The Navy, its direction set on high-tech weapons and computer battle management systems, is beginning to plot a new course in the first complete redesign of its warships in more than half a century, a senior Navy official said.

Capt. Michael Rodgers, director of the Navy's Ship Characteristics and Improvement Board, said the fleet is being revolutionized by new cruise missiles with ranges of hundreds of miles and the Aegis missile system, whose radars and computers can detect and track enemy aircraft 250 miles away."So, we have this revolution. We've probably not been able to keep pace in the area we in the Navy call `hull, mechanical and electrical' . . . We need a similar revolution there," Rodgers said.

Rodgers agreed to a recent interview with United Press International on the condition that he not be questioned on the possible failure of the Aegis system, which led the United States to attack an Iranian Air jetliner, killing 290 people over the Persian Gulf.

While not addressing the July 3 tragedy, Rodgers said of the Aegis detection radar and missile-firing system introduced several years ago: "We took these marvelous weapons systems and put them on a Spruance (destroyer) hull because it was available and saved time.

"It was a very fine marriage, but still not the most efficient way to do business. So, let's design a ship from the keel up ... a truly integrated fighting machine," Rodgers said.

Warships essentially are still designed with the same type propulsion systems and hulls, or frames, they had in World War II and in some cases the turn of the century, Rodgers said.

But new "electric drive" propulsion systems and other new technologies make possible great savings in space that would allow more of the Navy's new vertical-launch missile tubes to be packed onto each ship, he said.

Each tube will be capable in the future of being programmed to fire different anti-ship, anti-aircraft or submarine-killer missiles, giving each ship "tremendous flexibility," Rodgers said.

Rodgers said his job is to challenge ship architects to come up with entirely new designs with shapes enemy radars and satellites would have trouble detecting, yet with the maximum missile punch possible.

He noted that each Aegis cruiser carries 38 tons of paper, such as weapons manuals and medical records, that could be cut to less than a ton by placing their information on computer disks.

Rodgers said new technologies make possible fully integrated weapons systems, whose computers could automatically track in-coming enemy missiles and aircraft and automaticaly maneuver the ship to evade them and return fire.

"I would like combat systems to be able to drive my ship . . . automatically until the CO (commanding officer) steps in . . . the human being would be observing it, and say `I disagree."'

Allowing for the designing of specific ships and the mammoth amount of contracting that needs to be done, Rodgers said it probably would be 20 years before the first keel of the new class of ships is laid down.