The end of any illusion that Saddam Hussein would be blown away by the heaviest, most sustained air attack in history has produced a private warning by administration officials to President Bush: The war to free Kuwait may last into June or beyond.

This caution was repeated when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested Wednesday that Saddam's "strategy perhaps of necessity" is to prolong the war by not fighting it. That means Saddam husbanding his hidden air power, luring the U.S.-led coalition into attacking his entrenched armies on the ground and continuing to fire his hundreds of Scud missiles, whose psychological impact had not been fully analyzed by the United States until Tel Aviv was hit.

If true, these premonitions of a longer war could pose political and military hazards for President Bush. They were not appreciated in the heady days last summer. That was when he amassed his unprecedented anti-Saddam coalition, passed one U.N. Security Council resolution after another and accomplished the fastest mobilization and buildup of American forces ever attempted.

But some respected voices are raising even gloomier questions. Former French defense minister Andre Girraud has warned privately that in the land war that appears to be inevitable, Saddam's army will not show itself to be the demoralized, war-sodden, ragtag force pictured here. Girraud believes that it might actually fight the large but untested U.S. force, and the scanty coalition ground troops alongside it, to a standstill.

The White House denies that the president and his men ever were overly optimistic about a swift, short war. Congressional leaders, however, got a different impression. Those who have been regularly briefed by administration officials have frequently forecast Saddam's defeat "relatively rapidly" in a six-week to eight-week war, as Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the House Republican whip, said last weekend.

No big war ever follows the script of those fighting it. The unexpected appearance of Saddam's estimated thousand or so Scud missiles was a shock to Pentagon war-fighters. Israel declined several weeks ago to accept American-manned Patriot missiles offered by Washington, and the United States failed to insist (though now they are in place). Far worse was the Air Force decision early last year to abandon the ideal anti-Scud weapon, the provably invulnerable SR-71 "blackbird."

Over strong objections of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Air Force ditched this high-flying photographic aircraft capable of supersonic speeds over the territory to be photographed. The then-Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Larry Welch, argued that satellites could do the job of sky-spying, but his colleagues now say he was quite wrong. The narrow band of their photographic scope and the known time of their passage give the enemy total safety in moving mobile Scud launchers.

Without the "blackbird," countless sorties by aircraft looking for elusive launchers have become a costly distraction from the task of softening up Saddam's Republican Guards for B-52 attacks. And the Scuds continue to fly, posing political questions that damage the war effort and forcing Bush to order an extraordinary hand-holding mission: sending Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for an extended stay in Israel.

Keeping coalition politics out of the war will be more difficult each week the conflict lasts. For obvious reasons, U.S. war plans are rarely presented for approval to European members of the coalition. With the exception of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, most coalition members with small units fighting beside the United States are expected to go along -- and so far have done so without complaint to Washington. But some are not happy.

"We do not have a clear view of American strategy," one key coalition official told us on our recent reporting tour of the Middle East. If the war does indeed lengthen, a new spate of diplomatic moves is wholly predictable, perhaps spawned by coalition fears that sustained bombing of Baghdad and Basra could have unpleasant repercussions in the world of Islam.

Bush's exuberant use of American power and influence in putting together his coalition -- an offer of debt forgiveness here, a promise of prestige there, gifts of manifold superpower goodies elsewhere -- produced a remarkably odd band of brothers. If Saddam proves capable of spinning out the war to late spring or early summer, the president may see more than one of his odd band fall away.