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IDSA COMMENT

The Israel Factor in Honduras Efforts to Modernise its Air Force

February 09, 2017

On 2nd November 2016, the Honduran National Congress approved a draft decree – 139-2016 – approving a cooperation agreement, signed on 27th July 2016, between Israel and Honduras.1 This agreement was to refurbish the ageing Honduran Air Force (Fuerza Aerea Hondureña – FAH) force of helicopters, Tucano trainers, Northrop F-5 fighters and Cessna A-37 attack aircraft. 2 This was followed by a meeting on 8th December 2016 in Jerusalem between Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which confirmed the agreement, along with others for a dedicated military communication system and the building of a large patrol vessel for the Honduran Navy.3 The total package is reputedly worth USD 209 million.

This most recent effort represents the culmination of several years of concerted effort on the part of the FAH to refurbish its military aviation assets, previous efforts having foundered due to the objections of the United States.

Background

The FAH is probably unique in military history in that its establishment as a professional, organized force pre-dates that of the Honduran army (which took until 1933 to emerge as a semi-professional entity). In 1921, the first two Bristol F.2b biplane fighters were acquired. A decade later, the foundation of a professional air force was established with the Escuela Nacional de Aviacion being founded on 14th April 1931, with the official establishment of the Aviacion Militar Hondureña following in 1933.4

The FAH proved its competence during the July 1969 “Football War” with El Salvador when its F4U Corsairs gained complete control of the air in the face of stiff opposition from El Salvador’s air force.5 The performance of the FAH stood in stark contrast to the defeat of the Honduran army which was outmanned and outgunned by a highly-trained and capable Salvadoran army. This significantly enhanced the prestige of the FAH and while the Honduran army was revamped and thereafter acquired a reputation for professionalism and competence, the FAH remained the lynchpin of Honduran defences.

In the 1970s, the FAH emerged as the most potent force in Central America with deliveries of six ex-Venezuelan F-86K interceptors in 1970 being followed by ten ex-Yugoslav F-86E Mk.IVs in 1976. These were augmented by deliveries of Cessna A-37s from the United States from 1975 onwards.6 The FAH established a strong connection with Israel when 21 ex-Israeli Dassault Super Mystere B.2 fighter bombers were procured between 1976 and 1978. These were the first supersonic aircraft in Central American military service (Mexico not receiving its F-5s until 1982) and, being armed with Shafrir air-to-air missiles, easily outmatched the air forces of all neighbouring countries.7 The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua led to a further leap in capability for the FAH as the country became a favoured US ally, leading to the first of a dozen Northrop F-5s being delivered in 1989.8

The F-86s were retired in 1986 while the Super Mysteres served in ever decreasing numbers until 1996 leaving the 10 F-5s and 10 A-37s – the survivors of 12 and 17 respectively - to spearhead the FAH’s combat element, augmented by 9 EMB-312 Tucanos. Economic difficulties and the ravages of time have taken their toll on the serviceability of aircraft and it is believed not more than three to five F-5s and maybe three to six A-37s remain serviceable.9

It should be noted that the helicopter element of the FAH is almost entirely of US manufacture with Bell UH-1s, Bell 412s and Hughes 500 types predominating. The transport force is small with a solitary C-130 and IAI Arva being the most significant assets. Three Let L-410s and two each, of the Cessna 208 and Turbo Commander families provide a light transport capability.

Combat Experience

This potent force saw limited action against the Nicaraguan Air Force of the 1980s (the Fuerza Aerea Sandinista – FAS as it was then known). In support of Contra rebels, the F-5s shot down a FAS Mi-17 helicopter while the Super Mysteres accounted for one FAS Mi-8 and damaged a FAS Mi-24.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of the narcotics trade as a major security challenge to Honduras and the rest of the region. The FAH took the lead in aerial interdiction efforts with a Super Mystere shooting down a narcotics transporting DC-3 on 9th March 1983 and a CASA C-101 trainer (a type now in storage) downing a C-47 on 9th March 1987. This policy found favour with the United States from the 1980s to about 2001, but the shooting down of a civilian aircraft by the Peruvian air force leading to the death of a US missionary and her infant led to a rethink on the part of the United States.10

Cessation of Cooperation

In January 2014, the Honduran National Congress approved a law which would permit the shooting down of suspected drug-trafficking aircraft. 11 The “Law on Protection of Air Spaces”, as it is named, sought to establish an exclusive aerial zone in certain Caribbean provinces of Honduras that are known as entry points for narcotics consignments and limit nocturnal flights throughout the entire country.12

This law brought Honduras into contention with the United States and led to a cessation of active support for the Honduran air force. In 2012, the shooting down of two suspected narcotics flights had led to the suspension of US radar support for the FAH efforts to intercept such flights.13 The 2014 law brought about a harsher US reaction. While the sharing of radar data and intelligence was stopped once again, the United States began to actively hinder Honduran efforts to upgrade and overhaul its aircraft, with Israel being forced to abandon a USD 30 million contract to repair the FAH’s F-5 fleet.14

Hopes Pinned on a Change in Administration

Honduras is no longer reliant on US radar data for intelligence on narcotics flights. In 2016, the FAH took delivery of the last 3 Elta radars – one primary and two secondary – which the country ordered from Israel in 2014.15 However, given the overwhelming preponderance of US equipment in the FAH’s combat and helicopter fleets, US cooperation is still needed to enable the repair, overhaul and upgrade of these aircraft.

Honduras is a member of the F-5 Technical Coordination Group which should enable an easier process for the repair of the aircraft but US permission is needed for third parties to undertake anything more than the most basic maintenance of the aircraft.16 The United States enforced this requirement for permission in a stringent way, leading to Honduras experiencing difficulties in availing itself of earlier Brazilian and Israeli offers to overhaul and upgrade its fleet.

The 2016 agreement with Israel, however, – covering the repair, refurbishment and upgrade of 10 F-5s, 10 A-37s, 9 Tucanos, 6 Bell UH-1s, 6 Bell-412EPs and 2 Hughes 500Ds -comes at a time when there is a change in Administration in the United States.17 Two factors may weigh in to assist Honduras in ensuring that the United States does not stymie this effort. The first is the fact that the Secretary for Homeland Security, retired General John Kelly – former head of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), was a scathing critic of the Obama Administration’s policy towards Latin America.18 In his capacity as head of SOUTHCOM, Secretary Kelly consistently advocated a greater military response to interdicting the illegal narcotics trade and bemoaned the inadequate resources the US allocated to the task.19 In his former capacity, Secretary Kelly was also very appreciative of the 98% reduction in drug flights achieved by Honduras after the 2014 “Law on the Protection of Air Space” took effect.20 This may mean that the United States may be more favourably disposed towards Honduras and its robust shoot-down policy.

The second factor is the close political and personal relationship that Donald Trump has with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The personal investment the latter has made in these high-profile contracts with Honduras may compel the Israeli Prime Minister to lobby the Trump Administration to giving the requisite approvals for the contracts. Should this happen, it would augur well for Israel’s efforts to rejuvenate the FAH which would see it maintaining and reinforcing its position of primacy among the air arms of Central America.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.