The Army general responsible for Central America has briefed Reagan administration officials on how a network of permanent bases could be built in Honduras for use by U.S. forces in an emergency, it was learned yesterday.
Gen. Paul F. Gorman, the new commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, which controls military forces in Central America, has "moved out aggressively and come in with elaborate schemes," said one official familiar with the general's briefings being given in secret administration councils.
Although Gorman's ideas are still in the discussion stage, they represent at least an exploration of ways to facilitate a long-term U.S. military presence in Central America.
"One argument is that Honduras is not a bad place for us to be, given the uncertainties of Panama and even Guantanamo" in Cuba, said one official of the Southern Command briefings.
The military bases involved would cost millions of dollars to build, officials said, and such a proposal probably would receive a chilly reception in Congress because of fears that bases could lead to a Vietnam-type of involvement in Central America.
Gorman said through a spokesman at his Panama headquarters that he did not wish to comment or discuss his briefings.
The discussions of the most effective use of military forces to influence events in Central America over the long term are proceeding while the United States is demonstrating its immediate concern with maneuvers in the region.
The aircraft carrier USS Ranger has been cruising since July 22 with her seven escorting ships, including four destroyers and a frigate, off Nicaragua's Pacific coast. She was ordered to leave those waters last night for the Indian Ocean but soon will be replaced off Nicaragua by the refurbished World War II battleship USS New Jersey.
Another aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea, and her escorting warships are steaming from the Mediterranean to make another show of force off Nicaragua's eastern coast in the Caribbean. The Coral Sea battle group is expected to arrive there late this month and leave a few weeks later.
Come September, an administration official said yesterday, "a new decision will have to made" about future ship deployments to Central America. Navy planners assume that they will be ordered to keep rotating warships in and out of Central American waters, as is done in the Indian Ocean.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said in an interview yesterday that there are no plans to escalate the sea maneuvers by stopping ships suspected of carrying war supplies to Nicaragua for shipment to anti-government forces in El Salvador.
A Navy warship sailing with the Ranger requested by radio Saturday that the Soviet freighter Alesandro Ulyanov give its name, destination and cargo. The Soviet skipper, according to the Navy, said he was carrying "general" cargo and proceeded to the Nicaraguan port of Corinto.
The Navy guided missile destroyer USS Lynde McCormick followed the Ulyanov to within 12 miles of the Nicaraguan coast but did not hinder its passage, the Pentagon said.
Yesterday the White House released a copy of the Ulyanov's manifest, which showed that the freighter was carrying two troop transport helicopters and airplane spare parts to Nicaragua. White House spokesman Larry Speakes declined to reveal how the manifest was obtained. He said the spare parts were for turbo-prop planes that could be used for civilian and military purposes.
The Ulyanov also carried "general cargo," Speakes said. He said the White House was making public the ship's manifest because reporters had asked for "evidence" that the ship was carrying war supplies to Nicaragua as President Reagan had stated July 26.
Weinberger said yesterday that what the McCormick did in its encounter with the Ulyanov "was fully consistent with both international law and the general practices of ships within the vicinity of a carrier battle group."
Weinberger said the departure of the Ranger marked the end of phase one of the sea maneuvers in Central American waters. He said phase two will begin when the Coral Sea goes on station and will end with her departure.
Asked if he or the Joint Chiefs of Staff had any reluctance to engage in the sea, air and land exercises for fear they might lead to a Vietnam-type of involvement in the region, Weinberger said no, adding:
"This has been completely supported and planned by the Joint Chiefs and the planning approved by me, which is the normal pattern for this kind of thing. There certainly has been no warning that this could lead to permanent involvement because the dates of the exercise totally forbid that."
Pentagon policy director Fred C. Ikle in a separate interview said that one objective in sending warships to Central America "is to give pause to the Nicaraguans and Cubans so they might decrease their activities" designed to topple non-Marxist governments. Another, Ikle said, is "to signal our friends that we can move in with greater force if necessary."
Already the Ranger and other ships the United States sent to Central America "have established an attitude of caring," Ikle added. "There is a certain parallel to the ship deployments to the Indian Ocean," which President Carter increased in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the turmoil in Iran.
U.S. ground forces, as another part of the attempt to demonstrate U.S. strength and resolve, are scheduled to go in and out of Honduras between now and March. Army officials said they will not carry any more ammunition, food or other supplies than they need for the exercises. This corroborates administration statements that there is no plan to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Honduras at this time.
To prepare American troops for a long stay or to engage in combat would require stockpiling tons of equipment in Honduras, as was done in Vietnam. There is no apparent sign that this is about to be happen.
Whatever facilities the U.S. military builds for its exercises could be used by the Honduran military, however, and could form a core for an infrastructure suitable for later use by American forces.
Gorman has said there will be no big, single exercise in Honduras, but rather "a series of relatively unconnected discrete training undertakings." These will include Hondurans training with U.S. Marines to learn how to stop guerrillas and supplies from infiltrating into their country by sea, joining a U.S. Army artillery outfit in practicing supporting fire and conducting infantry sweeps with crack U.S. units.
As part of civic action training, the Pentagon plans to send Army engineers to Honduras to drill wells and actually draw water.
"Although it has drilled many a hole," Gorman said of the battalion going to Honduras, "it has never brought water out of the ground," because "in the United States you have to get permits and the rest of it. Environmental restraints have foreclosed these guys from doing their job all the way through. Here is going to be an opportunity for them to do it and to do it in a way that will benefit them and the Hondurans."