The Air War in El Salvador

By Corum, James S. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Air War in El Salvador


Corum, James S., Air & Space Power Journal


HE CIVIL WAR in El Salvador, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, was one of the largest and bloodiest insurgencies that the Western Hemisphere has seen. During the 12-year war, an estimated one hundred thousand people died-fairly horrendous losses for a country of only five million people.

The war in El Salvador saw significant involvement by the United States in the form of military and economic aid, advisors, and training. During the course of the war, the United States poured $4.5 billion of economic aid into the country and over $1 billion in military aid.' Almost a quarter of the US military aid was provided to the Salvadoran Air Force.2 Some aspects of the war in El Salvador and the US involvement have been told in numerous books and publications.3 Yet, although airpower played a major role in the conflict, its story has not been dealt with in any detail. Indeed, there are no books or major journal articles specifically on the history of the Salvadoran Air Force during the war. Considering that the Salvadoran war provides us with one of the most recent examples of the use of airpower in a counterinsurgency campaign, this is a significant gap in the literature about the use of airpower in modern warfare.4 This article is an attempt to fill some gaps in the history of the air war in El Salvador. It begins by outlining the history of the air war and then looks at some issues in greater detail, issues such as the effectiveness of the training and equipment provided to El Salvador by the United States. The doctrine and tactics of the air war also merit discussion. Was airpower used in an appropriate manner? Finally, the article outlines some of the lessons about the use of airpower in counterinsurgency that might be learned from the war.

Background of the Conflict In 1980, El Salvador was ripe for a major insurrection. It was a small, poor, and densely populated nation long dominated by a small oligarchy and ruled by a series of military governments that had little regard for civil rights. The infant mortality rate was high, and the lack of economic opportunity had pushed hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans across the border into Honduras in a search for land and jobs. Several Marxist-oriented revolutionary groups were already organized in the country. The events of 1979 would set the conditions for an open rebellion.5

The successful revolution by the Sandinistas against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in 1979 provided encouragement to revolutionary movements in Central America. If such a powerful and oppressive regime could be brought down by a poorly equipped popular movement, then the oligarchy in El Salvador could also be brought down. Furthermore, the October 1979 coup that resulted in a new military government in El Salvador left that country in chaos. The Salvadoran armed forces were divided with some officer factions favoring reforms and others violently opposed. As a result of chaos in the government and the unpopular state of the regime, guerrilla war broke out in 1980 and the major rebel factions amalgamated into one large alliance, the Marxist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which directed the insurgency. The various smaller factions, however, maintained their identity.

The rightist factions and parties in El Salvador, which included parts of the armed forces, reacted to the insurrection with a ruthless assassination program conducted by "death squads." Anyone suspected of leftist sympathies was liable to be abducted and shot. Dozens of murders by progovernment forces and militia were conducted nightly. Indeed, an estimated 10,000 people were killed in this manner in the first year of the war.6 However, instead of suppressing the insurrection, the extreme violence by the regime pushed many more Salvadorans into open revolt. The violence escalated, and the Carter administration, in its disgust with the massive level of human rights violations, cut off US economic and military aid. …

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