North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners should build an aircraft carrier on their own because the United States will not have enough carriers to cover all the hotspots for the foreseable future, the operational commander of U.S. warships patrolling the Atlantic said today.

Vice Adm. Thomas J. Bigley, interviewed aboard his flagship, the Mount Whitney, said: "I'd settle for a Kennedy," meaning a large, conventionally powered carrier, rather than a nuclear one.

The Carter administration, in what it hailed as a major achievement, persuaded NATO members to increase their defense budgets by at least 3-percent a year after allowing for inflation, but that commitment is unraveling. West Germany and Britain are backing away from that pledge, to the distress of the outgoing Carter administration and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who is expected to be Senate majority leader in the next Congress.

Even under the higher defense budgets expected from the Reagan administration, Bigley said, the U.S. Navy will not be able to protect sea lanes to Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Pacific at the same time.

Survival of the European partners in NATO depends on oil imports by sea, the admiral said, and those nations should recognize it may be up to them to keep some of the vital sea lanes open in the event of war. U.S. carriers and other warships may be committed far from Europe.

A NATO carrier loaded with attack and antisubmarine-warfare planes would help counter the threat of a growing Soviet navy in peacetime, Bigley said, and would provide the alliance with a lethal weapon if war should break out.

Bigley said he did not want to get into which NATO partner should build the carrier. "I'd welcome it from any source," he said. "What nation has its name on it doesn't bother me." Britain has built carriers in the past, but its government is trimming defense spending right now, not raising it.

"How do we control the Norwegian Sea?" Bigley asked, in making the case that the United States does not have enough carriers to do it. U.S. military planners figure it would take four carriers and warship escorts to cover the Norwegian Sea in easy striking distance of the Soviet port of Murmansk. The U.S. Navy is a long way from being able to do that without leaving other fronts exposed, he said.

Two of the Navy's 13 carriers are now in the Arabian Sea as part of the new emphasis on the Persian Gulf. The Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Atlantic have one each, two are in the Pacific, and the remaining six are in port or are being overhauled.

If an emergency occurred in the Persian Gulf or Europe, the United States could pull its carriers out of the Pacific under the "swing" strategy. But Bigley said this would give the Soviet fleet in the Pacific virtually free rein, possibly intimidating China and Japan to the point they would seek an accommodation with Moscow.

"The Soviets only have 25 percent of their fleet in the Pacific," he said.

"We have about one-half of our fleet in the Pacific. Our masters may decide it may be more advantageous to go on the offensive" in a Pacific war "to keep Soviet forces pinned down" rather than swing carriers to the Atlantic or the Persian Gulf.

This possibility underscores the need for European NATO nations to shore up their defenses on their own, Bigley said. A carrier would be a "welcome" step in that direction, he added.

Bigley conceded that even if money were no object, the United States does not have enough shipyards to turn out giant Nimitz-class nuclear carriers at a rapid enough rate to cover all the oceans with American seapower. Since money is limited, he added, the Navy must build different types of ships -- Cadillacs and Chevrolets -- rather than just giant Nimitz carriers and Trident submarines.

However, the Atlantic commander continued, the Soviets no longer seem to be following this "high-low" mix in building their "very credible blue-water Navy." Throwing a picture of the 24,000-ton Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser on the coffee table in his cabin, Bigley said: "That's the kind of threat I see coming." The Kirov is double the size of the 11,000-ton U.S. nuclear-powered guided-missile cruisers.

Bigley said the new Soviet nuclear missile submarine, the Typhoon, is also huge -- even bigger than the new U.S. Trident missile sub, which displaces 18,7000 tons and is 560 feet long. The Typhoon is about 30,000 tons and about 600 feet long, according to military sources.

NATO Secretary General Joseph Luns said in Brussels today, at a news conference following a defense ministers' meeting, that the Typhoon's hull appeared to be made of reinforced titanium. It was built at the Severodvinsk yards on the White Sea.