A quiet revolution in military thinking about the mud soldier is being cheered here at the home of the U.S. Infantry. Military planners are contending that it is high time to worry less about deploying tanks and more about fielding foot soldiers.

They warn that the United States and its NATO allies are unlikely to fight the Soviets on open ground in Central Europe where today's cavalry of tanks and armored cars can manuever.

The most likely battlefields of the future, they argue, will be in cities, mountains and woods where mud soldiers can hide, maneuver and slice to ribbons the armored divisions confined to roads and patches of open country.

Most significantly, these arguments are winning in the highest military councils of NATO. The push to build lighter divisions--without many of the tanks, armored vehicles and artillery of current infantry divisions--has more momentum today than at any time since World War II.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Thayer, for example, is trying to find more money for the Army in the Pentagon's next five-year plan to form five light divisions from existing heavier divisions and equip them for highly mobile warfare. Army officials are enthusiastic about lightening about one-third of the 16 active divisions so they could be rapidly lifted by C141 transport planes to distant trouble spots.

Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., Army chief of staff, has ordered the Army Training and Doctrine Command to draft a blueprint for light divisions. Army officials have just taken the first step in this direction by agreeing to a "concept statement" for divisions they see as necessary for wars most likely to break out.

"There is a requirement for a smaller, more strategically responsive and flexible light infantry division organized to respond to a broader spectrum of combat operations and a wide array of contingencies," the concept paper states. "The light infantry division is essentially foot mobile."

It must be light enough to be flown long distances and fight "where there are limited or no U.S. or allied bases . . . . The light infantry division is capable of operating for 48 hours without resupply" and "is a force composed primarily of fighters."

There are several significant admissions about current U.S. strategy and Army structure in those few sentences from the Army's five-page "concept statement," including these:

* None of today's 16 Army active divisions is light enough to deploy to the Persian Gulf or other distant trouble spots in a hurry.

Critics have charged that the Rapid Deployment Force, a paper army in the sense that it is composed of existing forces committed to places other than the Persian Gulf, is neither rapid, deployable nor much of a force. It was formed in response to President Carter's pledge to go to war if necessary to protect Persian Gulf oil fields.

* Too many soldiers in today's Army divisions are mounted on armored vehicles, like the cavalrymen of the past, and too few are on the ground where they can outflank and destroy enemy forces in roads or mountain passes.

Army leaders worry, for example, about having divisions light and lethal enough to rush to the Zagros Mountains in Iran to stop Soviet heavy forces before they could move out into the open desert where their superior numbers could prevail.

* There are not enough big Air Force transport planes, such as the C5, to fly a significant Army force to the Persian Gulf or other distant location in time to have much impact. Rather than wait for more and bigger aircraft, Pentagon and Army leaders have chosen to settle for smaller weaponry that can be carried by the more numerous, but smaller, C141.

The United States, after looking for more than three years for forward bases in the Persian Gulf area, still has none it can count on if war comes. It thus must focus on lighter divisions that can make a stand on their own after flying halfway across the world.

"I think it's long overdue that we reexamine our quote light unquote divisions," said Maj. Gen. James J. Lindsay, commandant of the U.S. Infantry School at Fort Benning and formerly a brigade commander in the 82d Airborne Division. "Our light divisions have become too heavy. They have lost their strategic mobility."

Lindsay is one of several Army leaders who will go to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., next month to thrash out such issues as the size of the light division, what weapons it should carry and which separate outfits should be designated to provide support, such as heavy artillery and helicopter resupply.

To help arm himself and other infantry champions for this debate with armor and artillery advocates, Lindsay has detailed another combat-tested infantryman, Lt. Col. Michael A. Tryon, to document the Army's need for lighter, more mobile divisions that feature soldiers who walk and run rather than ride.

Tryon said in an interview here that the Army has lost sight of the need and value of foot soldiers during its post-World War II modernization. "There is little dismounted strength," he said, despite lessons learned on the battlefield.

During World War II, he said, the renowned tank warrior Gen. George S. Patton Jr. considered the best mix to be three infantry divisions supporting one armored division. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, he added, "the Israelis tried to run pure tanks against infantry with antitank missiles, and they got waxed."

Stressing his agreement that heavy divisions with tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery support are vital, Tryon said that light divisions would complement rather than replace them by going where terrain is more favorable to the infantryman. This would include woods, mountain trails and the stone villages of Europe where a soldier with an antitank missile could take on enemy armor.

"My biggest complaint" about the Army's current 16 active divisions, Tryon said, "is the lack of dismounted infantry strength."

He said that a heavy division of 18,000 men planned for the future would have so many troops riding or otherwise tied to vehicles and other equipment that only about 1,000 would be left to seek and kill the enemy with rifles, machine guns and antiarmor weaponry. Even today's so-called light infantry divisions, he said, have only about 2,700 "guys with rifles."

Tryon would like to see light divisions of 9,000 to 12,000 men with at least 4,000 to 5,000 "dismounted" mud soldiers.

The reexamination of what kind of divisions would be most effective in a future war is also a hot topic in other NATO armies.

Gen. Franz Uhle-Wetler, commander of West Germany's 5th Panzer Division, has deplored what he considers overemphasis on tanks and other armor that could perform least effectively in mountains, woods and villages where Soviet troops would most likely attack.

In a book critical of the armorinfantry mix in the West German army, Uhle-Wetler wrote: "The conventional statement that mechanized forces are highly mobile and dispose of high firepower may be countered with the calm question as to what sort of terrain is concerned. As a general observation, as commonly used, the statement is false."

As one case history, Uhle-Wetler has described how American armored units were overrun in August, 1950, by lightly armed North Korean infantry units employing surprise, speed and maneuver and usually attacking at night.

U.S. Army leaders are striving to develop more of that same capability in one of its most significant restructuring endeavors in the last three decades.