DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- The abrupt dismissal of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan Monday for speaking too candidly to reporters about Persian Gulf war plans capped five weeks during which an image-conscious military has provided the news media unprecedented access to its operations and military leaders on the Arabian Peninsula.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney's dramatic decision to fire one of his top generals highlighted the military's problem in striking a balance between informing the press and public about its massive buildup in the gulf region and, at the same time, trying to maintain the secrecy of its operations.

The unusually free flow of information is illustrated by the fact that virtually every military detail revealed by Dugan in last Sunday's stories in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times had already appeared in print -- on "background," without the names of high-ranking officials attached.

Main exceptions were Dugan's discussion of advice from Israeli sources on how best to target Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's inner circle in Baghdad and his confirmation of reports that Israel is providing U.S. forces with Have Nap "stand-off" missiles that can be fired from B-52s at ground targets 50 miles away.

Another of Dugan's transgressions, in Cheney's view, was claiming a primary role for the Air Force at a time when the Pentagon is trying to foster the concept of all services working jointly in the massive gulf operation. But this, too, has been fairly common. Although other service commanders have publicly stressed the combined efforts of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, most have used the operation to accentuate the roles of their individual forces.

"It would be a thorough misreading and a total misunderstanding of {Monday's} events if anyone were to conclude that . . . we're trying to discourage people from talking to the public and the press," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.

Military officials here concede that public support is politically crucial to the commitment of U.S. forces halfway around the globe. Most officers here who were involved in the U.S. military of the Vietnam War era say they never want to look over their shoulders again to find that public support has deserted them.

And while public opinion polls now indicate overwhelming support for the show of force in Saudi Arabia, military leaders say they realize that such support is fragile and could easily evaporate.

Military officials have found another benefit from permitting media access to operations here: At a time when the budget-pinched Pentagon is in search of a post-Cold War mission, Operation Desert Shield has become a showplace of U.S. military might and weaponry. Some examples:

Just as the Army was preparing to shut down its M-1 tank production lines, network television cameras were on the docks in Saudi Arabia, recording the first M-1 to rumble off a ship.

Just when Congress had begun questioning the need for Stealth aircraft in an era of peace with the Soviet Union, the Pentagon allowed reporters aboard a refueling tanker for the F-117 Stealth fighter on the first leg of the tanker's journey to the Arabian Peninsula.

And just as Cheney began ordering the Navy's hulking old battleships into mothballs, news reporters from around the world here found themselves offered frequent trips to the battle-ready USS Wisconsin in the Persian Gulf.

"They love what they're getting back at the Pentagon," said one military public-affairs official who has been coordinating the daily field trips for journalists here. "They keep saying: Keep it coming, give us more."

For nearly five weeks now, journalists have been feeding the American public a steady stream of gee-whiz stories on everything that flies, floats or rolls into Saudi Arabia. Many Americans, in fact, are learning the names of weapons they never knew existed.

How many Americans could truly say they'd ever heard of the A-10 Warthog, the ugliest plane in the Air Force, whose pilots are ridiculed by their fighter-jock brothers and whose supporters constantly have had to fend off budget cuts from generals who wanted sexier aircraft in their inventory. Here, this homely toad of a plane has emerged a prince, a mighty tank-killer that will slay Iraqi armor in its tracks.

In this operation, even foreign media have been granted unusual access to American military units. The front pages of Saudi newspapers have begun to resemble military trade journals. When fresh photographs of equipment at work in the kingdom are not available, they use file pictures provided by the U.S. Defense Department.

Of course, some weapons of the Reagan-era buildup are conspicuous by their absence. When war plans called for a bomber, the Air Force sent the aging B-52 rather than its sleek new B-1. Air Force officials said the B-1 has not completed all the tests needed to ensure that it is capable of successfully conducting conventional missions and that there was no need to jeopardize operations with an untested weapon when the B-52 was adequate for the job.

Cheney and Pentagon spokesman Williams are also using Operation Desert Shield to overcome the disastrous media experience of the Panama invasion. Then, the Defense Department media pool spent the invasion sequestered on a military base in Panama watching television feeds of Washington press conferences. The Pentagon-commissioned review of that situation resulted in a blistering attack on the way the military handled its press operations.