The Joint Chiefs of Staff have unanimously recommended that the U.S. military be engaged to an unprecedented extent in fighting Central American drug production and trafficking, Adm. James D. Watkins said here today.

Watkins, chief of naval operations, told a Navy strategy conference that, under the "massive new program" envisioned by the chiefs, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all would help Central American countries that ask for assistance in combating the drug trade.

The intent, Watkins said, is to help such countries as Colombia, Peru and Venezuela -- if their governments are willing -- in training highly mobile teams to stamp out rural production of marijuana and heroin while U.S. aircraft and ships try to stop export of the drugs.

The sale of heroin and other drugs, Watkins said, finances weapons for insurgents attempting to destabilize or topple anti-Marxist governments in the hemisphere. This direct linkage, he said, makes drug production and distribution "a national security problem."

Although the U.S. military has stepped up its efforts to interdict drugs from Central America, the admiral said, "This isn't good enough."

He said the U.S. civilian and military efforts have scarcely dented the trafficking.

"We need . . . a more coherent plan" for stamping out the drugs that finance insurgencies in Central America and kill people in the United States, Watkins said.

"It could be a rallying point for this hemisphere," the admiral declared, if the United States worked with other governments "to solve this problem."

He sketched out a plan under which the U.S. military would train the Central American nations' antidrug forces and give or loan them weapons and equipment.

The military's direct role, he said, would be to "surround" a participating nation so that drugs could not be sent out in planes or ships.

Watkins said the chiefs will send their antidrug plan to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger soon and meet with some 33 civilian agencies that would have some role.

Covering a wide range of other subjects, the admiral said:

*The Navy has changed its rules of engagement in such volatile spots as the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf to combat terrorism. U.S. ships now have permission to shoot down light aircraft and sink boats that ignore warning flares and shots and approach within three miles of American warships.

An unidentified aircraft, which might be piloted by a terrorist and filled with bombs, can be shot down by a Stinger missile if it comes within about "two or three miles of a ship," Watkins said. He added that there is a checklist of warnings to be issued before taking such action.

U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf already have fired warning shots against fast patrol boats that threatened them there, he said. He said the incidents have fallen off sharply since the rules of engagement were changed to allow such defensive action.

*The Navy, along with the other services, has launched an intensive hunt for new ways to combat terrorism. He said research was needed to find ways to disable a hijacked aircraft on the ground.