NATO's preoccupation with increasing its ability to wage a conventional war in defense of Western Europe is viewed in French military circles with a good deal of skepticism.
The French military assumes that any such armed confrontation would inevitably degenerate into total war. They say a conventional conflict would be the prelude to a nuclear engagement.
''Should a Soviet invasion of West Europe be repulsed by conventional means, Moscow is almost certain to escalate its military pressure up to the nuclear level,'' says Gen. George Buis, one of France's top military analysts. ''No great power will admit defeat before having exhausted all military means at its disposal.''
Due to their yield and precision, conventional weapons today are almost as destructive as nuclear tactical weapons, French military experts say.
So even a war contained within the limits of conventional weapons would spell utter disaster for Europe, they add.
They point out that the last ''conventional'' war, World War II, left 60 million dead and 80 million wounded.
The best deterrent to war, according to French military doctrine, is the threat of nuclear retaliation. If the Kremlin is reasonably convinced that a level of violence beyond a certain limit might unleash nuclear fire, the French strategists say, that conviction may prove to be the surest way to avoid a war.
The argument that a nuclear deterrent deters only a nuclear threat, and not a conventional one, is dismissed in Paris as unrealistic, since it is assumed that a war begun for conventional ends would almost inevitably become a nuclear conflict. And because of that assumption, a commitment by the United States to ''no first use'' of nuclear weapons would be viewed by French military analysts as conceding a decisive strategic advantage to the Soviets.
French military doctrine holds that, in case of war, tactical nuclear weapons would be used in combat as a last warning before a strategic nuclear exchange against the Soviet Union itself. To stress the point, French Defense Minister Charles Hernu has proposed that tactical nuclear weapons be henceforth known as ''pre-strategic armament.''
Continuing the argument that France's retaliatory strategic weapon policy does not appear credible, Gen. Georges Fricaud-Chagnaud, president of the prestigious Foundation for National Defense Studies, has said:
''Suppose you were the Soviet supreme commander and the Kremlin asked you to give a 100 percent assurance that the French would not use the nuclear weapon, what would your reply be? That the chances are 1 percent? That would be 1 percent too many as far as the Soviet leaders are concerned.''
The general said that present nuclear firepower could cause no less than 20 million casualties. The Soviets would emerge greatly weakened in face of the US and China.
''The Kremlin could not take that risk just for the pleasure of knowing that they could in turn wipe France off the map,'' he added.
''US, French, and British nuclear power is still the only sure guarantee of no war,'' General Buis stated, ''provided we in the West keep all options open.''
The French realize that their own nuclear retaliatory power would represent an even surer deterrent were it extended to West Europe as a whole. That is the kind of protection the US nuclear umbrella was supposed to provide, but few people in Europe take such protection for granted.
The French insist that no European initiative should be undertaken that might lead to a US decoupling.
The US is still the only power, they say, that can confront the Soviet Union as an equal. Europe's determination to defend itself would be compromised, perhaps irreparably, should the US abandon the scene or even reduce its commitment.
While closer to the Atlantic alliance than his predecessors, President Francois Mitterrand would like to see Western Europe assume a greater degree of autonomy in the military field. France itself seeks to coordinate strategic decisions with NATO members while continuing to stay outside the organization's integrated command. (Independence of decision is still a basic tenet of French political and military doctrine.)
A further consideration in favor of greater European unity is the open hostility shown by the present Greek government toward Washington, and the Spanish government's desire to loosen military ties to the US.
Both Greece and Spain might feel more comfortable within a closely knit European defense system that was capable of assuming greater strategic reponsibilities and was thus less unequal with respect to the US, the French say.