THE DISCUSSION of the military aspect of the crisis in the Persian Gulf has revolved largely around the question of whether or not we will actually have to fight. Suppose we do? Could we win?

At the strategic level, we began with a typical and correct strategy for a distant maritime nation: We assembled a coalition. A maritime nation normally defeats a continental opponent largely through the armies of its allies. However, we have not fully translated our coalition building from the diplomatic to the military sphere. At present, it appears as if the bulk of the ground forces will be American.

This has two serious consequences. First, it means that the bulk of the ground forces facing the Iraqis may well be the wrong type. We can most easily move infantry units from the United States to Saudi Arabia, but the terrain requires armored tanks and mechanized infantry.

The 82nd Airborne, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the 101st Airborne (Airmobile) and the 7th Infantry Division have between them only a couple of tank battalions; only the 24th Mechanized Division is suitable to the terrain, and at present it is deploying only one brigade. In contrast, the Iraqis have eight tank divisions. In the desert, armor has a decisive advantage over infantry; usually, it can simply go around it, encircle it and turn the infantry into POWs.

There is an answer to this problem: Egypt. Egypt has nine armored or mechanized divisions and is close enough to Saudi Arabia that it could move several there quickly. So far, however, Egypt has only committed a token force of some 5,000 men. Convincing Egypt to send at least two armored divisons to Saudi Arabia should be a top priority.

This problem is compounded by a failure to secure effective Soviet participation in the coalition. The Soviets have a crucial role to play: preventing Iraq from throwing the bulk of its forces south by posing a threat from the north. If the Soviets were to mobilize, say, 20 divisions north of Iraq and begin negotiating with Turkey and Iran for passage rights, Saddam would have to keep the bulk of his forces at home to defend Baghdad.

We are reportedly encouraging Syrian mobilization, which is helpful but not a substitute for Soviet action. We do not seem fully to have grasped the need to pin Iraq down. Part of the reason may be a belief that we could stop an Iraqi movement with air power. Such faith in air power could prove misplaced. Historically, we have repeatedly demanded more from air power than it is able to deliver, as in Operation Strangle in Italy in World War II, another Operation Strangle in Korea and Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. In each case, we expected air power to defeat a hostile ground force by pummeling its lines of supply. In each case, the enemy remained combat effective on the ground.

The history of air power used directly against armored units is no more comforting. Aircraft with the correct characteristics (slow speed, good ability to take hits from automatic weapons and effective cannon armament) can destroy tanks; German pilot Hans Ulrich Rudel destroyed more than 500 Russian tanks with a cannon-armed Stuka in World War II. But when the usually small number of suitable aircraft are spread out against a large armor attack, the most they can hope to do is slow it down. Ironically, the one American aircraft that can effectively fight tanks, the A-10 attack plane, is despised by the Air Force, because the Air Force dislikes the close air support mission for which it was designed. The Air Force is attempting to get rid of the A-10 as quickly as possible and is blocking the development of a replacement, the "Blitzfighter" or "Mudfighter," which is being pushed by military reformers on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the fact that we have quickly deployed about 100 A-10s to Saudi Arabia will give the Blitzfighter a needed boost.

The problem of unrealistic faith in air power may be compounded by a typical American error in the disposition of our ground forces. Air power can slow down an armored attack, and the delay can be of decisive importance if the defender has a strong armored reserve to maneuver against the attacker's flanks and rear; it can give the defender the time he needs to carry out such maneuvers.

However, American ground forces typically do not keep a strong reserve. they tend to put the bulk of their strength on a line, up forward near the enemy's positions. This is often fatal in armored warfare, because once the line is penetrated it collapses and the reserve is too weak to make a decisive counterattack into the enemy's flank. This flaw has been apparent in our dispositions in NATO for many years, and it reflects a general American misapprehension about the nature of modern war. In effect, we still think in terms of World War I. It is too early to say for certain that we will make the same mistake in Saudi Arabia, but it would be typical. As General von Molke warned a century ago, "A mistake in initial dispositions can seldom be put right." We may also face a politically-imposed mistake in dispositions. The Saudi army could well remain a significant component of the total ground force facing the Iraqis. This is particularly true in armor; the Saudis have about 500 tanks (many, unfortunately, the notoriously breakdown-prone French AMX-30). The Saudi army is more a political than a military force, however, and its fighting quality may prove low. If Saudi forces were mixed with American units for "stiffening," it would probably prove helpful. But this may be impossible politically. All too often, politics compels a key mission, such as holding a flank, be left to an ally as a "pure" force. If that happens here, it would be a good bet that the Iraqis would make the Saudi force the focus of their attack, with potentially catastrophic results.

Like the Saudis, American units have a key weakness relative to the Iraqis: Iraqi units have recently experienced combat, and American units have not. The difference between veteran and green troops is enormous, especially in the early stages of combat. Some of the American units had a bit of combat experience in Panama and Grenada, but the results are not necessarily reassuring. For example, the 82nd Airborne division, the first ground unit we deployed to Saudi Arabia, performed poorly in both Grenada and Panama.

Combat is likely to bring out some important deficiencies in our equipment as well as our units. The most critical could be the lack of an effective infantry anti-tank weapon. This is a historic weakness of American forces, and has had disastrous results in the past, in the case of Task Force Smith in Korea, for example. The reason is not technical -- there are a number of such weapons on the world market, including the cheap and effective Soviet-designed RPG-7 -- but bureaucratic. The Army's procurement bureaucracy is simply not interested in small, inexpensive weapons. Again, reformers on the Hill have raised this issue repeatedly, to no avail.

There are of course a number of other factors that bear on the question of whether we would win against Iraq, many of which cannot yet be known. Generalship is an example. The selection of an Air Force general to command the forces in Saudi Arabia is not comforting in this respect, since the decision is likely to be achieved on the ground.

No one has a crystal ball, but it is safe to say that there are numerous open questions about what would happen if fighting actually breaks out. If we move two or three armored or mechanized divisions to Saudi Arabia (or get the Egyptians to do so), our chances would certainly improve -- provided they are correctly disposed, in reserve with plenty of maneuver room.

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He writes frequently on military affairs.