Though smoke and uncertainty continue to shroud the battlefields of the Persian Gulf, competing groups in the U.S. defense industry are already citing evidence on the front lines that their own weapons systems deserve increased funding.

The B-2 "stealth" bomber is a case in point. Its friends say the F-117 jet, a technological cousin, has performed well in combat, proving the stealth concept. But the B-2's enemies say the cross-hair accuracy of relatively low-cost cruise missiles hitting Iraqi targets prove the B-2 isn't needed.

The Persian Gulf War is giving many U.S. weapons their first real combat workouts. When it is over, some will be labeled stars, some losers. These assessments will help redistribute billions of dollars in a defense industry already hurting from post-Cold War cutbacks, and they could create new markets abroad.

For now, information dribbling in from the gulf changes day by day. "The exuberance about high-technology bombing that is around this week will not be there so much a month from now," said Mancur Olson, an economist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded institute in Washington created by Congress.

Ultimate answers as to what new directions the defense industry might take will have to await detailed assessment at the conflict's end. And they will be crafted in part by other considerations, such as whether the United States should bolster military production or instead focus attention on making its civilian industries more competitive.

First indications as to whether the Bush administration is shifting defense priorities may come this week in its fiscal 1992 federal budget proposal. But contractors and their friends in Congress aren't waiting. Some companies have been calling congressional staff members to volunteer the latest results of their weapons' test by fire. Lobbying also is underway to get neglected products into the gulf.

A small Arizona firm, Western Ordnance International Corp., has papered congressional and media offices in an attempt to "save the lives of American soldiers" by getting the Pentagon to buy its "vortex flash eliminator" attachment for M-16 rifles. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is urging the Pentagon to pluck the SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance plane out of mothballs to aid the war effort.

Defense industry executives and outside analysts said in recent interviews that they don't expect the war to bring back the big-spending days of the Reagan administration. But many see it as a chance for companies to capture a larger share of a smaller U.S. defense-spending pie.

Grumman Corp. executives had to be pleased when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, mentioned in a briefing that a Grumman creation called "J-Stars" was among the "very sophisticated systems" that let his commanders measure how much damage the air war is doing to Iraqi supply lines in Kuwait.

Grumman is winding down production of the F-14 and A-6 Navy jets and has a lot riding on J-Stars, a new surveillance system mounted in the military version of a Boeing 707. The two test models of the plane were rushed to the gulf last month and continuing success could mean billions of dollars in new orders for Grumman.

In the rush for competitive advantage, conflicting conclusions are sometimes being drawn from the same limited set of data from the war zone.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the senior GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for one, says the success of the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber should translate into "stronger support" in Congress for Northrop Corp.'s B-2, a larger plane that has been threatened by rising costs and questions over its mission.

But another congressional expert noted the difficulty that U.S. planes are having finding mobile Scud missiles in desert terrain "where you can see a bowling ball at 40 miles." That experience makes the B-2's mission of hunting down Soviet mobile nuclear missiles in Russian forests even more formidable, he said.

In addition, the Tomahawk cruise missile's apparent success could become an argument against the B-2 or a new stealth fighter the Air Force covets, or any manned fighter bomber. "You can buy about 600 Tomahawks for the price of a B-2," said Joseph Cirincione, a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

President Bush on Tuesday waded into a similar fight over the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Pentagon's proposed system for shooting down ballistic missiles. Here, both sides are citing U.S. Patriot missiles' success against Iraqi Scuds.

Bush told Congress that he had decided to shift SDI more toward guarding against limited missile attacks. SDI proponents already had been arguing that the Patriots' success bore out their program's core concept of "a bullet shooting a bullet." Opponents, however, have countered that the Patriot was funded by the Army and that downing an intercontinental ballistic missile is far more difficult than destroying a slower Scud.

On one level, the nascent debate is over money and jobs. On another, it revives the great military debates of the 20th century, with a new set of weapons and geopolitical circumstances. Can strategic bombing seriously weaken a determined enemy? Is it better to buy a lot of small, simple weapons or a few large, complex ones? How much money should be spent on machines to avoid risking human life?

Detailed technical study will be needed at war's end to determine what really worked.

But first impressions are important, too, in a field as politically charged as weapons procurement. And the nightly television footage of U.S. air power in action has mesmerized many Americans. After years of press accounts of billion-dollar cost overruns and "gold-plated" weapons that simply don't work, this is surprising news for many taxpayers and sweet vindication for the defense industry.

"We're not surprised our weapons work," said Al Spivak, spokesman for General Dynamics Corp., which makes the Tomahawk, as well as F-16 fighters and M-1A1 tanks. "The problem has been in the days of early testing when difficulties might arise, people would jump to conclusions and think systems wouldn't work in the long run. That's where the critics were wrong."

While bigger defense contracts might help individual companies' balance sheets, Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, believes it would pose a long-term threat to the U.S. economy, by distracting companies from developing civilian technologies to compete against Japan and Germany.

"Why should General Electric rebuild its consumer electronics division?" he asked. "Why should Westinghouse concentrate on making new and better power systems ... when lucrative defense awards await around the corner?"

The war experience seems likely to revive ancient arguments over whether to build new, state-of-the-art planes or upgrade older ones. Some analysts believe the strong performance of aging aircraft -- the F-111 dates to the 1960s, the B-52 to the 1950s -- suggests that updates in electronics and precision munitions could carry today's jets well into the 21st century.

But Norman Augustine, chairman of defense contractor Martin Marietta Corp., which makes part of the Patriot, said the United States must work to maintain its lead. "The change of technology today is more rapid than it's ever been," he said. " ... If you stand still, the next war may find that all the Scud IIs, or whatever they will be called, may be able to penetrate."

Ben Rich, chief of the secret Lockheed Corp. "skunk works" at Burbank, Calif., which developed the F-117 and is vying for the Air Force contract for a new "advanced tactical fighter," has sounded a similar theme. Americans don't drive old cars and they shouldn't send pilots into combat in old planes, he says.

Bob Harwood, a spokesman for Grumman, which would like to upgrade the Navy's older F-14 and A-6 jets, counters Rich's automotive analogy with one of his own. Today's cars are so expensive, he says, that many people drive theirs for 10 years.

Other analysts wonder whether the war's lesson will be that technology, new or old, is often just not decisive. A Tomahawk strike squarely on Iraq's command and control headquarters is worthwhile only if it seriously reduces the country's war-making abilities. But what if Saddam Hussein can continue to communicate using underground cables or more primitive systems?

"The history of strategic bombing is a history of failure," said Olson of the U.S. Institute of Peace, citing behind-the-lines air attacks during World War II and the Vietnam War. If this is correct, allied forces moving into Kuwait will have to fight the old-fashioned way, risking heavy casualties as they clear Iraqi troops from dug-in positions and engage armor at close range.

"You can't afford to use one of those million-dollar cruise missiles for every tank," said Steve Fetter, who teaches a course on ballistic missiles at the University of Maryland.

For the short run at least, many of those interviewed suggested that "winners" in the war are the makers of electronic equipment.Jamming systems appear to have denied the Iraqis' use of their radar systems. "Heads-up" displays on bomber canopies have improved pilots' accuracy.

The war began at a time when many military contractors were in financial straits. Budget deficits and rapprochement with the Soviet Union have brought major cutbacks in military spending. General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas Corp., the two largest contractors, were rocked recently by Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney's decision to cancel their contract for a new Navy attack bomber called the A-12.

Most analysts see the U.S. defense industry benefiting in the months ahead mainly from orders to replenish "consumables" -- things such as bombs, gas masks and rations. Few experts expect the war to bring new orders for big-ticket items such as airplanes. "As we look back a few years from now," Martin Marietta's Augustine said, "the impact will be relatively small."

The war, said Leroy Haugh, vice president for procurement and finance at the Aerospace Industries Association, "is not the solution to the financial problems of the industry, which have been layered on over a number of years."

In the long run, Pentagon policy makers will have to make difficult choices about what systems to fund to meet expected future threats, and that probably means fewer defense contractors. Said Paul Math, director of defense procurement programs at the General Accounting Office: "There's going to have to be a settling out of the industry."