Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has done the country a service. A few months before his retirement this summer he has published a proposal for a thorough revamping of the Joint Chiefs. It is high time.

The weakness and lack of influence of the Joint Chiefs is one of the Pentagon's less well-kept secrets. Of course, each of the chiefs, except the chairman, is the head of one of the four military services as well, and in these roles they are far from weak or ineffective.

Therein lies the problem. In dealing with most of the normal business of a peacetime military establishment--research, weapons procurement, budget, manpower policy, training--each chief heads a sizable and competent staff composed of officers from his own service. As a service chief he also has contacts on the Hill friendly to those who wear his color of uniform, as well as a number of well-connected retired officers and reservists who are sometimes so friendly that they trample folks in their enthusiasm.

For certain other "joint" functions, however, on which the president and secretary of defense seek and need an overall collective military judgment (e.g., SALT, overall defense budget questions, military operations in a crisis), each mighty service chief steps into a phone booth and becomes . . . Clark Kent. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a slightly dopey stare, he goes into "the tank," as the Joint Chiefs' conference room is called, a mild-mannered seeker of unanimity.

Ah, unanimity. The price of unanimity among all four military services in this beribboned committee has been, for 35 years, intellectual flab clothed in flaccid prose. True, much good military advice has been given--but ordinarily informally, not through the joint staff system. True, the Joint Chiefs system occasionally produces something useful--a testament to the caliber of some able officers assigned there who have been able to make bricks without straw. But generally it has worked as badly as, Jones reminds us, Dwight Eisenhower suggested it would 24 years ago.

Normally, as the interminable four tiers of their staff's committee meetings lumber on, the formal advice that the Joint Chiefs produce comes more and more to resemble the famous committee-designed camel.

The Joint Chiefs' force planning advice (the Joint Strategic Objectives Plan--say "jaysop") is the least-read document in the Pentagon. Adm. Bud Zumwalt, former member of the Joint Chiefs, wrote after his retirement that even he had never seen a copy. It's no wonder. Memorializations of bureaucratic logrolling that merely add up everyone's "requirements" and staple them together go to the bottom of anyone's in-box.

Bureaucratic stasis is no stranger to Washington, but on many issues the lack of a coherent overall military position--one that rises above individual service interests--is becoming dangerous. As Jones points out in his crisp recent statement of the problem, there is a tendency in each service to look inward and to perpetuate outmoded doctrines and thought patterns since "fresh approaches to strategy tend to threaten an institution's interests and self-image. . . ." We badly need, and have not had, a coherent overall military view about such matters as strategy and forces. Partly as a result, a gaggle of kibitzers has formed throughout government on these questions. Everyone from OMB budget examiners to the stray congressional staffer with a Bonaparte complex now believes himself to be the nation's premier strategist. The individual military services have clear stands on many of these issues, but an overall coherent military view has been conspicuous by its absence.

Such a view may not prove to be correct or persuasive on a good many questions, but it should at least have a chance to be heard in the debate. Clemenceau was absolutely right: war is indeed too important to be left to the generals. But people who have led troops all their lives, after all, do have a contribution to make to the discussion, and they should be permitted to put their most cogent case forward. It is not unimaginable that, seeing the difficulty today of obtaining political consensus behind large increases in defense spending, our senior military officers could think of some relatively inexpensive ways to increase our military effectiveness. They are the ones most genuinely and immediately concerned about prevailing in any hostilities--after all, they'll be the ones who have to fight.

But for years the only central voice in defense has been provided by the civilian staff of the secretary of defense. Lacking military expertise it has, largely, failed. For example, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has labored mightily and given us two decades of systems analysis, enabling us to have certain victory over an enemy only if each side is limited to bombing the other with old computer printouts.

Jones proposes a stronger role for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a reduction in influence, on joint matters, for the individual service chiefs. The latter would continue to head their individual military services and would advise the chairman, the secretary of defense and the president. But on strategy, military questions that relate to foreign policy and some aspects of carving up the defense budget pie, the chairman and a stronger central military staff would gain influence over the services. The chairman, for example, would have some control over the promotions of those assigned to his staff; this is not true today, and it is one of the main reasons the current system is so weak.

Some will caution against steps that, it will be contended, might lead to an all-powerful Prussian-style "General Staff." Piffle. We can afford to move several light years toward military staff centralization before we come within any distance of Prussianism. The United States is about as close to having a Prussian-style general staff today as it is to having a dictatorship of the proletariat.

By speaking out, Jones bequeaths to his successor a chance to make the system work. Like Joe DiMaggio, he is retiring with style.