More sailors are deserting today than at any time in the U.S. Navy's 202-year history.

Navy leaders, in confirming that the desertion rate for the fiscal year that ended last month was a record 31.7 for every 1,000 enlisted persons, said they have set up a servicewide task force to combat the problem.

Basically, the Navy leaders said, today's young sailor looks upon his Navy service as a job rather than an obligation, and quits to get out of additional sea duty.

"We've got to find the motivators" for staying in the service, said Rear Adm. Carl J. Seiberlich, the Navy's deputy personnel director, who heads the new task force charged with slowing the exodus. "Who are the guys out there who want to go to sea?"

Seventy-nine per cent of the sailors who go absent without leave for more than 30 days are attached to a ship, not serving ashore. Seiberlich said. Being absent for more than 30 days is considered desertion.

Seiberlich said that in fiscal 1977 there were 14,539 desertions out of a total enlisted force of 459,857.

The current 31.7 Navy desertion rate is almost 6 times the World War II high of 5.5 desertions per 1,000 service people; more than triple the Korean War high of 8.7 and more than double the Vietnam war peak rate of 13.6.

Themessage there, Seiberlich said, is that when sailors sense that their work is vital to the national interest they do their duty. The Navy, he added, must now find a way to instill this sense of mission in peacetime.

As it is now, deserting can be the fastest way out of the Navy for sailors disenchanted with sea duty. Because the intent to desert is so difficult to grove in a court-martial, Seiberlich said, convictions for desertion are rare. Instead, the Navy usually discharges the sailor.

Although such discharges are less than honorable, Seiberlich and Rear Adm. William R. Smedberg IV, the Navy's manpower planning director said this has failed to stem the desertions.

"If you don't mind a bad piece of paper," Smedberg said desertion can be the fastest was out. "We ought to get tougher" on deserters, he added.

"But that's touch in today's society," said Seiberlich, adding that the military service are a reflection of conditions in soceity generally.

Surveys show that sailors desert because they cannot stnd the separation that comes from serving aboard ship nor the working conditions at sea and in port during overhaul.

"The fellow you enlist today looks at you as an employers," Seiberlich said. "He has a contract with us," but does not always look upon it as binding. "He doesn't think it's really bad to quit a job," whether it is in the Navy or anywhere else.

Seiberlich and Smedberg conceded that the Navy and other services are making themselves look like employers by stressing in their recruiting the job opportunities in the military.

Most of the sailors - 72 per cent - who decide to desert are between 18 and 20, the Navy said.

Also, the Navy said, a profile of deserters indicates that 92 per cent of them were on their first tours of duty and 66 per cent of them were in the lower mental categories.

Seiberlich said he hopes to complete within six weeks a draft of a master plan for combating desertion and other causes of attrition.

Improved training for officers and enlisted people: cash bonuses for enlisting for sea duty; new stress on the traditional values of duty and country all are among the changes either under way or under consideration.

Seiberlich said he sees no way to reduce the current ship deployment of about six months since there is no desire to reduce the number of warships on duty in the Mediterranean and Pacific.

Also, he said, the work week while in port for overhaul must be long to ensure that the ship will be able to relieve another ship at sea on time. Otherwise, the sailors would have to stay at sea longer than six months.

Latest Pentagon figures show the other services have desertion problems too, with the Marines registering the highest rate of all in fiscal 1976 - 69.2 desertions for every 1,000 enlisted persons. But this is of little comfor to Navy leaders, because their desertion rate is continuing to climb while that of the other services is falling.

The Navy desertion rate shot up from 13.6 per 1,000 persons in fiscal 1973 to 21.2 in fiscal 1974; 22.4 in fiscal 1975; 24.8 in fiscal 1976, and 31.7 in fiscal 1977. Women deserters are rare, currently representing fewer than 1 per cent of the incidents.

In comparison to the 1976 desertion rates of the Navy and Marine Corps. the Army registered 17.7 desertions per 1,000 enlisted people that same fiscal year and the Air Force 1.2 desertions per 1,000.