Gen. David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has proposed reforms to strengthen the overall JCS. The fact that he waited until these waning months of his term reveals the controversial nature of any suggested changes in the joint arena system. He might have gained some success in this crusade had he started earlier, but he probably knew this would have destroyed his effectiveness on all other issues in the process. This is only one reason why President Reagan's nominee to succeed Jones, Gen. John Vessey, is unlikely to pick up this cudgel.
The JCS system informally emerged under Franklin D. Roosevelt's auspices during World War II, and was formally established by the National Security Act of 1947. The NSA was amended three times - in '49, '53 and '58 - but those changes enhanced the central civilian authorities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) far more than the central military authorities within the JCS mechanisms.
The JCS system has been studied often over the years, and virtually all reports have recommended changes. The only full-scale book on the subject was published in 1976 by Lawrence J. Korb, then a professor, now an assistant secretary of defense. The most recent in-depth study was the Steadman report issued near the end of the Carter administration. It was a model of clear writing and constructive proposals, regardless whether one agreed with all of its thinking. But it was largely ignored by both the Carter and Reagan administrations, and now gathers dust like its predecessors.
The simple fact is that at least two powerful sets of people have never genuinely wanted an improved JCS system. First, the defense secretaries and their staffs have always felt that a more effective JCS could become a military challenge to the authority of OSD. Second, the separate armed service leaders have always worried that a strengthened JCS could weaken bureaucratic ploys available to them in campaigning for their separate causes. Thus, sandwiched between the civilian OSD above and the separate armed services below, the JCS system has remained largely a glorified ornament whose capabilities exist more in myth and rhetoric and paper-shuffling procedures than in significant policymaking and command reality.
It is by no means altogether bad that the services have retained large measures of separate autonomy. Even under a perfect ''unification'' scheme - and the National Security Act never promised that - the better part of a career would still be needed to train a person to command an infantry brigade, or an aircraft carrier, or a bomber wing. And in that career process a man would still be imbued with the useful traditions and rituals of his particular form of service. Further, rivalries between the services have far more often yielded positive benefits for national security than the alleged mindless costs and excesses.
Yet we have reached a point where a weak and ineffective JCS system is a costly bauble which can no longer be afforded. Almost everybody agrees that the United States badly needs a fresh and comprehensive rethinking of our overall strategic posture, a consensus on weapons and forces to support that posture, and a streamlined command system promising smoothly effective leadership in peace and war. Only a suitably strengthened JCS system, as opposed to cosmetic organizational tinkering, could improve the odds for achieving these urgent national goals.
General Jones's ideas, along with the Steadman report and other constructive thinking accumulating on this subject over the years, therefore merit the most serious consideration. Yet all of these proposals have focused almost entirely on the top of the system, without addressing the true long-range problem which will require changes all the way to the bottom.
The basic fact is that most of our senior officers have begun their military careers as service academy plebes, and have spent at least 15 to 18 years locked within the necessarily narrow perspectives of their separate services (or, worse , branches within those services) before getting ''purple suit'' jobs in the JCS arena or on OSD staffs or similar assignments requiring comprehensive strategic understanding. At that point they are ill-prepared suddenly to acquire the broader vision and expertise needed for across-the-board strategic thinking and force direction.
One possible solution would be to switch to five-year programs at all of the service academies, but with the first and fifth years actually spent collectively in ''purple suit'' training environments away from traditional academy grounds. The fifth year might include an MA degree in grand strategy - if qualified people could be found to teach it. Parallel and similar arrangements could be made for young officer candidates entering the services through other channels such as the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and Officer Candidate School programs.
The problem is so serious that, whatever the particular solutions, unavoidable controversies must be accepted in the preliminary debates. Potential reformers in the past have preferred to ''let this sleeping dog lie,'' rather than to stir up interminable barking from dozens of bureaucratic kennels. But now we must endure this noise as we consider innovations and heresies even more radical than those which produced the National Security Act of 1947. Otherwise, a time is likely to come when we cannot ''muddle through'' as in the past, if indeed we could say that the muddling always led to acceptable results in the past. But the pessimistic probability is more of the same.