Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, citing the sealift needs shown by the Persian Gulf military buildup, has said he is considering asking for a revival of government subsidies to the U.S. maritime industry.

"America has just understood for the first time in many years what a herculean effort it takes to move thousands of troops literally halfway around the world." Skinner said in an interview.

Shipbuilding subsidies were eliminated by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, and the Bush administration has attempted to persuade other countries to end their maritime industry subsidies. The administration also has signaled that it wants to eliminate remaining operating subsidies for U.S.-flag vessels that last year totaled $212.3 million.

Skinner said he had put the decision about whether to recommend new subsidies "on hold" until his department could fully evaluate U.S. maritime performance during Operation Desert Shield, the current Persian Gulf deployment.

But he said that the deployment already had shown the need to maintain "a U.S.-flag fleet of some size, with ships that make sense not only for commercial purposes but for defense purposes. Number two, you make sure you have available . . . a cadre of people who can staff those ships. You make sure you have shipyard capability. . . ."

"Subsidies of some type may very well have to be continued, or increased," he said.

Skinner said he also was considering proposing a merchant marine reserve force similar to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserves that would allow the government to call up civilian mariners. "We're looking at what that kind of reserve program would cost, how it would be managed," he said.

The U.S. merchant marine has been deteriorating for many years -- shrinking from 1,170 ships in 1950 to about 375 today -- and now ranks 13th in number of ships behind such giants as Japan and South Korea. The fleet would be smaller still if U.S. law did not require that all military and most other government freight be shipped in U.S.-flag vessels.

U.S.-flag carriers generally cannot compete internationally without subsidies because of the much lower wage rates paid mariners and shipbuilding employees in most of the rest of the world. Most developed countries also subsidize shipyards, but the U.S. shipbuilding subsidy program has not been funded for more than a decade.

In fiscal 1976, total U.S. shipbuilding and operating subsidies were at a high of $630.1 million.

A presidential commission warned in 1988 that U.S. sealift capabilities were "barely adequate to meet initial mobilization requirements," and said "the base of shipyard and ship repair facilities, and their industrial suppliers, could not meet the requirements of a general war lasting for years rather than months."

Apart from the privately owned U.S. merchant fleet, the government's Maritime Administration owns and maintains a 217-ship National Defense Reserve Fleet. At its core is the 96-ship Ready Reserve Force, which is supposed to ready to go to sea within five, 10 or 20 days.

Many of these ships are old and obsolete, and did not fully meet military needs. Of the 41 called up for use in the gulf sealift, the 24 that were supposed to be in the highest state of readiness -- five days -- required an average of nine days because of crew or equipment problems.

Skinner said the delays had not "impacted the mission," partly because in some cases the military equipment was not ready for loading within five days.

"That isn't to say I'm happy with the way it went," he said. "And the reason it didn't go as well is because we have been shortchanged by the Congress in the appropriations process for a number of years."

Skinner said the Reagan administration request for $110 million to maintain the reserve fleet in fiscal 1989 was insufficient. Although the White House requested $239 million for fiscal 1990, Congress appropriated only $89 million. The administration has requested $225 million for fiscal 1991.

The Maritime Administration, he said, did not have enough money to take some of the ships out of mothballs occasionally and check them out at sea. Ideally, he said, each ship should be broken out of storage every one to two years.

The problems with the reserve fleet have sparked a debate over whether it is even worthwhile. The shipping industry and a number of senior members of Congress have argued that it would be better to revitalize private U.S.-flag fleets and to have the Navy purchase a new fleet of fast transport ships.

In hearings that began yesterday, Congress is considering a proposal by Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) to scrap all reserve ships built before 1946, including 72 World War II Liberty ships.