Shortly after the start of the gulf war, a Soviet military analyst predicted Moscow's defense industry would be as much its victim as Saddam Hussein: The Soviet Union's belief in a "vast land army with its mountain of mediocre weapons will be swept into the dustbin of history."

Soviet generals at first resisted. Some tried instead to make fun of America's battle tanks which, they said, were always having to stop to clean the sand from their oil filters.But military realism reasserted itself: The Soviet general staff now makes no secret of its belief that the gulf war has changed the nature of future wars.

It is not an entirely new Soviet perception. Soviet military thinkers have long understood the implication of new technology for war, but the country's political and economic decline ruled out the radical re-equipment they said was necessary. Seven years ago this dispute shattered the career of the exceptionally able Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov.

The gulf war has made plain the advantage of an army fighting with sophisticated reconnaissance and control systems that direct advanced conventional munitions such as smart bombs and cruise missiles.

That these weapons are best used for forward attack also strengthens military doubts about the defensive doctrine forced on the Soviet high command by President Mikhail Gorbachev.

A Soviet general writing in the army newspaper Red Star in January caught the tone of military grumbling. The army was being told "to act passively in all circumstances," although in a war, "especially modern war," this was dangerous both "for the army and the nation."

It is typical of the confusion gripping the armed forces that the lessons of the gulf contradict some passionately held conservative military beliefs.

Benefiting from Gorbachev's weakness of the past six months, the marshals seem to have beaten off attempts to turn much-talked-of military reform into a thorough reshaping of the armed forces.

They have particularly resisted suggestions that the present huge conscript army in which every young man by law serves two years be consolidated into a smaller professional force.

No one has put the marshals' views more vividly than Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, who began his career commanding a platoon in World War II and was later an adviser in Cuba. In a recent interview, Yazov made no attempt to disguise his horror at the degradation of what he considers proper Soviet values.

He complained that people who were "prepared to sell the motherland down the river, to ruin the union and pull the army apart" were praised as democrats, while "general" had become a "term of abuse." And what had become of that key communist belief that war was not just a lethal game but an expression of class struggle?

This cry of a man left behind by history is part of what Elaine Holoboff, in a new study of Soviet military reform for the Center for Defense Studies, calls "a generalized sense of loss of purpose" brought about by the army's forced withdrawal from Eastern Europe.

Yazov and the conservatives can only be further disoriented by realization that lessons of the gulf dictate that Moscow needs the smaller, more professional army demanded by their opponents, the radical reformers.

Holoboff believes that as many as one in three Soviet generals now incline to radical views, as do a majority of officers of the rank of colonel and below who know firsthand the problems of an army in which almost 50 percent of the soldiers may live below the poverty level.

Officers have to struggle every day with problems of a disintegrating army, such as conscripts who don't want to serve outside their own republic, and growing anger at the traditionally vile intimidation of junior conscripts by their seniors.

If the army is not reformed soon, Holoboff quotes one garrison commander saying, "there will be no one to command, and no one in command."

The army's unhappiness has already had serious implications for the world beyond Soviet borders. The most obvious is the high command's attempt to halt what they see as a Soviet diplomatic retreat by flouting the recently signed Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (the high command renamed three army divisions as marines, thereby removing them from the treaty reductions).

The belief in London is that Gorbachev will get his soldiers back into line on this issue. But at a time when Soviet generals feel almost as humiliated as in the days when Stalin was shooting them like so many pheasants, it is hard to predict how long they'll stay there.