WASHINGTON. — Washington--When the Soviet Union officially goes poof -- or bang -- at midnight Dec. 31, the behemoth that is the Soviet military machine is unlikely to go up in smoke with it.
Like a creaking, clanking machine that has run on its own power for years, the Soviet military will take months, if not years, to break apart, according to military analysts who have closely monitored the dissolution of the superpower.
''The Soviet military will exist long after it's dead because even if the central units dissolve, the individuals in the republic armies will be from the Soviet military,'' said David Isby, a Washington-based expert on Soviet military affairs.
Despite squalid living conditions, low pay and increasing ethnic tensions in the ranks, the 3.7 million Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen are expected to provide the disparate and increasingly contentious republics with some sense of stability.
''The military is the one stable institution and one symbol of statehood,'' said Ilana Kass, an expert in the Soviet military at the National War College in Washington.
A quick breakup of the Soviet military also is unlikely because of one other factor: the economy. The Soviet economy simply cannot produce the jobs or housing for large numbers of unemployed soldiers.
''They are not in any great hurry to leave the military because they still get three square meals a day,'' said Ms. Kass, who recently returned from a two-week Soviet trip.
Although the troops are being fed, housing is another problem.
The Soviet military had great difficulty assimilating the tens of thousands of troops who returned from Eastern Europe this year, according to Tom Nichols, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth.
''Many of them are living in tents. They don't have nearly enough housing,'' said Mr. Nichols. On a recent trip, Mr. Nichols said he heard Soviet military officials estimate that 200,000 officers and their families are without permanent housing.
Although some sense of discipline is still evident in the ranks, experts say training has come to a virtual standstill. A severe fuel shortage has grounded aircraft, sent ships and submarines back to their home ports and kept tanks and other vehicles confined to their bases as troops sit in unheated barracks and tents waiting to see what becomes of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
''I don't want to say they are in total disarray, but they are in extensive disarray,'' said Dan Papp, a Soviet expert at Georgia Tech.
Among those trying hardest to maintain central control, say most experts, are the officers, about 90 percent of whom come from the three Slavic republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
''They have the most to lose,'' said Mr. Nichols. ''For a lot of officers, the Soviet military is where they found a career and a life with some stature.''
And, said Mr. Papp, ''It's pretty clear (the military) is going to revert to the republics.''
Some experts predict armies or national guards in each of the republics. The Ukraine already has started building a force of about 450,000 troops, according to the Soviet defense daily newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda.
Still others say the three Slavic nations, which supply about 70 percent of the military, will provide security for the Commonwealth.
That may not set too well with the largely Muslim nations of Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They have furnished nearly 20 percent of Soviet military troops in years past but their native sons frequently were subjected to cruel hazing and harsh discipline by the Slavic officers and non-commissioned officers. Having Slavic troops on their home soil could be construed as an occupation force.
Some experts say Muslim conscripts have been deserting in large numbers the past few years and there is no real effort to get them back.
Recent conscriptions -- draftees are called twice a year, once in the fall and again in the spring -- have failed to produce the numbers of previous years because conscripts simply refuse to report, say the experts.
''The drafts this year in some locations was an absolute fiasco,'' said Gabriel Schoenfeld, editor of ''Post-Soviet Prospects,'' a research bulletin published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One other worrisome note is what may happen to technical and strategic experts who find their knowledge no longer needed. They may make themselves available to the highest bidders.
''Colonel (Moammar) Gadhafi may be going through a huge pile of resumes right now,'' said Mr. Isby.
Ron Martz writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.