Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger has ordered eight U.S. Navy mine-hunting helicopters to the Persian Gulf to help protect reflagged Kuwaiti tankers and their Navy warship escorts against underwater mines, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Meanwhile, French military officials yesterday sent the aircraft carrier Clemenceau and three support ships to the Middle East in what Washington Post correspondent Edward Cody reported from Paris is a high-profile display of military force aimed at Iran.

France and Iran broke diplomatic relations July 17, and the French move is intended to dissuade Iran from attacking French commerical ships in the gulf. U.S. officials blame Tehran for the mine attack that damaged the supertanker Bridgeton in the gulf last week.

The escalating military activities directed at the gulf region reflect growing concern over the safety of reflagged Kuwait tankers, their U.S. Navy escorts and other shipping interests in the sea channels endangered by the Iran-Iraq war.

Military consultations among the United States, Western allies and gulf nations have intensified in the aftermath of the Bridgeton explosion, but so far there has been little indication of foreign help to supplement the U.S. Navy's inadequate mine-sweeping capabilities.

In response to the dangers, Weinberger Tuesday night ordered the Navy's most sophisticated mine-hunting helicopters to the gulf, pressing a Marine assault ship into use as a base for the large craft because gulf nations continue to refuse U.S. requests for access to bases on their soil.

Eight RH53D Sea Stallion helicopters -- one-third of the Navy's main helicopter mine-sweeping force -- were to be loaded aboard huge C5 cargo planes last night, and flown from Norfolk to Britain's island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

The USS Guadalcanal, a helicopter carrier, has been ordered to cut short training exercises in the Arabian Sea and steam to Diego Garcia, where it will unload several hundred Marines. After loading the helicopters, air crews and support group numbering about 250 military personnel, the Guadalcanal will steam to the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said.

The helicopters, which search for mines by towing sonar-equipped hydrofoil sleds, will not be ready for operation in the gulf until late next week, Pentagon officials said. In the interim, sources said, the Navy plans to use smaller antisubmarine warfare helicopters equipped with modest mine-hunting capabilities to help protect the Bridgeton and its smaller naval escorts when the ships make the trip back out of the gulf.

The U.S. Coast Guard was reported last night to have given permission for the 401,000-ton Bridgeton to be partially loaded with crude oil from the Kuwaiti port of Ahmadi. The Bridgeton and another reflagged Kuwaiti tanker, the Gas Prince -- accompanied by the cruiser USS Fox, the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd and the missile frigate USS Crommelin -- were expected to begin the voyage tonight to the mouth of the gulf.

The convoy's speed will be slowed because of the damage to the Bridgeton and the hunt for mines. U.S. naval explosives experts have been using the smaller helicopters, based on the escort warships, to troll the area where the Bridgeton struck the mine. As of late yesterday, the mine-hunting teams had located no additional mines from the seven identified last weekend, Pentagon officials said.

"They have no confidence, however, that they've found all the mines in the area," a Pentagon official said.

U.S. military officials are negotiating with European allies and Persian Gulf nations in an attempt to forge a long-term plan for protecting tanker escorts. More than 300 ships have been attacked in the last three years by Iran and Iraq, at war since 1980.

Although Navy escort ships are armed to repel air and ship attacks, the service has been criticized sharply for leaving the convoys with virtually no protection from mines. The United States has only three mine-sweeping ships manned by active-duty sailors; none have been dispatched to the gulf.

The French decision to send an aircraft carrier to the gulf area is the strongest, most visible military step taken so far by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's government in a month-old confrontation with the Islamic leadership in Tehran. Defense Minister Andre Giraud had announced Sunday that the carrier, with 40 aircraft and three escort ships, was put on 24-hour alert because of Middle East tensions, "particularly in Lebanon and the gulf."

The order moving the carrier group to the Middle East -- doubling the number of French warships known to be stationed in the area -- was designed to avoid committing the French Navy to full-fledged escort duty such as the Reagan administration operation, French sources said. The French carrier will not sail into the gulf itself.

West German military officials said yesterday they have turned down a U.S. request to send mine-sweeping ships to the gulf, citing the nation's constitution, which bars the country from using its armed forces for activities other than its own defense.

"The {West German} navy has no business in the gulf region," Chancellor Helmut Kohl said through a spokesman. Defense Minister Manfred Woerner is scheduled to meet Weinberger in Washington Monday to discuss ways West German naval vessels could assist the United States, according to the spokesman.

British officials said yesterday they have not been asked by the United States to assist in mine-sweeping, but viewed it as "not very likely at all" that the British would send mine-sweeping ships to the gulf unless British flag vessels became the subject of attacks.

"We're not inherently very keen on the idea," said one British government official, referring to the possibility of being "sucked in" to the gulf situation and finding it difficult to get back out of it.Correspondents Robert J. McCartney in Bonn and Karen DeYoung in London contributed to this report.