Three short-range nuclear weapons that account for 5 percent of the total stockpile of U.S. warheads are headed for the Navy scrap heap, officials say.

The weapons originally were intended to provide a nuclear deterrent against attacks on surface ships by Soviet warships and submarines. But Navy strategists now believe they can protect U.S. ships by other means.So, by 1991 the Navy will retire the ASROC nuclear depth charge, the SUBROC missile and the Terrier missile, a total of 1,100 warheads, according to Navy officers and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The decision to discard the weapons unilaterally was contained in documents obtained by an independent analyst, William Arkin, and first reported in Sunday editions of The New York Times. It was confirmed Sunday by Navy officers who spoke on condition they not be further identified.

It was not clear why the Bush administration chose to take the step without public announcement and apparently without seeking to include the weapons in negotiations with the Soviet Union.

The decision was prompted by the realization that the United States has more aircraft carriers and large surface vessels than the Soviet Union, and that such ships are vulnerable to nuclear attack, said Navy officers.

"There is a recognition that if there is a nuclear war at sea, we have got more to lose than the Russians," the Times quoted Vice Admiral Henry C. Mustin, who retired last year after serving as deputy chief of Naval Operations.