WHEN Mikhail Gorbachev took power four years ago, he was shocked by the state of the Defense Council, the secretive committee of top political and military leaders that oversees military policy. It simply was not working. But cleaning things up, he recalled last week in an impromptu address to the Supreme Soviet, turned out to be a ``very painful'' business.
``It was so painful that I began to receive information that the Defense Council and its chairman [Gorbachev] were moving too sharply, and the Marshals requested me to bear this comment in mind.''
In other words, unnamed senior military commanders were telling the Soviet leader to slow down.
Soviet and foreign observers say Gorbachev's comments are the clearest sign yet that the Soviet leader faced serious opposition from the top levels of the military after he came to power in 1985.
They also betray Gorbachev's deep unhappiness with the present state of the armed forces.
Mr. Gorbachev said he talked to the Marshals. ``The vast majority'' of them, he said, finally came round to the need for major changes in the military.
These comments are taken from Gorbachev's remarks during Supreme Soviet hearings to confirm Gen. Dmitri Yazov as defense minister. The statements were excised from the televised version of the speech, and were not carried in the Soviet news media. But the remarks quickly began to circulate in Moscow in a highly dramatized and distorted form.
The accepted wisdom until now has been that the military escaped the worst effects of stagnation, as the Brezhnev years are known. Vast amounts of money had been spent on defense under Leonid Brezhnev. The armed forces were well-armed, well-trained, and well-equipped, and were worthily fulfilling their duties, Gorbachev told the 27th Communist Party Congress in February 1986.
His line these days is sharply different. The military needs ``radical reconstruction,'' he told the Supreme Soviet. In the armed forces this process is ``still more difficult than in society.'' The situation has begun to improve, he said, but reform is still far from complete. And ``a lot of people don't like it.''
When he came to power, Gorbachev said, he discovered that despite the ``energy and riches'' expended on the armed forces, the military was scarcely able to guarantee the country's security. The situation surrounding the armed forces was ``fraught with danger,'' he told the Supreme Soviet.
Senior military commanders have frequently stressed that too many manpower cuts will weaken the country's defense capability. Gorbachev says the opposite.
``We have cut 101 divisions,'' he said. At full strength a Soviet division has about 10,000 men.
``Do you feel the Army has become weaker?'' These units were nothing but ``feeding troughs'' for senior officers, he said.
The Soviet leader indicated that more cuts may be coming. General Yazov had told the Supreme Soviet that 176,000 students could not receive early discharge without weakening the armed forces. Gorbachev noted, however, that the subject required further examination.
Gorbachev did not say in his speech when he had his problems with the Marshals. But one comment indicates that relations with top military commanders were still very difficult in the first part of 1987.
Yazov moved to Moscow from the Far Eastern Military District at the end of 1986 to become deputy minister for personnel. He proved ``courageous and principled'' in this job, Gorbachev said. This suggests that Yazov was facing serious opposition from inside the armed forces.
Gorbachev and Yazov received unexpected help from Mathias Rust, a West German teen-ager whose light plane penetrated Soviet security and landed on the edge of Red Square in May 1987.
This provided the opportunity to drop Marshal Sergei Sokolov, the defense minister and a member of the ruling Politburo. He was replaced by Yazov. Air-defense chief Alexander Koldunov was fired and replaced by Gen. Ivan Tretyak, one of Yazov's former subordinates in the far east.
These and subsequent changes were interpreted at the time as a reaction to the embarrassment caused by the Rust affair. But from Gorbachev's recent speech it seems that Yazov had already drawn up a plan for major changes in the military command structure before Mr. Rust landed. The affair may simply have forced the military and defense establishment to accept the proposals, analysts say.
The rate of turnover among top commanders increased dramatically after May 1987. For much of 1988 changes at the top - commanders of military regions and the top echelons of the defense ministry - were being announced every month. These culminated in late 1988 when Yazov's former deputy in the far east, Mikhail Moiseyev, succeeded Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev as chief of the general staff.
Major problems remain, Gorbachev said. These include protectionism, ``cheating'' - a term he did not explain - and opposition to the ``rejuvenating'' of the armed forces. He also noted complaints that officers of peasant and worker origin were subject to discrimination.
The toughest challenge for military reformers is the general staff, says a former regular officer. Its middle layers ``are actively resisting and ignoring reform.''
The Defense Council has long intrigued Western academic and military observers.
Military specialists say that the council is the nucleus of a wartime cabinet. Others say that the council's main function is to ensure the primacy of the Communist Party over the military in defense matters.
Gorbachev stressed to the Supreme Soviet that the council, not the defense minister, decided military strategy. He also gave an unusually detailed list of council members: He chairs it, and its members include the prime minister, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, ``comrades in charge of defense industry,'' and a few key military commanders.
The Supreme Soviet would be able to hear more, he said, when they meet in closed session to confirm the council members.