Moscow — The Soviet Union is wondering out loud whether its largely conscript military is as reliable as advertised. In particular it cites the need to counter instances of indiscipline, religious belief, and even ''pacifism'' in the barracks.
A change in Soviet draft regulations, drastically cutting student exemptions, suggests the authorities are also concerned over the level of training among young officers. Another effect of the change will be to counter the percentage decrease in the numbers of ethnic Slavs, as opposed to Asians, entering the Soviet military in recent years.
Generally, Soviet spokesmen say, the nation's roughly 4 million people in uniform remain a ''reliable shield for the motherland.''
Yet publicly expressed concern over problems in the barracks has been increasing. And a front-page editorial in the Sept. 9 issue of the armed forces newspaper Red Star was decidedly negative in tone.
Quoting a ''former'' soldier as saying ''strong discipline'' had ''helped him overcome every difficulty'' when he was in uniform, the newspaper declared: ''Clarity of purpose, educational work, everyday control, and checking of its fulfillment . . . will allow (the military) to nip in the bud cases of distortion in disciplinary practice.''
The editorial said, ''The work of certain commanders and headquarters (staff) in maintaining conformity with regulations still lacks consistency and firmness.'' The article added: ''Time allocated for political education (in the military) is not always used as it ought to be.''
Among specific criticisms was that ''some officers'' were not demanding enough from their troops during combat training.
There is a flip side to the problem. A recent article in the journal Communist of the Armed Forces lamented that some officers, albeit a small minority, were arbitrary and unfair in commanding their troops. The journal said this ''very often'' harmed team spirit.
Such ''violations'' at the top, along with moves to cover them up, were said to hinder ''efforts to instill in servicemen a sense of lofty responsibility . . . and a conscientious attitude toward observance of the Constitution, Soviet law , and military regulations and orders.''
The focus of concern is on the hundreds of thousands of Soviet 18-year-olds drafted into the military each year.
Official statements on the ''ideological upbringing'' of youth have been getting tougher and more frequent over the past year or so. But at a conference in May of this year, a top Communist Party official who heads the political organization of the armed forces related this concern specifically to the military.
''We meet with instances - be they only isolated - where young people entering the Army show elements of political naivete, pacifism, and a carefree attitude when assessing the threat posed by our class enemies,'' he said.
Since then, there has been a series of articles in military publications focusing on the need for better ideological, particularly ''atheistic'' work in the armed forces.
Last summer, a Soviet radio station broadcast a discussion show on the issue, concluding that the military must better identify troops ''under the influence of (religious) prejudices and superstitions'' and better lead them down the path of atheism.
The gist of the articles is that religion and soldiering don't mix. As one commentary in Communist of the Armed Forces put it:
''No commanding officer, political worker, or soldier should forget that religion is an alien ideology'' and a ''negative influence . . . on the formation in fighting men of the . . . qualities needed in battle.''
The writer added that officers should be aware of specific features of particular religions. Islam, for instance, ''is often tightly interwoven with vestiges of (non-Soviet) nationalism.''
Amid increased attention to ideological work in the military, the Soviets are moving to draw more of their educational elite into active service.
Under a law due to go into effect this autumn, thousands of students formerly allowed to substitute ROTC programs for a hitch in full uniform will instead go on active officer duty after graduation. Soviet sources say the intention is to strengthen the officer corps.
But some foreign diplomats note that it will activate greater numbers of Slavic officers at a time when non-Slavic nationalities are making up an ever-larger proportion of the draftees.
Since the Soviet military plays a much larger role in the national economy than do Western armed forces, another effect will be to increase the authorities' ability to divert specialized personnel to priority projects.