The U.S. showdown with Iraq caught the federal government asleep at the helm of its fleet of reserve cargo ships.

Pentagon officials admitted last week that the backup fleet that is pressed into service in time of war has been hampered by delays and at least one breakdown. One ship carrying tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia broke down because of boiler problems and was towed across the Atlantic.

We warned about the possibility of delays and breakdowns last May when we reported that the reserve fleet would not be seaworthy if the Pentagon ordered a quick deployment for any reason. Saddam Hussein provided the reason.

Part of the backup system is the Ready Reserve Force, a fleet of retired ships maintained by the federal Maritime Administration. "Ready" may be an overstatement. The ships sit idle in U.S. ports and are supposed to be ready to sail in the event of war within five, 10 or 20 days, depending on the type of vessel. But, as of last week, only 14 of the 41 reserve ships called into service had reached their loading ports to take on supplies.

Some members of Congress are in the "I told you so" mode. Reps. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were exposing myriad problems with the reserve fleet long before Saddam decided to invade Kuwait. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee scheduled a hearing for Sept. 18 to air the problems.

The Military Sealift Command is doing its best to paint a rosy picture, and the Navy is blaming the Army for some delays. But military sources told our associates, Scott Sleek and Dan Njegomir, that the delays are partially due to planning for the wrong war. The delivery schedule was designed for a war in Europe, not the Middle East.

Even with the right plans, the government still doesn't have the right numbers. There are 96 ships in the Ready Reserve Force and not nearly enough sailors to take them across the ocean. Only 41 are manned so far in the deployment, and our sources say it would take another two or three months to scare up crews for more.

The Maritime Administration relies on sailors borrowed from the private Merchant Marine. But there are only 367 privately owned ships under U.S. flag and it would take 650 commercial ships to muster enough spare sailors to accommodate the Ready Reserve Force.

The U.S. commercial fleet has been on a steady downward spiral since World War II, driven out of business by cheaper foreign competition. In 1947 there were 2,332 commercial ships under U.S. flag. Now with only 367 ships plying the commercial trade, the United States has to rely on the old retired ships it keeps for emergencies.

"If you had a good active Merchant Marine, you wouldn't need a Ready Reserve fleet," former strategic sealift director Robert Kesteloot told us.

The Maritime Administration counts on the willingness of Merchant Marine sailors on leave to man all the Ready Reserve ships. And some understandably don't want to spend their vacation sailing back and forth between the United States and Saudi Arabia.