WASHINGTON -- The United States will outfit two C-47 aircraft currently in the Salvadoran air force with machine guns and night vision equipment to improve its ability to battle leftist rebels, State Department officials said Tuesday.
Congressional critics of the Reagan administration policy in Central America said the move was a compromise from a plan earlier this year to equip the World War II-vintage propeller planes with more potent firepower.
Earlier proposals reportedly included converting the C-47s into AC-47 gunships, widely used in Vietnam and nicknamed 'Puff the Magic Dragon' for their guns capable of firing 18,000 rounds a minute.
The current plan, expected to cost $3.15 million, calls for two planes to be equipped with less sophisticated guns than those on AC-47s.
'It's a much less impressive rate of fire' than the planned modification, said a State Department official who asked not to be named.
The official added that the three .50-caliber machine guns and flare illumination equipment to be fitted on the planes would be 'a low-technology, relatively unsophisticated system.'
Another official said, 'We are concerned about human rights abuses' regarding the gunships and the United States will deliver the aircraft in 'a phased approach.'
Delivery of the second plane will depend on U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Thomas Pickering's personal approval of the Salvadoran air force's use of the first during 'a trial period' after the first plane is delivered in December.
Human rights groups and the Salvadoran Catholic church have charged the Salvadoran air force has bombed and strafed civilians in guerrilla-held areas with U.S.-supplied A-37 'Dragonfly' jets, which are armed with the same guns used on the AC-47.
Senior administration officials have said the proposed modification would enable the Salvadorans to make more precise counterinsurgency air strikes.
'That argument wasn't really bought up here,' said a senior Democratic congressional aide who has followed the issue closely. 'It just means they caught too much flack for the previous procedure.'
'It's clear from recent combat actions that the Salvadorans need a way to deliver increased fire support for their ground combat forces,' a State Department official said.
The planes would, the official added, 'give the Salvadoran air force the capability to respond to massed guerrilla attacks quickly and effectively.'
Pentagon officials said the upgrade was approved by the Reagan administration several months ago.