As the threat of a serious confrontation with neighboring Honduras grows amid border skirmishes, a rising body count and increasingly bellicose rhetoric, the revolutionary government here is pushing ahead with plans to acquire Soviet Mig, French Mirage or other fighter-bomber aircraft, Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega said in an interview.
Ortega declined to specify the exact model of the planes being sought except to say they would be used primarily as "interceptors" to engage other aircraft in the event of an invasion.
The defense minister gave figures ranging from eight to 15 fighters as the potential force Nicaragua hopes to obtain in Paris, Moscow and other countries.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington said today that "no further arms sales" to Nicaragua are contemplated by his government.
The possibility of bringing Soviet-made fighters into Nicaragua was foreshadowed by U.S. State Department allegations last year that Soviet Bloc countries were training Nicaraguan pilots and that several military runways had been lengthened to handle the relatively sophisticated Mig 21s. The issue has been a major focus of U.S. concern and of the growing arms race in the region.
Ortega, who is the brother of junta member Daniel Ortega, insisted that the airplanes and Soviet-made tanks acquired last year are needed strictly for defensive purposes in a hostile environment in which Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders say they must equal or surpass the combined strength of all other regular Central American armies in order to protect their leftist revolution.
The 35-year-old defense minister said the flight radius of the planes being looked at is "very limited."
"We're not going to bomb Washington," he added with a bit of a smile.
Many of Ortega's remarks echoed statements this week by other top Sandinista officials. He said that the problems of conflict and warfare rapidly spreading through the area can be resolved conclusively only through political dialogue.
"We always come back to a vicious circle," said Ortega, speaking specifically about the growing tension with Honduras, "in which the only way out is political."
Ortega set no timetable for the arrival of the planes, saying that would depend largely on the development of a sufficient infrastructure to handle them, including additional training of pilots.
Ortega said that West Germany, Italy and other Western and Eastern European countries have been approached as sources of arms and aircraft. He said his government is working hard to strike a deal with France for the acquisition of Mirage fighters, possibly to operate in an air force that also included Migs.
Ortega and other Sandinista leaders repeatedly make the point that whatever arms they receive must be on concessional terms. With the exception of two French Alouette helicopters that arrived here a few weeks ago as part of a $17 million French arms package, most of the arms acquired by the Nicaragua in the last two years were manufactured in Soviet Bloc countries and obtained directly or through third parties such as Algeria.
The Sandinistas say they have lost more than 45 militiamen, policemen and soldiers in fights with anti-Sandinista insurgents in the last month. The government has charged that these rebels are working mainly out of camps in Honduras with the complicity of officers in the U.S.-backed Honduran Army and the direct or indirect support of Washington.
Meanwhile, leaders in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have blamed Nicaragua for backing subversion, arms trafficking or guerrilla movements in their countries and charged that the leftist Sandinista movement itself is a threat to regional security.
Joint U.S.-Honduran military exercises this week along the border in the troubled Atlantic Coast region have pushed tensions here even higher, with Nicaraguan officials warning both that such acts are a provocation and that "we will not be provoked." A U.S. Embassy spokesman said U.S.-crewed Cl30 transport planes have been moving the Honduran Fifth Battalion to Puerto Lempira on the Atlantic Coast.
The Nicaraguans consider the Honduran Air Force as a particularly serious threat. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Honduras has a dozen French Super Mystere fighters, which gives them Central America's most advanced air force.
Ortega claimed that the Hondurans are also trying to acquire American F5 fighter planes. A Honduran diplomat said such a purchase has been under discussion with Washington for several months but nothing had come of it.
El Salvador recently received six U.S.-made A37B fighter-bombers, which are modified trainers intended mainly to back up ground troops in the war with that country's guerrilla forces.
Guatemala has 10 A37Bs.
"Honduras has airplanes; Guatemala has airplanes; El Salvador has airplanes," Ortega said. "Nicaragua does not have planes."
He added that under the dictatorship of ousted president Anastasio Somoza, from which the Sandinistas inherited their handful of fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Force was oriented toward "repressing the people," not fighting a possible invasion, so it never needed sophisticated airplanes. "This myth has to end that when we have planes here we're inciting the arms race in Central America, because we don't have planes."
"We can't aspire to have a large Air Force," said Ortega, for lack of the resources, "but we have the duty and the right to have a modest Air Force."
According to Ortega, Nicaragua's current air defense consists of conventional antiaircraft batteries supplemented in some areas by what he described as "Red-Eye type" or "Sam-type" antiaircraft rockets, which are shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles that are effective and easy to use.
Nicaragua's Popular Sandinista Army has been transformed since l979 from a ragged force of less than 5,000 guerrilla combatants into a force of about 25,000 regular soldiers, according to Nicaraguan and diplomatic sources.