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El Salvador, 1980-1992 PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by Tom Cooper   
Aug 26, 2007 at 09:39 AM
The Civil War in El Salvador, which savaged this small country with population of only five million people in the 1980s, was one of the fiercest and bloodiest insurgencies ever. The air war was intensive as well, and the airpower played a major role. Nevertheless this conflict remains one of the poorest researched air wars after 1945.
The Freak Show
El Salvador is small country, with heavy population pressure which grows more serious annually. This densely populated nation was long dominated by a small oligarchy and ruled by a series of military governments that had little regard for civil rights: especially the repression of the peasant class by a military-based right-wing governments led to the formation of numerous anti-Government groups, with result that through the whole 19th Century, so also the history of El Salvador in the 20th Century had been characterized by violence, chaos, and military interventions. Eight of the ten governments that ruled the country between 1945 and 1970 have been led by military personnel; relations with neighbouring countries were always strained – those with Honduras even erupted into a war, in 1969.

By 1979, the country was ripe for a major insurrection. A reformist military coup undertaken in October of that year failed to develop, leaving El Salvador in a state of chaos, with military divided over multiple issues. The economic situation was terrible, forcing ever more of Salvadorans across the border into Honduras, in a search for land and jobs. With the successful Sandinista revolution against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua providing encouragement to revolutionary movements, there were calls for a popular armed uprising. If such a powerful and oppressive regime like the one of Somozas in that country could be brought down by poorly equipped popular movement, then the oligarchy in El Salvador could also be brought down.

Several leftist groups were already organized and active around the country, organizing demonstrations. The drop that spilled the barrel came in January 1980, when the Army massacred civilian demonstrators on the steps of San Salvador Cathedral, on 22nd. Two months later, the Government-condoned “Death Squad” murdered Archbishop Romero as he celebrated a Mass. These events resulted in the merger of the opposition groups into the Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Naciónal (FFMLN; more usually called FMLN), and an outbreak of uprising: the FMLN now directed the insurgency, even as the various smaller factions maintained their identity.

The reaction from the rightist factions – which included parts of the armed forces – was predictable: a ruthless assassination program conducted by death squads was launched, with anybody suspected of leftist sympathies being liable to be abducted and shot. An estimated 10.000 people were killed in this manner, mainly by night, in 1980 alone. Clearly, instead of suppressing the insurrection, the extreme violence by the regime pushed ever more Salvadorans into open revolt.

As the violence with the massive level of human rights violations escalated through 1980, the Carter administration cut off US economic and military aid. The junta was left to itself.

Map of El Salvador, with three main airfields used by the FAS during the war. In addition to these three air bases, a number of forward sites and one private airfield near La Union were used for periodic forward deployments. The FAS was careful in operating from such sites, then they needed good defences due to permanent threat from FMLN raids and mortar attacks. After all, even Ilopango AB was several times attacked fiercely by the rebels. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


Expensive & Luxurious Air Force?
When the war began, the Salvadoran military had some 10.000 personnel, of which 9.000 served with the Army, organized into four small infantry brigades, one artillery battalion, and a light armour battalion. Additional 7.000 served with paramilitary police. The military culture of El Salvador was not only authoritarian and corrupt, but also highly politicized. Despite training and advice from the US, old habits of massive mixing into internal politics of armed forces appeared impossible to break. The internal politics of the armed forces was similar: leadership was of extremely poor quality, with the officer corps not only being disunited, but also entirely based on selection upon political connections – instead leadership capabilities. Training in general was very poor, and all planning done to fight another conventional war with Honduras. Capability and contingencies for fighting a counterinsurgency (COIN) war were non-existent. The Salvadoran military was completely unable to tackle the insurgency.

The Fuerza Aérea Salvadoreña (FAS) was the most professional of all Salvadoran military branches, even if its training and capabilities were only mediocre at best. In effect, the air force still suffered from being seen as unnecessary and expensive luxury by majority of officers in the Army, and otherwise mirrored the situation of other branches of the Salvadoran military. General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Chief-in-Command FAS from 1979 to 1989, for example, was considered a competent pilot and one of most capable senior officers in the Salvadorian military. However, he played a highly political role in the armed forces and is known to have used his position to defy or even threaten the civilian government time and again.

As of 1980, the FAS boasted a strength of less than 1.000 men – including a paratroop battalion, security forces and a small anti-aircraft unit – which had no training in joint operations with ground forces. Its flying component consisted of four small squadrons with a total of 67 miscellaneous aircraft and helicopters.

The main combat assets were eleven Dassault MD.450 Ouragans of the Escuadrón de Caza-Bombardeo, based at San Miguel AB, survivors of 18 examples ordered from Israel in 1973, and delivered from 1974. Originally built in France, in the 1950s, nine of these sturdy and simple to maintain fighter-bombers should have been wired for Shafrir Mk.II air-to-air missiles, but none of these were delivered. Instead, all were armed with unguided rockets and bombs, as well as 30mm cannons.

In 1973, El Salvador ordered a batch of 18 Dassault MD.450 Ouragans from Israel. Deliveries began in 1974, and lasted until 1978. Initially, all aircraft were camouflaged in the USAF-style "SEA"-pattern, consisting of tan, brown and olive drab. Several were noticed wearing strips in national colours around the intake, while all have their rudders painted in national colours as well. Other than serial, no markings were observed on any Salvadoran Ouragans ever. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The most important secondary assets were three Fouga CM.170 Magister jet trainers, survivors of no less but nine purchased from Israel and three from French sources between 1973 and 1978. While mainly used for flying training, they were fitted with hardpoints and two 7.62mm guns in the nose, and deployed for COIN duties.

The FAS Transport Squadron flew six Douglas C-47s and four IAI-101 Arava transports, while the training squadron operated a mix of North American T-6s, Beech T-34s, and few Cessna T-41D. The helicopter arm was even smaller, flying only one Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette III, one FH-1100, one Lama and ten Bell UH-1H Hueys, the later delivered from the USA only in 1979.

The main FAS air base was Ilopango, on the outskirts of San Salvador, with San Miguel being the most important secondary airfield. Additional airstrips and landing sites were cleaned in the countryside over the time, and new airfields built later on, so that the FAS could operate from up to 15 sites around the country.

The training of the FAS was geared for a conventional war. The FAS drew very distinct lessons from the 100-Hours War with Honduras, in 1969, and was striving to obtain capability which would preclude it from experiencing the same fate as at the time. Yet, the lack of funding prevented the force from training even this role properly, and the only action it saw since that war was its participation in the 1972 coup. Worst yet, like in 1969, the FAS only had a handful of pilots, and their training was “fair” at best.

A total of no less but eleven Fouga CM.170 Magisters were acquired from Israeli and French sources in the 1970s. Only five airframes survived the war, of which barely two were considered "airworthy" in the early 1990s, even if their engines required extensive overhauls and additional maintenance in order to be made operational. During the war, FAS Magisters were mainly used in conjunction with Ouragans and A-37Bs. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


A Faustian Pact
With Salvadorian Army in disarray and chaos, the 10.000 rebels of the FMLN alliance were swift in obtaining the initiative and capturing most of El Salvador during the late 1980. The rebels were already deployed in the mountains along the Honduran border, and had numerous strongholds around Mounth Guazapa, only some 55km from the capital of San Salvador. In the rural areas, they compelled local landowners and businessmen to provide food and pay taxes – or face destruction of their property and assassination. Well equipped with arms and ammunition captured from Army stocks, the rebels were self-sufficient for most of their needs.

Deployed in battalion-sized columns, well equipped and supplied, the FMLN was able of fighting an almost conventional war. The problem of supplies was relatively easy to solve for the guerrillas: during initial stages of fighting they captured considerable amounts of arms and ammunition from the Army. Additional shipments were subsequently easily brought in over the lengthy borders to Guatemala and Honduras, as well as from Nicaragua, over the Gulf of Fonseca. In addition, a number of light aircraft were used to fly supplies into El Salvador from Nicaragua, mainly by night, using landing strips set up for crop dusters. One of the very few successful moments the FAS experienced in these early phases of the war was when in January 1981, an Ouragan shot down a light transport aircraft carrying weapons for rebels.

The downing of this unknown plane came at the time the rebels launched a final offensive with the intent of occupying San Salvador and overthrowing the government. Even if the FMLN operation made significant gains, it failed to achieve victory – especially before the USA became involved in the conflict. Namely, alarmed at the very real possibility of insurgent victory, the Carter administration in its last days lifted the arms embargo and authorized new aid. Acting too late, Washington was left with the reasoning that as distasteful as the regime in El Salvador was, it was preferable to “another” Marxist revolutionary government in Central America, which the USA could not control. Taking over in late January 1981, the Reagan administration reinforced the US commitment, declaring intention to defeat the most serious insurgency in whole Central America.

True enough, the US military delegation to San Salvador, led by Brig.Gen. Fred Woerner, was not only authorised to develop a strategic plan for waging the war (which was approved by the US and Salvadoran political leaderships), but also to emphasise political reforms, which were to lead to free and fair elections, economic development, an end of human rights abuses and judicial reforms. This “carrot-and-stick” approach was to encourage reforms: if these were not enacted quickly enough, the aid would be delayed or even withheld. This approach caused constant frictions between San Salvador and Washington, inhibiting long-term planning and resulting in many inefficiencies in the military aid; but, in the end, it produced the results.

The Salvadoran Army initially tended to conduct sweeps in company and battalion strength – a tactics that worked to the benefit of the rebels, who enjoyed the advantage of choice of place and time they could accept combat. Correspondingly, the FMLN specialized in setting up company-sized ambushes and annihilating even medium-sized Army units. The rebels also specialized in night operations, thus nullifying the firepower advantage of the regular military. Without surprise, in the early 1980s, rebel columns could even seize and hold towns for several days.

To tackle the problem, the US advisor team emphasized a dramatic increase in size of the military, and intensive training in COIN warfare. Correspondingly, the Salvadoran Army was to triple in size and be provided with modern weapons and equipment. The FAS was not to acquire more modern or increasing numbers of combat aircraft, but to obtain a large helicopter fleet, making it capable of lifting significant infantry force for offensive operations and also providing helicopter gunships support.

As small and poorly equipped as it was in 1981, the FAS still put in a fair combat performance, more often than not presenting the primary mobile firepower of the Army, all the while sending additional officers to the Inter-American Air Force Academy (IAAFA), at Albrook Field, in Panama. The FAS performed well in helping to stop the January 1981 offensive; the lack of training prevented better coordination of air and ground operations, and night-time operations were almost impossible, but this support was sufficient. Reinforced by 14 additional UH-1Hs rushed from the USA, the FAS still put in a fair combat performance during the fighting in Morazan Province, in early 1981. It helped stop the rebel offensive. Another offensive operation, undertaken in April 1981, by an Army brigade of 1.000 troops under command of Col. Polacios, in Gurazapa area, was less successful. While Polacios later stated that 200 rebels and 24 soldiers were killed, most of observers could not count anything like such FMLN casualties, while a number of badly shot-up FAS UH-1s were observed. Quite on the contrary, by May 1981, the rebels established firm control over four eastern provinces in El Salvador, thus securing their communications with Nicaragua.

As quarrels within the military leadership, and the lack of training prevented better coordination of FAS and Army operations, while night-time operations were almost impossible, the rebels continued their successful operations. In early May 1981, they captured an Army communications centre at Chichontepec Volcano, and on the 11th they shot down a FAS UH-1Hs. The USA rushed eight additional Hueys to El Salvador as the flow of US aid began to arrive from mid-1981 onwards. Military equipment worth almost $49 million reaching El Salvador already in the same year. In 1982, the worth of military assistance and sale program had grown to $82.5 million, while additional $2 million were spent for international military education of Salvadorian officers and NCOs. Correspondingly, on 8 July 1981, the Army launched the first counteroffensive in the Cabanas area, which ended with the FAS Ouragans bombing targets along the Honduran border.

Later during their careers with FAS, most of surviving Ouragans have had their wing-timp tanks removed and were partially repainted: brown of the USAF-style "SEA"-camouflage pattern was replaced by dark green and serials applied in different style ("Elephant" font). In early 1981, one of these venerable fighters intercepted a light transport carrying arms and ammunition for rebels, and shot it down, scoring the first air-to-air kill of this war. Additional similar encounters followed, but their results remain unknown. Contrary to some reports, FAS Ouragans were never armed with Israeli-made Shafrir Mk.2 air-to-air missiles. Instead, their main weapons - aside from four 30mm cannons - became unguided rockets, foremost US-made 19x2.75in and SNIA BPD HL-7-80 rocket launchers (the later usually carried in pair, on an adaptor under the outboard underwing pylon). (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Déjà Vu Experience
By November 1981, the rebels changed their tactics, embarking on a widespread campaign of disruption of the economy, pulling down power pylons and blowing up bridges on main roads. Their biggest success came on 27 January 1982, when a raiding party of 100 FMNL fighters infiltrated the perimeter of Ilopango AB and destroyed five UH-1Hs and three C-47s, and damaged four Ouragans and two UH-1s badly. Two Ouragans (702 and 703) were written off, while two others were repaired and returned to service years later; the whole fleet was grounded for a period of time, while all the damaged helicopters had to be written off.

While a heavy blow, this attack was somewhat of a blessing s well, then worn-out equipment was soon replaced by modern and more capable US-aircraft. Within a week, the Americans launched the “Project Elsa” programme, and delivered 12 additional Bell UH-1M Hog helicopter gunships. In the following months also eight Cessna A-37B Dragonflies (arriving in June), the first four out of eventual 23 Cessna O-2s, and two Fairchild C-123K Provider transports followed. In addition, the USAF furnished 12 planeloads and one shipload of ammunition for FAS, all of which arrived before the end of 1982. All of these aircraft came from surplus USAF stocks, but had been fully modified and refurbished before delivery, and they arrived together with $2 million worth of ammunition for FAS.

These aircraft and helicopters, as well as modern ammunition, were better suitable for a COIN-war than previously used equipment. However, the whole issue of supplying aircraft and other forms of aid was relatively simple: the FAS now needed trained crews and technicians more than anything else. This task was much more complex to complete successfully. Namely, recalling the example of Vietnam, where the US involvement also began with a small group of advisors and few aircraft, the US Congress was tightly controlling all military activity in El Salvador, placing strict limits to the number of military personnel and amount of equipment delivered. Throughout the conflict, no more than 55 US military personnel could be assigned to the MilGroup in El Salvador, and even with personnel at temporary duty, the number of US Army and USAF advisors in country was never to reach over 150. Given that only five of these were assigned to the FAS, it was obvious that Salvadoran personnel could not be trained in country. It also did not help that the US Army and Air Force – suffering from the effects of post-Vietnam syndrome – had largely dropped COIN-operations out of their doctrine: despite many Vietnam-veterans, the US military was simply not ready to train Salvadorans in unconventional warfare. For this reason, while fighting a war and presenting the primary mobile firepower of the Army, the FAS had to send additional officers to the Inter-American Air Force Academy (IAAFA), at Albrook Field, in Panama.

The Government suffered another severe blow on 17 June 1982, when a UH-1H that carried the Minister of Defence crashed near Perquin, killing all 14 on board.

The US advisors in El Salvador soon found themselves experiencing the same as their predecessors in Vietnam: the FMLN strongholds along the Honduran border and in the south of the country were simply too strong for the government forces to attack directly. Correspondingly, air strikes had to be flown in order to at least disturb rebels in their sanctuaries within the borders: during 1982, the FAS began a program of bombing rebel-held villages in the strongly FMLN-regions of Chalatenanago, in the north, and Mount Guazapa, in the central El Salvador. Most of the operations undertaken by Ouragans and new A-37s had a character of harassment, but at least the rebels could be brought under some pressure.

Quite on the contrary: as many of these strongholds were within civilian areas, while FAS pilots were still lacking training, they frequently hit civilians, causing outbursts of protests even in the USA, while having no real impact in terms of rebel morale, infrastructure, of combat capability. Worst yet, like in Vietnam of the 1960s, there were permanent quarrels within the junta in El Salvador. In 1983, one of the most right-wing Army officers, Col. Sigrido Ochoa, demanded the firing of defence minister Gen. José Guillermo Garcia and declared his military district to be in rebellion against the government. Gen. Bustillo, C-in-C FAS, supported Ochoa and refused the FAS aircraft to fly in troops to oppose him. It was on US advisors to work out a compromise that allowed Ochoa to remain: the defence minister, however, had to go.

As if this was not sufficient, in 1983, with help of Cuban advisors, the FMLN organized its first “strategic” brigade. While so far most of its units operated over limited ranges from their bases, this brigade was highly mobile and trained in conventional warfare. The new FMLN unit was soon involved in fighting with several Atlacatl and Atonal COIN-battalions of the Army, causing them such losses that the FAS proved unable to evacuate all casualties from the battlefield.

In addition to UH-1Hs, the FAS received a sizeable fleet of UH-1M "Hog" helicopter gunships. Easily recognizible because of their shorter fuselage and smaller cabin, these helicopters were always armed with M21 MAMEE armament subsystem, consisting of the highly effective 7.62mm M134 Minigun (albeit without its ammunition "tank" on the top of the mount: more usually, the ammo was carried in large boxes inside the cabin, with ammo-belt leading through openings in lower fuselage), and M158 launchers for seven 2.75in rockets. Later during the war, rocket launchers were more often replaced by hardpoints for Mk.81 and Mk.82 bombs. UH-1Ms have also got considerable amount of armour, especially bellow the cockpit and around the engine and gearbox. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


At least 15 A-47Bs were supplied to El Salvador in the frame of Project Elsa, between 1982 and 1992, to boost the air force's attack capabilities. The type proved more effective than older available jet fighter bombers. FAS A-37s were painted in "guship" grey overall, and originally wore black serials. No roundels were carried: instead, only the national flag was applied on rear fuselage. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Another Small, Dirty War
The problems for the junta in San Salvador were thus permanently increasing – instead of decreasing. This became especially obvious when in February 1983, the rebels captured the town of Berlin: the Army and FAS counterattacked, and the place was put under fierce bombardments by A-37Bs and Ouragans. Hundreds of civilians were killed and the town was re-taken only after a battalion-strength attack. The FMLN came away almost unscratched, and launched new attacks, destroying several army companies and winning a number of victories in the field, capturing weapons and ammunition.

Indeed, in September 1983, the rebels launched their largest artillery attack of the war, killing at least 19 government soldiers and reportedly wounding 100 more in the strategically vital city of San Miguel. Other rebel units overran a 70-man government garrison in the town of Jucuarin. The situation grew so tense, the US extended its training of Salvadorian troops in Honduras, and based even USAF Lockheed AC-130H Spectre gunships of 16th Special Operations Squadron at Howard AFB, Panama, from where these began flying combat missions over El Salvador. Initially, the gunships were tracking down arms and guerrilla movements by night; later on, their rules of engagement permitted attack on such targets. Nevertheless, they were “sanitized” of all markings, and flown by crews without military identification.

Panama was also used as a staging post for arms supplies flown into El Salvador by USAF C-130s, and distributed by FAS C-47s and two C-123s, while the CIA used Ilopango AB as a centre for supplying Contras in Nicaragua, using unmarked C-47s and other aircraft.

In June 1983, the Government launched a process of “pacification” in San Vincente Province, attempting to re-settle a number of peasants in the area, so to bring them out of FMNL-reach. The rebels disrupted this operation successfully by isolating the town of Suchitoto and blowing up the Las Guaras road bridge. When a brigade of 2.000 Army troops moved to clear the road, this was ambushed and suffered heavy casualties: the FAS A-37Bs ended striking rebel columns active only 30km from the capital. In total, during the year the Fuerza Aérea Salvadoreña flew 227 air strikes, mainly by newly-delivered UH-1M Hog gunships and A-37Bs, but the guerrilla gained in strength.

Several deficiencies within the FAS became obvious at the time. It was suffering a major shortage of pilots: the number of pilots was actually so low, that each of them had to be able to fly three or four types of aircraft and helicopters, resulting with no FAS pilot becoming truly proficient in any of aircraft he flew. The FAS also lacked qualified instructor pilots to oversee individual and unit training. This resulted in a high accident rate and only a fair level of competence for average pilots.

The USAF standards for foreign pilot training were not making the situation any better either. Like any other foreign fliers to be trained in the USA, the FAS pilots had to take a six-month language course before doing so. This was needed for the Salvadorians to at least be able to read technical manuals for their equipment. The immediate needs of the war caused such a shortage of helicopter pilots, that the US Army was finally forced to launch a one-time effort at Fort Rucker, in Alabama, to train FAS pilots with Spanish-speaking flight instructors. The situation with A-37-crews was not much better either: the USAF never created courses needed by FAS Dragonfly-crews, while the IAAFA in Panama did so only in 1985 – no less but three years after this type was introduced in service in El Salvador.

The overall situation of the Government improved only following the election of the – relatively – moderate Napoleón Duarte as President, in late summer 1983. Confirming their satisfaction with this development, the USA delivered six additional ex-US Air National Guard (ANG) OA-37Bs, in November. Together with the Dragonflies from the first two batches, these entered service with the Grupo de Caza-Bombardeo, based at Comapla AB, but operating detachments at Ilopango as well.

Even more than Duarte’s climb to power, it was a series of mistakes made by the rebels that caused their demoralization and decrease of fighting capability through 1984, eventually enabling the Government to gain the initiative. The rebels, namely, expected the war to last only for few weeks: the original revolution was intended to bring the military junta down. By now the war lasted for four years and no end was in sight. This caused severe infighting between FMLN groups, resolved by purges and executions within the leadership. By 1984, the membership of the FMLN began to decline as an increasing number of leaders abandoned the movement in disgust.

From mid-1980s, the USA began supplying also a number of ex-ANG OA-37Bs to FAS. Some of these wore a camouflage consisting of olive drab in addition to the usual "gunship grey". Around this time the FAS began applying serials in white, instead in black. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Government Gains the Initiative
The FMLN remained a formidable force, however, and the year 1984 began badly for the Government, as on the New Year’s eve, a large FMLN force managed to overrun and capture the Army’s 4th Brigade HQs at El Paraiso. As the US military aid program started to pay off, however, the Army recovered from this setback and started to gain the initiative on the battlefield. The rebels, namely, were not able to increase their number past 10.000 fighters, while the Army now counted over 30.000. Even more important, new units were formed, intensively trained in COIN warfare, and ready to launch offensive operations with support of much improved FAS: the airpower was now to play a major role in the government’s success.

In March 1984, the USA supplied yet more aircraft, including 14 UH-1Hs, ten A-37Bs, and a Lockheed C-130 Hercules to replace the C-123 written off when it hit a mine while landing at San Miguel, on the 20th of that month. By the end of 1984, the FAS also received two C-47s converted to gunships through addition of two 12.7mm heavy machine guns (HMG). Despite such a massive reinforcement, the FAS still operated only 20 UH-1s on average, of which some 50% were gunships. As the operational tempo increased notably (the A-37s flew no less but 74 strikes in June 1984 alone – compared to 227 strikes flown in all of 1983) not only was the attrition exceptionally high, but there were also permanent shortages of spares, preventing the air force for reaching fully mission capable rates of more than 50%. This situation was caused foremost by very restrictive controlling actions of the US Congress, which time and again forced the US military to stop shipping spares and ammunition to El Salvador.

Still, additional aircraft and helicopters enabled the Army to launch a spring offensive in order to protect the national elections from disruption by the FMLN. Once again, the rebels set up a series of ambushes for advancing troops: in ambush at Tecoluca, on 25 March, 32 Army soldiers were killed and the survivors had to be evacuated by UH-1H helicopters, supported by UH-1M gunships. An O-2A is known to have been lost around this time as well, apparently in an accident.

The war was also permanently on the verge of spilling into neighbouring Honduras. In April 1984, two US Army UH-1s, based in Honduras and “underway on a reconnaissance mission” but actually carrying US Senators J. Bennet Johnson and Lawton Chiles, seven other passengers and six crewmembers, came under fire from FMLN while underway near Colomoncagua, on the joint of borders between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. One of them was hit by several bullets and forced to land, later to be repaired.

On 28 June, the rebels captured the strategically important Caroon Grande dam. A counteroffensive was launched already on the next morning, when two companies of Atlacatl Battalion were swiftly airlifted by UH-1s to reinforce the small local garrison. The dam was successfully re-captured, but only after exceptionally bitter fighting, in which both sides suffered dozens of casualties.

In the aftermath of Salvadoran Army operation at Caroon Grande dam, the USA shipped another batch of UH-1 helicopters to El Salvador, increasing their number to a total of some 50 available airframes by the year’s end. Five additional O-2As are known to have been delivered between September and November 1984. Meanwhile, the FAS A-37s and Ouragans were again sent to strike rebel strongholds. On 1 May, the FAS had been persuaded to bomb a guerrilla communications base in Nicaragua, on the understanding that the CIA would arrange for Contras to take responsibility. The program of air strikes against rebel strongholds was subsequently lengthened into the late summer and autumn, even if in September it was put under strict rules of engagement, issued by President Duarte personally.

The next Government offensive came in October, and was again launched against FMLN groups at Perquin and La Laguna. At least one UH-1H was shot down during this operation, killing 14. In response, some 600 FMLN insurgents attacked an newly-established Army “hunter” battalion at Watikitu, which was about to complete its training: the FAS attacked with A-37s and UH-1Ms, inflicting extensive casualties on the rebels, but these persisted and the Army battalion was eventually overrun, suffering over 600 casualties and disintegrating in the process.

In the middle of this fighting, on 19 October, an unmarked CIA-aircraft, possibly a C-47, crashed north of San Salvador, killing the crew of four. The aircraft is believed to have operated from Honduras and was allegedly engaged in chasing an aircraft bringing in arms from Nicaragua. Three more UH-1Hs were lost and four damaged in an attempt to regain Suchitoto after it had been captured, on 9 November: namely, the rebels meanwhile learned to spot potential helicopter landing zones and prepare them for ambush.

Overall, however, the FMLN leaders had to admit that the improvement of FAS capabilities and its increased activities played a major role in turning the initiative over to the government forces. They confirmed that the O-2s were now covering the country thoroughly, making it impossible for rebels to operate openly in large columns then these made lucrative targets for A-37-pilots. The FMLN was thus forces to scatter its units into smaller columns, combining them for larger operations only when really necessary.

The FAS received some 80 UH-1Hs during the 1980s and early 1990s. Losses were heavy, and it is known that several serials were used on more than one "Huey". The Salvadorans introduced a number of modifications on their UH-1Hs, like on this one, which has got hardpoints for Mk.81 and Mk.82 bombs mounted directly bellow the pintle for M-60 heavy machine-gun. Doors were removed on almost all FAS UH-1s during the war. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Army on Advance
In 1985, the USA continued supplying overt – and covert - aid to El Salvador. In January, three additional Cessna OA-37Bs. They were followed by five C-47 transports, two additional O-2As and two O-2Bs, the later equipped with loudspeakers and leaflet dispensers, for psychological warfare. Once again, all of these aircraft were previously refurbished and modernised.

This time the increased number of aircraft did not result in a rapid increase of operational tempo, then the rate of attrition remained high and new aircraft were mainly needed as replacements – especially as the situation with spare parts could not be improved, and the FAS was still experiencing a lack of competent technicians. Rather, the FAS was about to yield profits from a large number of qualified pilots and technicians that completed their training abroad. No less but 117 FAS personnel took courses at the IAAFA, in 1984, compared to 98 the year before.

Additional 118 Salvadorans were trained in the USA. The infrastructure of the FAS was built up as well, the FAS receiving $16.4 million in assistance funds, some of which went to building new hangars and repair shops at Ilopango AB, while others were spent for establishing new airfields around the country.

The Salvadoran Army had meanwhile built up a group of small, very well trained elite units, which mainly functioned as light infantry patrol forces, inserted by helicopter to search out the enemy and establish outposts deep inside territories controlled by FMLN. If contract was made, the FAS could quickly transport company-sized forces to reinforce the light troops and block the rebels. Supported by effective reconnaissance provided by O-2As, the Army could – for the first time in the war – initiate combat at places of its own choosing. The two AC-47 gunships were now especially active, providing heavy firepower for army operations: by all available accounts, they proved the most effective weapon in FAS arsenal – in part also because the Salvadoran air force already operated C-47s from before, and it was thus easy to train pilots and crew to operate the aircraft as a weapons platform. The AC-47s also proved relatively safe from enemy ground fire: like A-37s and Ouragans, they usually operated from levels out of reach by weapons available to the rebels. Consequently, they also suffered only a friction of losses experienced by FAS helicopter crews.

The main problem remained that fact that the FAS could still at best airlift only a company or two of Army troops – instead of a full battalion, as required by Army leadership - into the combat zone, and support such an operation by only a few A-37s and UH-1Ms at the time. This meant that the Army had to continue fighting as an infantry force, regardless of its wish to develop a large heliborne capability.

The US aid increased once again during the rest of 1985, and sometimes became very direct. In June, a US Army Boeing CH-47E Chinook of 101st Aviation Battalion based in Honduras was used to recover a lightly damaged FAS UH-1H which had landed in a remote part of Morazan Province. Escorted by UH-1M gunships and a Hughes 500, the CH-47 removed the helicopter to Ilopango AB.

By the end of the year, additional areas were brought under Government control, even if in October the Army suffered another setback, when 100 troops were killed in a guerrilla attack on a training base at La Union.

Two AC-47s were delivered to El Salvador in the frame of the Project Elsa. They proved the most effective aircraft in service with FAS, providing heavy fire-power by day and by night. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Stalemate
The USA continued providing additional aircraft and helicopters to El Salvador in 1986, rising the number of UH-1s to 63 intact airframes, while the competence of the army in counterinsurgency warfare continued to improve. In early 1986, the FAS aircraft and helicopters supported several large army offensives, which finally reduced some of the FMLN’s major strongholds in Guazapa and Chalatenango. A number of Hughes 500s was now deployed as gunships, armed with Miniguns, in support of UH-1s. The population and the rebel forces in these enclaves were bombed heavily as army troops swept in and forcibly evacuated thousands of civilians from FMLN areas and resettled them in refugee camps. It was a harsh campaign, but it succeeded in depriving the FMLN units of their civilian infrastructure in what had been their most secure strongholds.

Especially effective proved five FAS UH-1 helicopters used for MEDEVAC. Coupled with the improved medical care for Salvadoran Army – possible through another US aid program – the availability of rapid MEDEVAC was a major factor in improving the morale and fighting ability of most units. Even if the Army took more casualties due to increased level of combat, there were fewer fatalities due to the helicopter MEDEVAC program: soldiers fought much harder if they knew they are likely to survive their wounds.

Even with extensive US effort, the FAS still had only about half the pilots it needed. In 1987, the Fuerza Aérea Salvadoreña was a force of 2.500, including an airborne battalion, a security group, five flying squadrons and a large helicopter force, but still had only 70 active pilots for 135 aircraft. The Escuadrón de Caza-Bombardeo now operated eight Ouragans; the COIN-Squadron had ten A-37Bs and two AC-47s, supported by eleven O-2As and two O-2Bs of the reconnaissance squadron. The transport squadron operated five C-47s, one DC-6, three Aravas, and two C-123Ks, while the training squadron had one T-41 and six CM.170 Magisters. The helicopter force was the main combat asset. As of 1987, it consisted of nine Hughes 500 and 14 UH-1M gunships, 38 UH-1Hs, three SA.315 Lamas, and three SA.316 Alouette IIs, for a total of 67 airframes.

The FAS also had its intelligence section reorganized for the needs of COIN operations. A special analysis centre was set up at High Command at Ilopango, able to integrate reconnaissance, area intelligence, reconnaissance photography, and special intelligence into one coherent system. The products of this branch immensely increased the FAS combat capability and precision of strikes flown by A-37s. The work of FAS intelligence was further supported by US Army Grumman OV-1 Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft of the 24th Military Intelligence Battalion, based at Palmerola AB, in Honduras. The Mohawks – together with AC-130s based in Panama – conducted regular reconnaissance flights over El Salvador.

While human rights abuses by the armed forces had been curbed, and the US aid continued to flow, the FAS remained involved in controversial bombing operations of rebel-controlled areas, especially in the Guazapa and Chalatenango regions. This campaign was the only mean to keep the rebels under pressure until they could be overrun by government troops. Most of air strikes were flown by A-37s, but also by UH-1Ms - many of which were modified to enable the carriage of Mk.81 and Mk.82 bombs – and targeted villages that supported the rebels. Civilian casualties were a consequence, but re-election of Duarte showed that a majority of the population was in agreement with these methods.

On the other side, the infighting within the FMLN continued, and as the Army was increased to 42.000 troops, organized in six brigades with 20 light infantry- and six counterinsurgency battalions, the number of active rebels decreased to around 7.000. They thus found themselves not only outnumbered by the Army three to one, as before, but, by the end of the year, the rebels were outnumbered six or even seven to one.

In the mid-1980s, the US advisors in El Salvador introduced a program that saw deployment of five UH-1Hs - including "270", depicted here - for MEDEVAC purposes only. Each helicopter could carry three stretchers for injured. The project resulted in bolstered morale of ground troops and a significant decrease of fatality figures. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Salvadoran Tet
By 1988, the Salvadoran military became able to bring a tremendous superiority against the rebels, even if these still controlled over 30% of El Salvador. This new quality of Salvadoran military was foremost obvious in capability to conduct more complex joint operations. Nevertheless, the Army continued suffering up to 5% combat casualties, while FAS helicopters were still shot down in numbers – especially so during the fighting in San Josè Guayabal area, in 1988. Eventually, the Government and the USA – but also the rebels - realized they could not win a war: El Salvador was completely exhausted by almost ten years of war.

The war thus actually ended in a stalemate – a feeling increased by the election of a moderate reformer, Christiani, for President, but completely spoiled on 11 November 1989, when the FMLN launched a surprise offensive against military and civilian targets across the nation, especially in San Salvador, San Miguel, and Santa Ana. This was almost a re-make of the famous “Tet” offensive, undertaken by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in South Vietnam, in 1968 – especially because of the factor surprise and a real shock this large-scale attack caused. The Ilopango AB was almost overrun during the initial onslaught, the rebels threatening to destroy up to 80% of FAS assets. In bitter fighting, the military incurred extensive losses, but the FMLN not only failed to gain its objective, it also sustained a bitter blow from which it would never recover, including 1.773 dead and 1.717 wounded. The FAS suffered one of its most unusual losses during this period of time, when on 18 November an A-37B was hit by Dragunov rifle in the cockpit area: the co-pilot was killed, while the pilot ejected safely.

The rebels remained active through the rest of 1989 and 1990, inflicting over 2.000 casualties on the Salvadoran armed forces and police per annum. Sometimes in 1989, the FMLN acquired a number of SA-7 MANPADS. That far, the FAS suffered a relatively limited attrition to the light weapons: except for helicopters, faster fighter-bombers and AC-47 gunships were almost immune to ground fire. But, now the situation changed as the rebels obtained a weapon that could knock down even the FAS AC-47s. Through 1990, the FAS thus suffered a series of losses.

A Hughes 500E was shot down on 2 February 1990, followed by Hughes 500D “35”, on 18 May 1990, and an O-2A, on 26 September. The FAS has had an especially problematic November 1990, when the FLMN – despite ongoing negotiations with the Government – launched another series of attacks against military and strategic targets throughout El Salvador. The FAS lost at least four aircraft and several helicopters to FMLN MANPADs within a week while fighting back. The first was Cessna O-2A, shot down over Usulutan, on 19 November; the O-2A “622” was destroyed by rebel mortar fire at Ilopango, already on the following day. On, 21 November 1990, the O-2A “618” crashed at Usulutan, and two days later an A-37 was shot down by SA-7s, while an UH-1M was damaged heavily and had to be written off, on 26 November 1990. The losses suffered by the Government during this period were such that the new administration of US President Bush, announced on 7 December 1990, it would rush $48.1 million in military aid from 1991 appropriations. The FMLN offensive was officially declared over on 31 December 1990, but the fighting went on in January and February 1991. On 2 January 1991, a FAS UH-1H was shot down, crewed by three US servicemen: Warrant Officer Daniel Scott died in the crash, while Lt.Col. David Pickett and Private Ernest Dawson survived, but were killed by rebels before they were able to leave the disabled helicopter. When the US provided further aircraft and helicopters to replace the Salvadoran heavy losses, delivering three A-37Bs and six UH-1Ms to FAS at Ilopango AB, on 29 January of the same year, three Hogs have had the names of the killed US servicemen inscribed on them.

The FAS continued the programme of bombing remaining rebel strongholds through this 1991 as well. During one of these strikes, on 11 February, two rockets from an UH-1M hit a house in Corral de Piedra, in Chalatenango Province, where 21 civilians had taken refuge, killing five and injuring 16. In another case, the Army special forces and FMLN engaged in two hours of fighting around a school where 40 children were trapped: as in a miracle, not a single child was injured.

It was not before July 1991, that the first concrete achievement of the peace process was reached, when the Government and the FMLN signed a broad human rights accord, setting out obligations for both sides in the conflict to avoid practices that endanger civilians. Meanwhile, the rebels continued downing FAS aircraft and helicopters. On 10 June 1991, a Hughes 500 was shot down only 25km north of San Salvador while supporting ground troops, killing two and injuring three. Also, on 20 December 1991, a Honduran UH-1H was shot down by FMLN while overflying a battle zone near Estonica, eight some 15km inside El Salvador and 130km north-east of San Salvador, killing eleven. On 14 May 1992, a FAE Hughes 500D, serialled “33”, crashed under unknown circumstances. The final FAS loss of the war should have been the C-123K, serialled “121”, which crashed in Monte Cristo national park, 100km west of San Salvador, on 27 August 1992, killing the crew.

Both sides were meanwhile ready to serious peace talks, and finally a cease-fire was agreed for 1992, ending the war by a compromise solution: with an amnesty granted to all its members, the FMLN disarmed its forces and became a legal political party. More than half the Salvadoran Army was demobilized, as well as all the paramilitary security forces – especially the notorious Treasury Police, which operated under the Defence Ministry and was identified as having the worst human rights records. A completely new national police was created, including former FMLN guerrillas, while a group of UN and Organization of American States observers arrived in the country to ensure that the disarmament was properly carrier out, and free and fair elections were held.

A total of only nine FAS OA/A-37Bs survived the war. These aircraft and their pilots flew hundreds of combat sorties for years, keeping the rebels permanently under pressure. For most of the 1980s, FAS A-37B-fleet was based at Ilopango, until a new airfield was built at Comalapa, where the Brigada Aérea 1 moved in the late 1980s. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)





FAS Order of Battle as of 1992
Immediately after the end of war, the FAS retired all surviving Ouragans, C-123s, and a large number (up to 20) UH-1s of different versions. Correspondingly, while keeping the war-time structure, its order of battle as of 1992, was like this:

HQ
, Ilopango AB
- 2 Cessna 210, 1 Rockwell Commander 114

Brigada Aérea 1
, Ilopango AB
- Grupo de Transporte, 4 BT-67, 2 AC-47, 1 T-41D, 1 Cessna 337
- Grupo Helicoptero, 20+ UH-1H, 13 UH-1M
- Fond de Activadades Especiales, 1 MD.500D, 5 MD.500E, 1 UH-1M, 1 SOCATA 235 Rallye
- Escuela de Aviación Militar, 4 SOCATA 235 Rallye, 4 ENAER T-35B Pilán, 5 Hughes TH-55

Brigada Aérea 1
, Comapapa AB
- Escuadrón de Caza-Bombardeo, 9 A-37B, 2 CM.170 (not airworthy)
- Reconnaissance Squadron, 8 O-2A, 1 O-2B




Camouflage and Markings
Most FAS aircraft and helicopters were left in camouflage or colours as on delivery. The national marking was carried in the standard positions with the blue-white-blue flash applied horizontally across the rudder (these colours represent the United Provinces of Central America, adopted in 1912).

The serialling of FAS aircraft and helicopters apparently followed no logical pattern, but it can be said that different types were issued their own batches of serials, even if there were some gaps. Namely, some aircraft have a two-digit number, while others have three: all of these were not related to the original construction number of the type. In the case of transports, serials were often prefixed FAS, while a number of UH-1 helicopters was observed wearing different tactical insignia on front fuselage, as well as insignia of Army units with which they cooperated.

- C-47/AC-47: White over, bare metal under, black serial on fin: FAS108; Ghost grey overall, black serial on fin: FAS106 (AC-47), FAS108, FAS119, FAS124 (AC-47); only two survived by 1995.

- Cessna R172H/T-41D: Olive green overall, black serial on fin: 90, 91, 93 (last surviving example), 95

- MD.450 Ouragan: USAF-style “SEA”-camouflage in tan, forrest green and olive drab over, pale grey under, black serial on forward fuselage: 700 (w/o 27Jan1982), 701 (scrapped 2002), 702 (w/o 27Jan1982), 703 (w/o 27Jan1982), 704 (national colours as bands around intake), 705 (nose section preserved in FAS Museum), 706 (damaged 27Jan1982; repaired, existant as of 2002), 707 (ex 080 IDF/AF; damaged 27Jan1982; repaired), 708 (crashed 18Aug1976; Capt. Alfredo Rodriguez ejected after loss of elevator control), 709, 710 (crashed 15Jul1978; Lt. Ricardo Ernesto Campos killed after engine failure after TO), 711, 712 (equipped with Shafrir Mk.II rails), 713 (preserved), 714 (ex 185 IDF/AF; preserved), 715 (crashed in 1979 or w/o in 1982?), 716, and 717. Examples 700, 701, 706, 707, 709 (preserved), 713, 714, 716 (preserved), and 717. There were attempts to return two Ouragans – including 714 - to service in 1998, but pilots reportedly refused to fly them.

- CM.170: Ochre green overall, white serial on forward fuselage: 500, 501, 502, 503, 504, 505, 506, 507, 508, 509, 510; five airframes survived the war, with 500, 505, and 507 last seen derelict at Ilopango, in mid-1990s; two were considered “airworthy” – despite inoperational engines – until recently; these were 509 and 510.

- IAI-101 Arava: disruptive camouflage in colours used by USAF-style “SEA”-pattern, white serial on nose and fin: 801, 802...

- C-123K: USAF-style “SEA”-camouflage, white serial on nose and rest of the UAF: 120 (crashed 21Mar1984), 121 (crashed 14May1992), 122.

- BT-67: White over, silver—grey lower surfaces, blue cheat line down the fuselage, blue serial on fin: FAS118 (also seen armed with HMGs), FAS119 (camouflaged in gunship grey).

- A-37/OA-37: originally delivered in USAF-style “SEA”-camouflage pattern, Salvadoran Dragonflies were subsequently overpainted in gunship grey overall, white serials on fin: 420 (crashed 18May1983 due to engine failure; Lt. Quinonez & Lt. Abrego ejected safely), 421, 423 (crashed during landing at Compalpa, 07Feb1994), 422, 424, 425, 426 (seen in original livery; supposedly lost in accident on 16Jun1988), 427, 428 (serial in black), 429 (OA-37B, shot down on 18Nov1989 by Dragunov rifle; Capt. Milton Andrade ejected injured), 430 (shot down 15Mar1987), 431 (shot down by MANPAD on 23Nov1990; Lt. Hernandez Duenas ejected; Sub.Lt. Escobar Amaya KIA), 432, 433, and 434. After one A-37 crashed into the sea, in 1993, killing Lt. Godoy, only 421, 422, 424, 425, 427, 428, 432, 433, and 434 remained operational by the mid-1990s.

- O-2A: no less but 23 were delivered, all painted in olive drab overall, white serial on fin: 611 (shot down 5Dec1989), 612 (w/o 3Feb1984), 613, 614 (crashed on 26Sep1990), 615 (shot down 19Mar1985), 616, 617, 618 (crashed on 21Nov1990), 619 (survived the war), 620 , 621 (shot down on 19Nov1990), 622 (destroyed on 20Nov1990), 623 (survived the war), 624, 625, 626

- O-2B: only two were delivered, both equipped with loudspeakers and leaflet dispensers; they were painted in a version of USAF-style “Europe-1” camouflage pattern overall, white serial on fin: 610.

- Cessna 337G Super Skymaster: One example was delivered, used for liaison duties; blue over and white under, with red cheat line and rudders; small black serial on fin: 608.

- UH-1H: over 80 were delivered, of which slightly over 20 survived into the 1990s; all were painted olive drab overall and had white serials on boom and front fuselage: 201, 210 (shot down 11Oct1991), 217, 218, 219 (written off on 25Apr1990), 220, 221, 229, 240 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 241 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 242 (w/o 12Nov89, now Ilopango Museum), 243 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 244 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 245 (w/o 6Sep1991), 246 (w/o 12Oct1989), 247 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 248 (shot down 4Jan1984), 249, 250 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 251 (shot down 25Jul1988), 252 (destroyed 27Jan1982), 253, 254 (w/o 21Feb1985), 270 (armed with XM21 weapons system; shot down 13Apr1986), 280 (w/o 28Apr1987), 283, 290, 292 (there were two UH-1Hs with this serial), 294, 299.

- UH-1M “Hog”: 24 were delivered, of which 14 survived (eleven were scrapped in the 1990s), all were painted olive drab overall, carried two XM21 weapons systems (including 7.62mm Minigun combined with seven-round XM158 70mm rocket launchers) and had tactical signs on front fuselage and white serials on boom and front fuselage: 222, 223, 224, 225, 226, 227 (shot down on 17Jan1987), 228 (seen armed with Mk.81s), 229 (written off 12Mar1991), 230, 231, 232, 233 (shot down 14Jun1987), 234 (shot down 26Nov1990), 235 (shot down 20Apr1988), 236, 237, 238, 239.

- Hughes 269: Olive drab overall, white serial on boom: 163

- Hughes 500D: six were delivered between 1979 and 1983, and only one survived the war; light green overall, black serial on forward boom: 30, 31, 35 (shot down on 18May1990)

- Hughes 500E: 12 were delivered in the mid-1980s, of which six survived in operational condition by the mid-1990s; all wore olive drab overall, no national insignia, black serial on forward boom: 36 (written off in late 1990s), 37 (shot down on 02Feb1990), 38, 40 (written off on 21Mar1997), 42 (white serial on engine cowling), 46 (still in service)

Out of six Hughes 500Ds delivered to El Salvador between 1979 and 1983, only one survived the war, illustrating how heavy the attrition of FAS helicopters was during this war. The type apparently served as gunship, armed with mini-guns and unguided rockets, but was used also for reconnaissance and liaison tasks. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)





Sources & Bibliography

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- The Air War in El Salvador, by Dr. James S. Corum (Major, US Army Reserve), Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1998.

- THE PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MODERN WARFARE, by Kenneth Macksey & William Woodhouse, Penguin Group, 1991 (ISBN: 0-670-82698-7)

- WORLD'S AIR FORCES, by John Pacco, JP Publications, 1992 (ISBN: 90-801136-1-1)

- AEROSPACE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD AIR FORCES, edited by David Willis, Aerospace Publishing, 1999 (ISBN: 1-86184-045-4)

- Forum of LAAHS.com website
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