BONN, JUNE 19 -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl today proposed creating a joint West German-French combat unit as a step toward greater defense cooperation between the two historic rivals.

Kohl's suggestion, made at a news conference, reflected a recent increase in interest here and in Paris in intensifying Franco-German military collaboration.

The fresh attention to the issue has resulted partly from dissatisfaction with U.S. leadership on defense matters, and from concern that Washington may withdraw troops from Europe in coming years to save money. There is a special desire here to include France in a strengthened European defense arrangement because Paris is outside of NATO's military wing.

Kohl said that a joint Franco-German unit, such as an Army brigade, would be a useful "experiment" to show whether it was fruitful to create integrated armed forces. He said that such a proposal "does not run counter to close ties with the United States" and was permissible within NATO.

"The Atlantic partnership is fundamental to the security of the Federal Republic {West Germany}. It must be increased by strengthened European cooperation in security. It is cooperation with France that offers good opportunities," Kohl said.

French and West German forces already hold regular joint maneuvers, and they are planning joint training of staff officers. The two countries, which fought three major wars between 1870 and 1945, have made special efforts in the last decade to improve ties. These efforts were accelerated following last October's Iceland summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan's proposal there to eventually scrap all nuclear ballistic missiles led to public expressions of concern here that the United States might go too far in weakening NATO's nuclear deterrent. One result was new calls for greater defense cooperation among western European nations.

More recently, West German conservatives' disgruntlement with a proposed U.S.-Soviet deal to bar short-range nuclear missiles from Europe also has contributed to discontent with Washington's leadership and thus to a wish for closer Franco-German collaboration.

Alfred Dregger, a parliamentary leader for Kohl's Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, called today for creating a "European security union" to include France as a "full and leading" member. He provided no details but said that such a union could be created within the NATO "framework."

Dregger was not referring to the 32-year-old Western European Union, which coordinates certain military policies of its seven member states, including France and West Germany.

Dregger suggested that he would like to see France extend its nuclear "umbrella" over West Germany, which means that Paris would pledge to use its independent nuclear deterrent to defend West Germany against attack by the Warsaw Pact's conventional forces.

In France, former prime minister Laurent Fabius said that Paris should consider extending its nuclear defense to include West Germany. In a foreign policy debate in the French National Assembly on Tuesday, former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing also called for closer military cooperation between Paris and Bonn.