KUWAIT, JULY 25 -- The commander of the U.S. Navy flotilla assigned to escort duty in the Persian Gulf said today he has virtually no capability to defend against underwater mines like the one that blew a hole in a Kuwaiti supertanker yesterday, and he does not want to return to the same treacherous waters without some mine-sweeping assistance.

The top U.S. military officer in the Persian Gulf said later that a way has to be found to clear a mine-free path before the program of escorting the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the gulf could resume. "It has to be right at the top of the list after yesterday -- no doubt about it," said Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, who commands the nine-ship Middle East force. "We're going to be looking at aspects of the mine problem very hard."

Bernsen spoke with pool reporters after the oil supertanker Bridgeton's three-warship escort flotilla had reassembled to Bahrain, zigzagging its way along the western edge of the gulf from Kuwait.

In Washington, military leaders were preparing plans to provide mine-sweeping helicopters as part of future convoy escorts, Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Molly Moore reported. "We're hard at work trying to get additional assets to them," one official said, without saying how or when the equipment would get to the Persian Gulf or where it would be based.

Navy and Pentagon officials have played down the seriousness of the mine attack.

"We're concerned," said one Navy official. "But it's not a catastrophic event. At certain times, in such a volatile environment as the Persian Gulf, there will be accidents of this nature. There is no way you can defend against every threat."

But in the wake of the mine damage to the Kuwaiti-owned Bridgeton, U.S. and western officials here in the gulf region voiced concerns that U.S. Navy crews were endangered by an underestimated threat from mines. The Bridgeton is the first and largest of the Kuwaiti ships placed under the American flag and naval protection.

It was also clear today from statements made by captains of warships on escort patrols that the detonation of a 1,000-pound mine similar to the one believed to have been struck by the Bridgeton could inflict much more serious damage -- and loss of life -- on the much smaller U.S. warships involved in escort patrols.

Meanwhile today, Kuwait's state oil company announced that it intends to load the damaged Bridgeton with crude oil partially and send it back out into the gulf -- without first repairing the hull -- to complete the first cycle of its shuttle to customers waiting outside the Strait of Hormuz.

Shipping sources in the area, however, expressed reservations that the Bridgeton, even though it would not be fully loaded, would be subjected to unpredictable stresses and vibrations during the return voyage.

These sources said it appeared that Kuwait's leadership was concerned more about the negative public relations aspect of delaying the oil shuttle after the attack on the Bridgeton.

It was not clear today whether the U.S. Navy will go along with an immediate return trip through waters where it will have the same difficulty detecting mines. More mines were sighted by merchant shipping today off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

The concern of the line commander at sea was demonstrated yesterday when the U.S. Navy task force that was supposed to be protecting the Kuwaiti tankers instead formed a single file behind the wounded Bridgeton, to use it as a battering ram against additional mines during the last seven hours of the inaugural escort voyage.

"One of the things I do not have the capability to do is defend against mines," said Capt. David P. Yonkers, the tactical commander of the task force that escorted the Bridgeton and another Kuwaiti tanker, the Gas Prince, through the Strait of Hormuz to Kuwait's Ahmadi oil-loading port this week.

"The mine is far and away the most difficult to defend against," he told reporters today in a press pool aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Kidd. "I'm very thankful now that we managed to get out {of the mined waters} safely {and} right now, certainly, I wouldn't want to go back through the area we were in yesterday," he said.

The area to which he referred was the narrow choke point in the gulf shipping lanes about 120 miles southeast of Kuwait. Deep-draft supertankers such as the Bridgeton have few other choices but to pass through this point, which brings them within 20 miles of Farsi Island, one of the reputed bases of Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces.

These irregular naval forces have struck gulf shipping in Swedish-built speedboats capable of traveling at 60 miles an hour. They also are suspected of laying mines near the entrance to Kuwait's oil port.

Adm. Bernsen also told pool reporters that other ways of keeping the convoys running through the gulf would be considered, including different routes that the tankers could take if filled to only 75 percent capacity. "We'll make some recommendations to Washington and then I'm sure that they will take some action," Bernsen said.

A senior western official said here that U.S. Navy officials were slow to identify the mine threat in the gulf. He said, "It took four ships getting hit {in May and June} before someone said, 'Hey, you think there might be a mine field out there?' "

Yonkers' concerns were echoed by Cmdr. Daniel J. Murphy Jr., captain of the USS Kidd. "Our capability to spot a moored mine is very poor," Murphy told reporters as the Kidd steamed toward Bahrain today.

"The U.S. Navy, like all navies, is designed for deployment of integrated forces," he explained. "We have a capability in detecting mines, both from helicopters and from mine sweepers, but we don't have any of those things here." Asked why the task force was not equipped with mine-sweeping ships or helicopters, Murphy responded, "I don't know."

The U.S. Navy only has three mine sweepers still in active service. All are based in Charleston, S.C., more than 10 days' sailing time from the gulf. Navy officials said there was no indication these ships would be sent to the region.

The implicit concern in the various remarks reflected the frustrating position in which the United States finds itself while attempting to demonstrate two points in the escort operation, dubbed Earnest Will. One is to show resolve to protect moderate Arab states in the gulf from the spillover from the Iran-Iraq war. The other is to assert determination to keep open the shipping lanes in this vital waterway through which one-sixth of the noncommunist world's oil passes.

As the escort operation was rushed to its starting date amid congressional calls for delay and reconsideration, the Pentagon drew up plans for U.S. ships to respond to the array of potential threats facing them in waters where, it has seemed since the deadly May 17 attack on the guided missile frigate USS Stark, anything can happen.

The threat from mines, a relatively new menace that emerged this spring, apparently was treated as something the U.S. naval forces could meet with the assistance from the friendly gulf states.

The U.S. Middle East Force assigned to protect gulf shipping has no mine-sweeping ships or antimine Sea Stallion helicopters. Saudi Arabia has four American-built mine sweepers. Two of them have been dispatched to patrol the channel leading to Kuwait's oil port, but Saudi officials have thus far refused to send their mine sweepers outside Saudi or Kuwaiti territorial waters, where they are now needed.

When the United States sent an 18-man "mine countermeasures team" to Kuwait earlier this month to clear a mine field at the entrance to Kuwait's port channel, sources here said the United States proposed to equip the team with Sea Stallion helicopters. Kuwaiti officials, however, balked at the notion of basing U.S. military aircraft on Kuwaiti soil, so only the team was allowed in the country.

In the short run, one of the few options available to U.S. officials appears to be keeping helicopters in the air in front of U.S. ships so the airborne crews can visually search for mines. Officials have yet to divulge where the helicopters would be based, however.

The captain of the USS Fox, William Mathis, was asked yesterday whether his frigate's sonar could detect mines. "No, not really," he said. "This water is so shallow that my sonar is very ineffective. The bottom reverberations just drown out the return echo from sonar. The only way is human eyeballs and those helicopters."