The Pentagon is conducting a "high-priority" study of the building of six spartan airfields in Honduras to help the Honduran military cut supply routes linking Nicaragua through Honduras with leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, Gen. E.C. Meyer, the retiring Army chief of staff, said yesterday.
Meyer said the aim was to spot "about a half a dozen" largely unpaved bases around the country so Honduran C130 transports could fly troops to where they are needed. He added that the United States would probably want to provide additional C130s for the Honduran air force.
Pentagon spokesman Henry E. Catto Jr. said later that "there are no plans at this time to build additional airfields or to become involved in trying to make interdictions in Honduras." But White House officials said they would not dispute Meyer's assertion that the study was being made.
Meyer was explaining what U.S. military leaders believed Central American nations, with limited American help, should do to combat leftist infiltration and insurrection more effectively.
He said additional C130 landing fields in Honduras, which a U.S. Army engineer battalion could build in seven days, would give Honduran light infantry greater capability to engage leftist guerrillas before they scattered to hiding places.
A recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to do this would carry considerable weight with President Reagan and his aides, who are seeking to make visible progress against communist-supported forces in Central America. Construction of such landing fields would further increase U.S. military involvement in Honduras, where 120 more U.S. advisers have gone to train Salvadoran government troops at a new American-built base.
In emphasizing self-help measures for the armies and navies of Central American countries friendly to the United States, Meyer said he and his fellow chiefs oppose sending U.S. combat troops to Central America at this time.
But he added, without elaboration, that this would be "an option that would have to be considered" if the upcoming elections in El Salvador "went badly." Those elections are expected late this year or early next, but the guerrillas fighting the Salvadoran government have said they will not participate.
"I don't think domestic support exists today" for sending U.S. troops to Central America, Meyer said in a breakfast conversation with Pentagon reporters.
Warning against rushing troops into Central America, Meyer said, "I wouldn't know how to design a U.S. military solution to the region . . . . You couldn't go into a given country and seal it where there were free borders."
The 54-year-old general, who retires this month after serving as the youngest Army chief of staff, portrayed himself as a leading member of the "never again" school about committing American forces without public support or clearly defined objectives.
"I am concerned about having soldiers at the end of a string without the support of the American people," Meyer said.
Before sending American forces into combat in a distant trouble spot, he continued, "it should be clearly identified up front what you want the forces to do" and there should be "a clear evaluation of whether it's possible. We didn't do that in Vietnam."
Even after meeting those conditions, sending American troops into Central America would be a highly risky endeavor, according to Meyer. "As country terrorism turns into urban terrorism," he said, it becomes "very difficult" for regular forces to combat it.
Another risk, he added, is that after sending in American troops "all you end up with afterward is a sanitized area into which there is no one to step," leading to a new conflict as leaders in the region jockeyed for power.
Meyer also said the United States would be "perceived as interventionist. It could be back to gringo arrives, clears out area, goes home."
He urged a broad effort to assist friendly governments in Central America, what he called an effort "of the Americas, not just the United States." He said the United States "should build on" Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama in forging regional responses to problems in Central America.
At another point, Meyer complained that, in the past, U.S. efforts "were not organized to address the totality of the problem."
"Economic support is at least as important, if not more so, than military," he said, adding that U.S. policy toward Central America appears to be on the right track now.
Asked how many U.S. military advisers should be sent to Central America, as distinguished from fighting troops, the general replied: "I don't believe there should be a stated ceiling on how many military go down there."
"I support covert action in Nicaragua," Meyer said, referring to U.S. aid to guerrillas opposing the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. "I believe there is a role for it. The Soviets use covert action; the Cubans use covert action. The way the Nicaraguans are responding, we must be having some success down there."