DECEMBER 1984 / JANUARY 1985 - VOLUME 5. NO 12 / VOLUME 6, NO. 1
Mercenary Marketeers Cashing In On the Salvadoran Air War
by Anne Nelson
The transient U.S. population in El Salvador has always been a motley crew, made up of itinerant journalists, would-be mercenaries, and even occasional surfers in search of the ultimate wave. But there is a new and growing community among them, made up of U.S. arms dealers eager to cash in on a steadily escalating war.
From 1980 to 1984 U.S. military aid leapt from $6.7 million to $196.5 million; there was a 140% increase in U.S. military aid from 1983 to 1984 alone. And since much of the aid money is tied up in Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credits, the Salvadorans are obliged to spend a large percentage of the money with U.S. corporations. At the same time, the U.S. is building up its own military infrastructure in the country and the region. Like any war in which a superpower takes an interest, the battle for El Salvador is becoming big business.
As one example, consider a man we'll call "Jim." Jim is a test pilot for a large helicopter company, a Vietnam veteran who's been flying helicopters - and crashing the defective models - for years. He has spent a lot of time in El Salvador recently. El Salvador is considered a hazardous zone, as are a number of other Latin countries. When Jim works in a hazardous zone, he charges $500, 24 hours a day, including the hours he spends sleeping and drinking beer by the pool. The Pentagon ends up paying for his services most of the time, and seems eager to stay in his good graces. When Jim himself looks at El Salvador, he is more puzzled than political; "It's amazing how these countries spend millions on helicopters when their people are hungry."
Over the past five years, the Reagan Administration's determination to prevent a guerrilla victory has led to a transformation of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. The Salvadoran Army has grown from under 20,000 men in 1980 to nearly 30,000 now. Their cumbersome G-3 assault rifles, manufactured by Hechler and Koch in Norway and Germany, have been almost universally replaced by the lighter, faster M-16's, manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut by Colt Industries - the preferred weapon of soldier and guerrilla alike.
Beyond the question of hardware, the United States' military advisors have had a profound influence on how El Salvador's defense dollars are spent. Quite simply, they are transforming the traditional tactics and technology of Central American warfare. Blocked by congressional and public fears of a lengthy U.S. involvement, the Pentagon has been obliged to "Vietnamize" the war in El Salvador from the outset. Given the erratic performance of Salvadoran ground troops, this has meant an ever-increasing emphasis on aviation.
As of 1969, the Salvadoran Air Force consisted of only eleven combat planes, all World War II vintage propeller-driven ships, plus five DC-3 transport planes and some light aircraft. When the Salvadorans launched their ill--fated air assault against Honduras during the 1969 "Soccer War," they were reduced to loading bombs onto their DC3's.
Now, thanks in large part to U.S. training and military aid, El Salvador boasts a vastly modernized air force of 1,200 men, including about 75 pilots. The centerpiece of the Air Force is a collection of six A-37 Dragonfly jet attack planes. Constructed by Cessna in Wichita, Kansas, the Dragonfly's bomb racks hold six 500-pound or four 750-pound bombs, and are mounted with rotating barrel, Gatling--type 7.62 mm machineguns.
The A-37 was used extensively in Vietnam. In El Salvador the planes are used to bomb hamlets and camps in the guerrilla-controlled zones. (In a recent Soldier of Fortune article the author, nostalgic for his days in Vietnam, "takes the stick" of a Dragonfly and pilots it to a target area on a Salvadoran raid: "The right wing lifted gently as our deadly cargo clicked off the bomb-rack and nosed toward the cluster of hootches.")
The Defense Attache for the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador recently told a visiting delegation that bombing runs are used to "sanitize the area." When pressed to define his terms, he stated that "sanitize is a euphemism for getting rid of what's there so you can land." But he reassured the group that there were few civilian casualties, because "the bombing has become almost surgical."
In reality there have been extensive civilian casualties. In many areas the guerrillas and their civilian supporters have built complexes of air raid shelters, or "tatus," which minimize their losses. Many of those killed in the bombing raids are children and elderly people unable to seek cover.
There have been continuing but inconclusive reports of napalm. In 1983 General Juan Rafael Bustillo, the Air Force commander, admitted that napalm had been used until 1981. He claims that the Air Force hasn't since then. In October, 1984 Defense Minister Carlos Vides Casanova stated that the armed forces had stockpiled 15 napalm bombs purchased "11 or 12 years ago," but that he "did not intend to use them."
The Salvadoran Air Force includes about six O-2A Skymaster spotter planes, also manufactured by Cassia. These have been converted for military use with additional radios and rocket launch tubes. Two AC-47 Spooky gunships were recently added. These are C-47's modified by the addition of telescopic, infra red, low light and laser light television systems and banks of machine guns. The Duarte government has forbidden the military from using more than one gunship in any single operation. Bustillo was chastised earlier this year for breaking the guideline.
The Salvadoran Air Force has at least 34 "Huey" UH-1H Iroquois helicopters of Vietnam vintage, each of which can transport up to I S troops or 5,000 pounds of weaponry and ammunition. The Hueys are manufactured by Bell Helicopters, a Textron subsidiary based in Fort Worth, Texas. The Salvadoran fleet also includes helicopters from Sikorski and Hughes Aircraft as well as French and Brazilian manufacturers. U.S. officials have told reporters that they expect ten to fifteen more by the end of the year.
The helicopters require extensive maintenance, and their engines are routinely sent up to the United States, where they are repaired alongside U.S. military vehicles. A recent Soldier of Fortune article criticized the fact that the Salvadoran copters were not given priority: "It doesn't mat-ter if the other engines are used only on Sunday by the Podunk Army National Guard, if they came into the depot first, they get repaired first.. Soldier of Fortune magazine discovered the situation and brought it to the attention of Reagan Administration officials. That nudge created some reaction and engines from El Salvador were given additional priority, moving the scheduled time of repair up to only four months."
Soldier of Fortune makes an impassioned argument for increased technical and material aid and training for the Salvadoran Air Force, bemoaning congressional restrictions on U.S. advisors. "El Salvador might consider hiring civilians with extensive military backgrounds to work as advisors without political restrictions. The civilians, like the AID or DOD counterparts, would certainly not be mercenaries, but they would be less politically sensitive than U.S. military personnel." But as Soldier of Fortune should be the first to recognize, the civilian advisors are already there; at times, the only difference between a mercenary and a businessman is the size of his paycheck.
Anne Nelson writes frequently on Central America for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and other publications.