Defense Secretary Richard Cheney expressed satisfaction with the course of the gulf war on Sunday, saying deliberations with Desert Storm commanders convinced him "we have made major inroads in destroying" the Iraqi military capability.

"There's going to be only one outcome, and that's his defeat," Cheney said in a reference to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.Cheney huddled for eight hours Saturday in consultations with the generals who will direct the ground war against Iraq. Officials said the talks were "upbeat" and provided such a "wealth of information" about the operation that the briefings ran overtime.

The defense secretary said he was "struck with the size of the Iraqi military" and declined to say when a ground war might commence in the allied campaign to oust hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

"I don't plan to give you the date this morning when we might begin the next phase of the campaign. That'a decision the president will make in consultation with (Saudi) King Fahd and other allies."

Cheney was here with Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He met with reporters early Sunday morning and was to return to Washington later in the day before briefing President Bush on Monday.

The daylong sessions were held in the map-lined "war room" of the Saudi Defense Ministry and hosted by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf.

"Generally we believe the campaign has gone extremely well," Cheney said with Powell and Schwarzkopf looking on.

Cheney said Saddam was still capable of military surprises, but that, "We believe his Air Force reached a point of ineffectiveness" and that the Iraqi Navy is "virtually non-existent."

Of the army, he said, "I don't think it's the world's fourth-largest army anymore," yet he said the allies do not want to underestimate it. He said allied bombing had weakened the Republican Guard, Iraq's prime troops.

"I am struck by the enormous size of the Iraqi military establishment," Cheney said, noting the communciations systems, number of tanks and size of the army.

"This clearly was a major force designed for military combat," he said. "I'm convinced we in fact have made major inroads in destroying that capability."

After 24 days of 57,000 combat and supply sorties, the bombers have destroyed up to 20 percent of the tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers in Kuwait and southern Iraq, the U.S. command said.

Cheney said a "cease-fire or pause" would accomplish nothing, since Iraq had rebuffed numerous diplomatic initiatives.

"The operation will continue until he's gone - by that I mean gone from Kuwait," he said. Cheney said there was no schedule for returning or rotating U.S. troops back to the United States.

ABC-TV reported that allied commanders had urged a 30-day continuation of bombing against Iraq before starting the ground war. That report couldn't be confirmed.

As the Americans conferred behind closed doors, the commander of the French armed forces predicted that a ground war would last at least several weeks.

"Don't forget that we are going to find ourselves confronted with 400,000 combatants. And behind these 400,000 men will be the Republican Guard which was placed there in reserve for a counterattack," Gen. Maurice Schmitt said.

The focus of the air strikes recently shifted from industrial and military targets in Iraq to front-line troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq, and the success of that new mission may determine when a ground assault begins.

Recently, U.S. and British officials said a ground campaign may not start until the allied air forces have destroyed 50 percent of Iraq's forces.

While the allies contemplated an escalation of the war, the Soviet Union and Iran took steps aimed at ending it.

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev warned that military operations in the Persian Gulf war threaten to exceed the U.N. mandate and said he was sending an envoy to Baghdad for talks with Saddam Hussein.

A White House statement said, "We . . . have no objection to President Gorbachev's decision to send a personal representative to Baghdad to meet directly with Saddam Hus-sein."

Cheney said the capability of air power to continue inflicting damage on Iraqi forces "is considerable," and that the current question center on "when is the best time" to unleash other forces.

Saturday's daylong sessions were held in the map-lined "war room" of the Saudi Defense Ministry and hosted by Schwarzkopf.

Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, the spokesman for Central Command, said, "It was upbeat," yet noted, "When you're fighting a war, it's not slapping everybody on the back and saying, `Great job.' "

After their session with the military leaders, Cheney and Powell met with Prince Khalid bin Sultan, commander of the Saudi and joint Arab forces. The two were slated to meet Sunday with a Stealth F-117A fighter-bomber unit at an airbase before returning to Washington.

Meanwhile, a senior Western diplomat in Riyadh predicted that the bill for repairing the wartime damage to Kuwait will amount to more than $60 billion.

The diplomat, who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity, said the figure came from "quite detailed planning" for the reconstruction of Kuwait.