The Defense Department is preparing to step up operational testing of a new intelligence-gathering, remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) in Honduras, according to congressional testimony earlier this year.

For two years, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been running a small research and development program at the U.S.-built airstrip near San Lorenzo in Honduras, close to the borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador. A handful of U.S. soldiers and civilians have been testing Skyeye RPVs, built by Lear-Siegler Corp., under a project codenamed Greywolf, designed to gather intelligence on Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, according to congressional sources.

That program, which cost $20 million and led to the crash of at least five of eight Skyeyes, ended last November, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Now, the Pentagon is seeking $1.6 million from Congress in next year's defense spending bill to begin construction of four additional drone ground launch sites in Honduras, according to testimony given a House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction in March.

The U.S. Southern Command, which runs American military operations in that area, "continues to test and evaluate the development of a reliable RPV system for application to low-intensity warfare needs," the testimony said.

"It is unknown how long this R&D research and development effort will take before we can transition to a fully developed operational system," Pentagon officials told Congress.

The Army this month is requesting proposals from contractors that build RPVs, leading to a competitive "fly-off" between models that will end in purchase of an "intelligence and electronic warfare RPV," the Pentagon spokesman said. He could not say whether these drones will be tested from the proposed new sites in Honduras.

The funds would provide for "site preparation and security" for the new sites, which may be moved from San Lorenzo "to a more suitable operational location," the Defense Department told Congress.

In a related matter, the House subcommittee hearings also disclosed that the department is seeking $15.3 million to build a Caribbean radar network during the next three years.

The network, according to Gen. John R. Galvin, commander of the Southern Command, would help protect the Panama Canal and Caribbean Basin, as well combat drug traffickers.

"If you take off today from Bogota Colombia flying to Miami," Galvin said, "you would think you would be under radar control all the way, but in fact you are not. This is hurting us."