The battleship USS Missouri and several escorting warships, including an Aegis cruiser for antiaircraft operations, will sail for the Indian Ocean late next month to establish a new kind of U.S. presence in waters outside the Persian Gulf, defense officials said yesterday.

Navy officials say they not only regard the Missouri's flotilla as a way to deter Iran from firing at shipping in the gulf but as an experiment in combining the firepower of a battleship with the electronic eyes of an advanced-technology Aegis ship. The combination will substitute for a second aircraft carrier near the gulf, officials said.

The Pentagon's plan calls for operating the Missouri task force of about six ships south and east of the gulf entrance. The ships would enter the waterway only occasionally, if at all, officials said. Military leaders are still debating whether the 68,000-ton, World War II-vintage Missouri would be needlessly provocative if it patrolled the gulf, sources said. Marine Gen. George B. Crist, commander of the gulf theater, is said to favor the high-profile presence.

It would be the first deployment of an American battleship force in the Indian Ocean on a military mission, defense officials said, and would represent a significant escalation of the nation's military commitment in the region.

The Pentagon's decision comes as Congress remains undecided on how to respond to the Reagan administration's controversial plan to place Kuwaiti oil tankers under U.S. flag protection.

Another part of the plan, sources said, is to send the aircraft carrier USS Ranger to replace the USS Constellation in the Arabian Sea this summer.

By the time the Missouri reaches the Arabian Sea in August, it will have computerized disks containing detailed maps of Iran to guide the battleship's Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Tomahawk guides itself to selected targets by following the computerized map in its mechanical brain. Backers of using the Tomahawk to retaliate against any attacks on shipping by Iran, sources said, have been arguing that this unmanned weapon avoids the danger of Iran's radical government capturing any downed American pilots.

The Missouri and two other reactivated World War II U.S. battleships have vintage 16-inch guns, which proved highly accurate when the USS New Jersey fired them against Lebanon in 1983, Navy officials said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, sources said, are debating whether to recommend to President Reagan a preemptive strike to knock out Iran's Silkworm antiship missiles if they become operational on the edge of the gulf.

The intelligence community has predicted that the first of the Chinese-supplied Silkworms will be ready to fire next week. Iran has test-fired the missile, which has a range of 50 miles and carries a warhead of 1,100 pounds, in the Strait of Hormuz, 40 miles wide at its narrowest part.

If the wide array of U.S. sensors and eavesdropping equipment in the gulf detects a Silkworm ready for firing, Navy warplanes carrying retaliatory weapons, would be sent over the area from the carrier outside the gulf. The Silkworm can be moved on trucks, making it more difficult to prepare the Missouri's Tomahawks for this retaliatory role, but defense officials said this could be done as well.

Pentagon sources said that Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposes a preemptive strike against the Iranian Silkworms because he doubts Tehran would fire them at U.S. warships or the 11 Kuwaiti tankers they are expected to escort through the gulf.

Crowe, sources said, believes Iran would be unlikely to retaliate in the gulf region, where the United States has overwhelming military force, but might seek targets elsewhere. The chiefs are expected to make their recommendation to Reagan soon.

Although the rules of engagement have not been rewritten since the attack on the USS Stark on May 17, the Navy has told its skippers to take aggressive action against aircraft which fly near them, even to shooting them down if they get too close.

{A Norwegian tanker sustained considerable engine room damage and requested medical assistance after being hit by missiles in the Persian Gulf south of Kuwait last night, Reuter reported. There were no details on who was responsible for the attack.}