You may remember the sudden public interest last spring in the state of health of the Joint Chiefs of Staff system, resulting from critical statements on the subject by the man who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. David C. Jones, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward C. Meyer. Energized by the wave of editorial comment demanding a thorough investigation of the Joint Chiefs and their performance of duty, the House Armed Services Committee undertook a study that lasted over three months, and heard testimony from a score or more of ex-Pentagon officials and military officers with varying degrees of experience in Joint Chiefs matters. These witnesses found much to criticize, and the majority favored substantial changes of one sort or another.

As the disappointing outcome of this laborious review, in mid- August the House passed HR 6954 with unexpected promptness. Its authors candidly recognized the existence of many flaws in the Joint Chiefs system, the inadequacy of the Chiefs' performance as the "principal military advisers of the president, the National Security Council and the secretary of defense," and the need to give special attention to correcting this latter deficiency. They also expressed awareness of the dangers inherent in awaiting a crisis before making fundamental changes in our military organization. Yet the bill they have passed contains nothing resembling a fundamental change in the status quo at the top of the military hierarchy, where, they concede, all is not well.

Particularly regrettable is the failure of the bill to take drastic action to improve the source, scope and substance of the military advice reaching the senior civilian leadership. The Joint Chiefs of Staff remain the principal military advisers of these leaders, with no consequential changes that might offer hope of a better advisory performance in the future.

Among other omissions, the Chiefs are not encouraged to greater effort in providing timely advice before and during the formulation of national and military policy, an area ignored by them in the past. As a result, presidents have often been unaware both of the capabilities and the shortcomings of their armed forces, and, lacking advice, have committed serious mistakes. An example is President Carter's proclamation of the Middle East doctrine bearing his name, which commits the government to the use of military force, if need be, to repulse any outside aggressor seeking to gain control of the Persian Gulf region. Competent military advice would surely have emphasized the impossibility of carrying out this doctrine with present or foreseeable military strength. Similarly, President Reagan might have moderated the text of his military policy, which assigns to the armed forces such impossible tasks as readiness to fight and defeat the Soviets any time in any place, and, if necessary, in several places at a time.

This legislation fails not only to encourage a wider scope for military advice but also to urge the Chiefs to abandon their traditional reluctance to initiate advice of any sort -- even that bearing upon their primary interests, the current forces and the next budget. Apparently, as in my day, the Chiefs still prefer to await requests for advice from their superiors and then merely "answer the mail." This can be a costly practice. During the preparation for the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, since the Chiefs were never asked their opinion as to its probability of success, they never offered one. Taking silence as tacit approval, President Kennedy assumed the plan to bemilitarily sound until disaster proved the contrary.

If HR 6954 does not strengthen the advisory effectiveness of the Chiefs, it does at least undertake to reinforce them by providing a new source of military advice. It creates the Senior Strategic Advisory Board charged with providing "such advice and recommendations on matters of military strategy and tactics as it considers appropriate to the president, the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff." It would be composed of 10 retired four-star generals and admirals presumably free of service bias who would have ample time to concentrate on advisory functions heretofore neglected. To be eligible for presidential appointment to the board, a candidate must have served as a member of the Joint Chiefs or as commander of one of the so-called joint or specified commands, of which there are six, such as the European, Pacific and Strategic Air Commands. The board would meet regularly -- at least once a month -- for which the members would receive no compensation beyond per diem pay and travel expenses.

A board so constituted would have many defects. For example:

* the board would have too many members to ensure the required quality of the individuals and the efficiency of the group. All boards and committees tend to be slow, ponderous and indecisive -- the bigger the more so.

* The mission of the board is inadequate as stated. As was the case with the Joint Chiefs, it fails to focus the advisory efforts of the board upon the untended fields of policy-making, strategic task formulation and force structuring in consonance with the tasks. Indeed, the inclusion in the mission of military tactics -- i.e., the employment of forces in combat, appears to direct the attention of the board downward toward the battlefield rather than upward to the heights of national strategy and global logistics. The president, the National Security Council and the secretary of defense have little need for advice on tactics.

* The experience required for membership so limits choice that many of our best minds are unlikely to be available. Among those disqualified are former vice chiefs of staff, many officers who have won their four stars by commanding important uni-service organizations such as the Army Forces Command, the Navy Materiel Command and the Air Force Command in Europe. Also ineligible would be the commandants of the four war colleges and other senior schools where more serious military thinking per capita probably takes place than anywhere in the Pentagon or the senior overseas headquarters.

Unfortunately, neither stars nor former duty assignments guarantee in an officer the qualities most needed by an effective military adviser. In addition to an impressive military record, the latter should have such attributes as breadth of mind, clarity of thought and expression and a ready appreciation of the civilian point of view. Wise counsel is unavailing unless it can persuade civilian decision-makers.

My overall conclusion regarding the board is that without extensive modification it would merely add one more source of military advice of uncertain quality, which, added to that generated by the Joint Chiefs, would increase the confusion of recipients of advice and further reduce their respect for the military voice. Without a board that will offset the inadequacy of the Joint Chiefs, there is no justification for the bill itself. Most of the trivial undiscussed changes contained in it could be effected by the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs without legislation. Indeed, it would be damaging to national security if this bill, in its present form, became law. Its passage would foster a general belief that Congress, after months of study, has found and corrected such weaknesses as may have existed in the Joint Chiefs system and henceforth there will be no cause for public concern.

Let us hope that the Senate, before deciding to pass it, will give this bill the close attention it deserves.