attempting to export its revolution. The transaction also includes two F5-F trainers.
Nine senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), urged President Reagan in a letter to back off from the plan.
Appeal From House
A similar appeal, senators said, went to Reagan from 59 House members urging him to reconsider.
"The United States should not be promoting a further militarization of the conflict in Central America," said the senators' letter, which was released by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
"We consider this proposed sale particularly ill-timed," the letter said. "It would be counterproductive to the fragile multilateral peace initiatives currently going on in Central America."
Several members of Congress have argued that providing the planes would allow Nicaragua to justify obtaining MIG fighters from the Soviet Union.
The proposed sale comes as the United States plans large war games in Honduras next month.
U.S. Increases Aid
As Honduras has been increasingly cast in the role of the first line of defense against Nicaragua's leftist government, U.S. military and economic aid has risen from $45.3 million in 1981 to about $191 million currently.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Pentagon will formally notify Congress this week that it wants to proceed with the deal. Congress has 30 days to pass legislation to prevent the sale, or the transaction will occur automatically.
Fitzwater said the aircraft would replace aging planes in the Honduran air force that are "rapidly approaching the end of their useful life."
Replacement, Not Expansion
Fitzwater said Nicaragua has "no reason to increase their forces in response to this program. The Honduran air force poses no threat to Central American stability. The F-5 sale is not a military buildup, only a replacement of an aging and existing force."
Honduras has been relying for its air defense on 1950s vintage French Mystere jet fighters and has had difficulty acquiring spare parts for them.
The Administration claims Honduras must maintain air superiority over Nicaragua to offset the sizable manpower advantage of the Sandinista armed forces. The F-5Es are said to have greater agility than the Mysteres and have air intercept and air-to-ground capability.
Deliveries of the aircraft are scheduled to begin this December and conclude in 1989, Administration officials said.