A few hours before the Bush administration disclosed it was sending a second battleship to the Persian Gulf yesterday, Navy officials told a congressional hearing that the service was considering mothballing all three of the nation's active duty battleships within the next few months.

The Navy statement came after auditors of the General Accounting Office (GAO) said there were "systemic problems" with crew training and supervision aboard the World War II-vintage ships.

If the Navy has not taken recent action to improve the conditions...I think you need to be concerned" about the personnel on those ships, said GAO analyst Frank Conahan.

Vice Adm. Peter M. Hekman Jr., commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, declined to respond to the criticisms by the GAO, the Hill's watchdog agency, but acknowledged that deactivating the USS Wisconsin and the USS Missouri within two months "is under discussion."

The Wisconsin is on patrol in the vicinity of the Gulf of Oman as part of the Operation Desert Shield deployment in the confrontation with Iraq. The Missouri is in port at Long Beach, Calif. While declining to disavow Hekman's remark, Navy officials late yesterday said the Missouri and various escort vessels will depart soon for the Middle East.

GAO officials testified that the Missouri and two other battleships -- the USS Iowa and USS New Jersey -- lacked properly trained operators for the ships' immense 16-inch guns. The GAO also said many other Navy ships can fulfill the same military functions.

The Iowa was decommissioned on Oct. 27, a year and five months after one of its gun turrets exploded during a firing exercise and killed 47 sailors. The New Jersey is set for decommissioning in February. All four ships were mothballed in the 1950s but reactivated at a cost of about $2 billion during the Reagan administration's military buildup.

They have crews of roughly 1,500 each and cost $58 million a year per ship to operate, an amount considered unusually high by modern Navy standards.

GAO officials said in a 70-page report sought by Congress after the Iowa disaster that "unless current Middle East operations convincingly demonstrate the unique utility of battleships, the Missouri and the Wisconsin {should} be decommissioned."

The report said auditors had corroborated statements by the Iowa's former commanding officer that battleships had less skilled personnel than other warships, as well as comparatively lax promotion practices, and much higher disciplinary rates. These problems are expected to worsen with only two vessels in service, the GAO said, because the Navy will have dwindling expertise in the ships' operation. The Navy has prized the ships' ability to send shells weighing 2,700 pounds up to 23 miles, enabling them to support Marine beach assaults by pounding shore defenses in various weather conditions. But the advent of modern defensive munitions has forced such operations to begin more than 25 miles from shore and hit targets far inland, the GAO said. "Because ships other than battleships have an excellent strike warfare capability, and because of limits on the ships' ability to support a large-scale amphibious assault, the Navy's need to maintain the battleships is questionable."Length: 887 feet

Crew: About 1,600

Displacement: 57,353 tons, fully loaded.

Armor: The battleships are protected by steel armor ranging from 1 1/2 inches thick to more than 17 inches thick around the bridge.

Significant armament: Nine 16-inch guns, capable of lobbing shells the size of Volkswagens at targets more than 20 miles away; 12 five-inch guns; Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles; Harpoon antiship missiles.

Background: Iowa-class battleships, largest and fastest American battleships built, were laid down during World War II at navy shipyards in New York and Philadelphia. All saw service in World War II and the Korean War, but were mothballed in 1954. The New Jersey was used during the Vietnam War, but was decommissioned in 1969. All four ships were modernized and recommissioned in the 1980s. The Iowa was decommissioned for a third time last month. SOURCE: The Washington Post; Jane's Fighting Ships