FORT IRWIN, CALIF. -- Army Pvt. Fred Cole, sitting in his foxhole at dawn, easily spotted the Soviet tank charging up the hill toward him. The yellow fireball of morning sun rising above the mountains lit up the brown floor of the Mojave Desert, revealing that the tank was only the first of a long column of Soviet armored vehicles.

Cole aimed his Dragon antitank missile at the lead vehicle and fired. Nothing happened. Once again the Dragon did not work.

The Soviet motorized rifle regiment roared right past Cole and other U.S. defenders trying to stop the column. Referees of the mock battle, fought with harmless laser beams rather than bullets but otherwise realistic, declared Cole and most of his buddies dead. The Soviets -- in less than half an hour -- had won another battle against the U.S. Army.

The victors were American soldiers dressed as Soviets who used Soviet tactics and vehicles in fighting a battalion from The Big Red One -- the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, a mechanized outfit which is part of the forward defense of NATO in West Germany. THE NEW GI One of an occasional series of articles

The losers were the new GIs in the all-volunteer Army who employed the same weapons and tactics used by U.S. troops stationed around the world. But during two weeks of almost continuous mock armored battles, the Americans never won.

Time and again, U.S. Army units, although armed with such modern weapons as the M1 tank, could not coordinate their attacks or defenses to overwhelm or stop the "Soviets."

The string of "Soviet" victories at this giant outdoor laboratory called the National Training Center, a chunk of Mojave Desert as big as Rhode Island, raised questions about the capabilities of the U.S. Army at a time when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is about to pull part of the nuclear crutch out from under NATO.

Under the INF pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's nuclear-tipped Pershing II and cruise missiles on the ground in West Germany will be removed. U.S. senators across the political spectrum have expressed concern during INF hearings whether the imminent removal of these short- and medium-range nuclear missiles leaves NATO's nonnuclear forces in Europe too weak to deter or defeat a Warsaw Pact invasion.

Short of actual war, the National Training Center, 37 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif., provides the best measure of how the U.S. Army would do against the Warsaw Pact. For two weeks, this reporter, often accompanied by a photographer, observed battles pitting a battalion from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division against a simulated Soviet motorized rifle regiment.

Direct observation and interviews with officers and soldiers on both sides of the battle line revealed:The American foot soldier does not have a decent antitank weapon. His most lethal one is the Dragon. Dragon gunners complained that this weapon -- a bulbous tube as cumbersome to carry on your back as a cylindrical vacuum cleaner -- forces them into a suicide position when taking on modern Soviet tanks like the T72.

"Remember," a Dragon instructor told his gunners before the mock battles on the desert began, "you have to keep the cross hairs on the tank for 15 to 20 seconds or else you won't hit it. A T72 can swing his gun around and kill you in four seconds."

When fired the Dragon sends up a highly visible, distinctive plume of white smoke, the equivalent of waving a red flag at a bull in the view of gunners trying to keep their aim steady while worrying about being spotted by a Soviet T72 tank crew. The Dragon missile trails a wire behind it as it flies along. Guidance signals travel over this wire while the gunner seated on the ground tries to hold the aiming-canister body of the weapon steady in its stand. The gunner is supposed to sit stock-still while the Dragon's missile is in flight. If he dives for cover rather than continue to keep the Dragon sight on the tank, the missile will fly off course.

If the missile flies over water, such as a pond or stream, and the trailing guidance wire gets wet, the control signals short-circuit, sending the rocket off course.

"It kind of PO's me that they can't give me something better than this," said one of the new GIs who volunteered for the infantry with enthusiasm but was so dispirited by his experience as a Dragon gunner fighting the mock Soviets here that he is thinking of quitting the Army after his four-year tour rather than make it a career as he had planned. "I've been killed in every battle I've been in. I'll fire the thing out here, but not in combat. I'd rather get court-martialed than killed."

The Defense Department is working on a better antitank weapon, but the Dragon is what soldiers on foot would have to use tomorrow morning if war broke out. The advent of modern Soviet weapons, like hand-held antiaircraft missiles for shooting down helicopters, has forced the Army to abandon many of the fancy tactics used in Vietnam where commanders often hovered in choppers above the battle radioing down instructions.

Army infantry commanders today act more like the North Vietnamese commanders they used to scoff at for explaining tactics on sand tables and then walking their troops through the plan on the ground before attacking. Painstaking rehearsals are back in style, officers here said.

"It's back to Napoleon," said one commander, explaining that perfecting the classic tactics of maneuver, surprise, artillery, barriers and mines to drive enemy forces into a "kill sack" is the only way to win against modern, fast-moving armies. Infantry leaders contended that preparation, timing and coordination are the big keys to success -- far more important than the wonder weapons Pentagon leaders are pressing the Army to buy.

The Soviets have stuck to these basic tactics in training their army and kept their officers in the field with the same troops for years at a time, officers noted, in contrast to the U.S. Army where lieutenants and captains constantly rotate from one type of job to another.

"We in the Army have been kidding ourselves about how long it takes to get good at this stuff," said one officer who referees the land battles here between U.S. and Soviet forces. "I thought I was a real hot-shot platoon leader. Now that I've watched over 300 battles out here, and seen what it really takes to win, I realize I didn't know anything. We've got to keep our platoon leaders and company commanders in the field with their men longer or we're going to lose our ass."

One of the commanders of the mock Soviet force, called OpFor, has concluded he would have a better chance of winning a nonnuclear battle in Europe if he commanded Soviet rather than U.S. troops. He said they are better schooled in the fundamentals of massing force and coordinating firepower through years of practice in the field.

The Soviet motorized regiment's basic tactic is to find a weak spot in the defense and ram through it with column after column of armor. In the battles here, the first part of the Soviets' attacking column sometimes suffered heavy losses, but the rest of the force kept coming, punching through the U.S. front-line "crust" and rolling up the flanks in less than an hour -- as Cole and other members of Charlie Company discovered during the dawn attack.

The Soviets also have units with fresh battlefield experience in Afghanistan while the U.S. Army has almost run out of officers and sergeants with combat experience. U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the last battlefield experience for the American military except for the limited invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Offsetting those Soviet advantages, commanders here said, are the U.S. Army's sharing of command responsibilities from officers to sergeants; the initiative and skill of the new GIs, superior equipment and weaponry. Comparatively few Soviet commanders have access to radios, for example, making it difficult to coordinate operations during battle, officers here said.

Brig. Gen. Horace G. (Pete) Taylor, commander of the National Training Center, said the mock Soviet troops here are better than the real ones the Army would face in a war in Europe, partly because their leaders know the Mojave Desert terrain so well. Also, the Soviet force outnumbers the U.S. Army defenders 3 to 1, as might be the case along the NATO front.

"That's what we're trying to train these guys to do -- to be able to win at those odds," said Taylor. He portrayed the center as an outdoor classroom where learning by doing -- not who wins and who loses -- is the important consideration. "This place plays a major role in deterrence -- the Soviets know everything we do." It is an open secret within the military that the Soviets watch the center by satellite, but Taylor would not comment on this.

Although Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said last week that he spared training funds in cutting his budget for fiscal 1989 by $33 billion, training exercises here are to be curtailed as an economy measure. The Soviet Union as well as the United States has fielded new generations of nonnuclear weapons that kill troops by the acre, meaning any land war in Europe is likely to inflict horrendous casualties, according to infantry officers here.

"In the mid-1970s," said one, "we got the idea we could somehow fight a war without casualties. We're going to lose people."

An Army general specializing in manpower said he doubted today's Army of 781,000 would provide enough "trigger pullers" to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion without resorting to nuclear weapons. He recommended broadening the all-volunteer Army's training base so it could quickly train draftees as front-line replacements if war should come, especially since the Army's end strength is slated to be reduced by 8,600 people by Oct. 1. The Army's new M1 tank proved to be a lethal weapon for killing Soviet armor, especially at night because of scopes that could see in the dark, but also became vulnerable whenever it was slowed by antitank ditches or came within range of Soviet infantry. Tank commanders often lost track of who was where in the dark.

In one confusing night battle, for example, the 1st Infantry's force lost 23 of its 26 tanks, four of them to friendly fire. Undersecretary of the Army James R. Ambrose said the Army should reduce the confusion by equipping armored vehicles with lighted consoles showing drivers and commanders where everybody is.

The training center's post audit of the night battle, aided by computerized records of who did what to whom, concluded that 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. attacking force had been killed or wounded. This meant, officers said, that the objective could not have been held even if the small band of survivors had seized it.

The Soviets won this battle by fooling U.S. intelligence officers. Rather than hide their antitank troops in the hills as anticipated, they dug firing positions right on the desert floor. The U.S. brigade did not send out reconnaissance teams to locate the enemy before the night battle started.

This reporter was in a platoon leader's M113 armored vehicle during that all-night battle. We got lost out on the desert. This happens so often that troops have an expression for it -- L.I.D., "lost in desert."

"When the Soviets are allowed to attack en masse, they're almost unstoppable. He'll mass to get 6-to-1, 7-to-1 odds to break through," Taylor said. "If you're able to shoot down their intelligence, you can stop them."

One veteran infantry commander pleaded that officers be honed to win battles in the mud rather than "punch tickets" in the Pentagon bureaucracy: "The wisdom of the Army has always been at the bottom where men get killed, not at the top. In battle, there's never a shortage of generals -- always a shortage of privates."