THE Gurkhas have fought some tough battles in their 176 years with the British Army, but for Maj. Lalbahadur Gurung and his comrades, the next struggle could be one of the hardest yet.Posted atop a hill of scrub and grass overlooking Hong Kong's border with China, the Nepalese mercenaries expect big losses. Worse still, the stocky hillmen cannot fight back. London announced in July that it will reduce Gurkha forces from 8,000 to 2,500 men as part of drastic, across-the-board military cutbacks prompted by the end of the cold war. The retrenchment means that in the next several months many of the 5,000 soldiers in the three Gurkha battalions stationed in Hong Kong will get their last marching orders. The Gurkhas suffered less in the bureaucratic rout than the Life Guards, the Queen's Own Hussars, and other outfits destined for amalgamation. Moreover, the brigade won assurances that Britain will continue a tradition dating back to 1815, when the East India Company enlisted Gurkhas after it learned first-hand about their ferocity. Defense Secretary Tom King in July indicated that Britain will still field the Gurkhas when it withdraws troops from Hong Kong and China regains sovereignty over the territory in 1997. The Gurkhas "have a guaranteed future as an integral part of British forces and we can take comfort in that," says Col. William Shuttleworth. Still, for Major Gurung and the other Gurkhas on the border, the prospect of bidding farewell to arms is wrenching. Soldiering is seen as a prestigious and lucrative livelihood for Gurkhas, poor mountain dwellers from western Nepal. "One of my earliest memories is of wanting to join the brigade," says Gurung. As a boy tending his family's goats in the Himalayan foothills, Gurung remembers watching his older brother set off in the brigade's green fatigues and floppy hat for places far beyond the distant snowy peaks. "Of course we're sad about the reduction," says the major. "But we understand that it is part of a plan that involves every aspect of British forces, so we've accepted it," he adds, curling his thumbs through a belt holding the broad, bent kukri knife that is the Gurkha's emblem. IT appears unlikely that the major will be demobilized, given his training at Sandhurst, 12 years of service in the brigade, and clear favor in the eyes of British officers. Still, like other Gurkhas, he has considered the alternatives. Gurung would seek to join other former Gurkhas employed in the security forces of Singapore, Brunei, and other countries. Or, like many retired members of the brigade, he says he would return to Nepal with his comparatively hefty savings and buy a large tract of fertile l and. But life as a paramilitary adviser or farmer is likely to be a dizzying comedown for a Gurkha. The brigade has earned a significant stock of honor in engagements running from the siege of Delhi in 1857, to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Gallipoli during World War I, the Burma campaign in World War II, and the Falklands War in 1982. "What gives the Gurkhas an edge is their fierce pride," says Maj. Chris Hardy, a spokesman for British forces in Hong Kong. "There is just one outcome in anything they do and that is to win." Yet the duties of the Gurkhas on the China border underline how armies today must fulfill specialized tasks that demand more than just the old sword-and-scabbard martial ideals of valor and honor. The brigade last year brought to bay 7,700 illegal immigrants as they tried to swim, crawl, dash, or climb across the 19-mile border. To do so, the Gurkhas had to man a collection of high-tech gear ranging from thermal imaging devices to ground sensors. Defenders of all-British battalions that were threatened in the recent cutbacks said the Gurkhas should be disbanded - primarily, they maintained, because of the Gurkhas' comparative lack of sophistication. Many Gurkhas have never used a fork and knife, much less a walkie-talkie, before joining the brigade. But with training, the Nepalese handle high-tech as adeptly as their British counterparts, says Colonel Shuttleworth. "The Gurkhas are able to take their place in the wider Army and stand on an equal footing with any other soldiers," says the colonel. Also, the recruitment network in Nepal for the brigade gives London a ready source of military manpower in an emergency, according to Shuttleworth. And the brigade is of significant value for an army slashing its budget: Britain fields Gurkhas at one-third the cost of a similar force made up of soldiers from the United Kingdom. But to champions of one of Britain's enduring imperial legacies, the Gurkhas have an intangible claim. After so many years of service and sacrifice by the Nepalese, "Britain owes the Gurkhas a debt of honor," says Shuttleworth, thumping his shillelagh on the floor.