At the time of its introduction, the Vigilante was one of the largest and by far the most complex aircraft to operate from a United States Navy aircraft carrier. It had a high-mounted swept wing with a boundary-layer control system (blown flaps) to improve low-speed lift, aluminum-lithium alloy for wing skins and titanium for critical structures. It had two widely-spaced General Electric J79 turbojet engines (the same as used on the F-4 Phantom II fighter), and a single large vertical tailfin. The wings, the tail, and the nose radome folded for carrier stowage. The Vigilante had a crew of two seated in tandem, a pilot and a bombardier-navigator (BN)—reconnaissance/attack navigator (RAN) on later recon versions in individual ejection seats.
It was surprisingly agile for such a big and heavy aircraft. Without the drag of bombs or missiles, even escorting fighters found that the clean airframe and powerful engines made the Vigilante very fast at high altitudes. Its high landing speed made returning to the carrier a challenge for inexperienced or unwary pilots.
The Vigilante had extremely advanced and complex electronics. It had one of the first fly-by-wire systems of an operational aircraft (with mechanical/hydraulic backup) and a computerized AN/ASB-12 nav/attack system incorporating a head-up display (Pilot's Projected Display Indicator (PPDI), one of the first), multi-mode radar, Radar-Equipped Inertial Navigation System (REINS, based on technologies developed for the Navaho missile), closed-circuit television camera under the nose, and an early digital computer known as VERDAN (Versatile Digital Analyzer) to run it all. Although this system was highly sophisticated, the technology was in its infancy, and its reliability was poor. In early squadron service the system's MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) was only 15 minutes. Although some bugs were worked out, the aircraft remained a maintenance nightmare throughout its career.
Its main armament was carried in a novel linear bomb bay between the engines in the rear fuselage which was intended to make bomb delivery safer and more accurate. When conventional bombers "drop" a bomb, the bomb falls downward, but continues forward at the same speed as the aircraft. This requires pilot skill and complicated equipment to place a bomb on its intended target. The linear bomb bay would eject the payload rearward at approximately the same speed as the forward velocity of the aircraft, causing the bomb to "stand still" and drop straight down. No calculation is needed - the bomb falls at the point at which it was dropped. As an added benefit, the aircraft is rapidly moving away from the dropped bomb, enabling lower drop altitudes or safer drops from higher altitudes.
The single nuclear weapon, commonly the Mk 28 bomb, was attached to two disposable fuel tanks in the cylindrical bay in an assembly known as the "stores train." The idea was for the fuel tanks to be emptied during flight to the target and then jettisoned as part of the bomb by an explosive drogue gun. In practice the system was never reliable and no live weapons were ever carried in the linear bomb bay. In the RA-5C configuration, the bay was used solely for fuel. On three occasions the shock of the catapult launch caused the fuel cans to eject onto the deck resulting in one aircraft loss.
The Vigilante originally had two wing pylons, intended primarily for drop tanks.
The second Vigilante mark, the A3J-2 (A-5B), incorporated internal tanks for an additional 460 gallons of fuel (which added a pronounced dorsal "hump") along with two additional wing hardpoints, for a total of four. In practice the hardpoints were rarely used. Other improvements included blown flaps on the leading edge of the wing and sturdier landing gear.
The reconnaissance version of the Vigilante, the RA-5C, had slightly greater wing area and added a long canoe-shaped fairing under the fuselage for a multi-sensor reconnaissance pack. This added an APD-7 side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), AAS-21 infrared linescanner, and camera packs, as well as improved ECM. An AN/ALQ-61 electronic intelligence system could also be carried. The RA-5C retained the AN/ASB-12 bombing system, and could, in theory, carry weapons, although it never did in service. Later-build RA-5Cs had more powerful -10 engines with afterburning thrust of 17,900 lbf (80 kN). The reconnaissance Vigilante weighed almost five tons more than the strike version with almost the same thrust and an only modestly enlarged wing. These changes cost it acceleration and climb rate, though it remained fast in level flight.
Under the Tri-Services Designation plan implemented under Robert McNamara in September 1962, the Vigilante was redesignated A-5, with the initial A3J-1 becoming A-5A and the updated A3J-2 becoming A-5B. The subsequent reconnaissance version, originally AJ3-3P, became the RA-5C.
The Vigilante's early service proved troublesome, with many teething problems for its advanced systems. It also arrived in service during a major policy shift in the U.S. Navy's strategic role, which switched to emphasize submarine launched ballistic missiles rather than manned bombers. As a result, in 1963, procurement of the A-5 was ended and the type was converted to the fast reconnaissance role. The first RA-5Cs were delivered to the Replacement Air Group (RAG)/Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), Reconnaissance Attack Squadron THREE (RVAH-3) at NAS Sanford, Florida in July 1963, with all Vigilante squadrons subsequently redesignated RVAH. Under the cognizance of Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, a total of 10 RA-5C squadrons were ultimately commissioned. RVAH-3 continued to be responsible for the stateside-based RA-5C training mission of both flight crews, maintenance and support personnel, while RVAH-1, RVAH-5, RVAH-6, RVAH-7, RVAH-9, RVAH-11, RVAH-12, RVAH-13 and RVAH-14 routinely deployed aboard Forrestal, Kitty Hawk, Enterprise, America, John F. Kennedy and eventually Nimitz-class aircraft carriers to the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Western Pacific.
Eight of ten squadrons of RA-5C Vigilantes also saw extensive service in Vietnam starting in August 1964, carrying out hazardous medium-level reconnaissance missions. Although it proved fast and agile, 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat: 14 to anti-aircraft fire, three to surface-to-air missiles, and one to a MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Nine more were lost in operational accidents while serving with Task Force 77. Due, in part, to these combat losses, 36 additional RA-5C aircraft were built from 1968–1970 as attrition replacements.
In 1968, Congress closed the aircraft's original operating base of NAS Sanford, Florida and transferred the parent wing, Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE, all subordinate squadrons and all aircraft and personnel to Turner AFB, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 and KC-135 base in Albany, Georgia. The tenant SAC bomb wing was then deactivated and control of Turner AFB was transferred from the Air Force to the Navy with the installation renamed NAS Albany. In 1974, after barely six years of service as a naval air station, Congress opted to close NAS Albany as part of a post-Vietnam force reduction, transferring all RA-5C units and personnel to NAS Key West, Florida.
Despite the Vigilante's useful service, it was expensive and complex to operate and occupied significant amounts of precious flight deck and hangar deck space aboard both conventional and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. With the end of the Vietnam War, disestablishment of RVAH squadrons began in 1974, with the last Vigilante squadron, RVAH-7, completing its final deployment to the Western Pacific aboard in late 1979. Reconnaissance Attack Wing ONE was subsequently disestablished at NAS Key West, Florida in January 1980.
The Vigilante did not end the career of the A-3 Skywarriors, which would carry on as electronic warfare platforms and tankers, designated as EA-3B and KA-3B. Fighters replaced the RA-5C in the carrier-based reconnaissance role, with the F-8 Crusader modified with internal cameras and designated RF-8G, while select models of the F-14 Tomcat would carry the multi-sensor Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (TARPS) and the Digital Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod (D-TARPS). Following up to present day, the weight of fighters such as the F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet have evolved into the same 62,950 lb class as the Vigilante. With the retirement of the F-14, the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft are planned to cover the strike, reconnaissance, tanker and electronic warfare roles of the F-14 Tomcat, A-6E Intruder, A-7E Corsair II, RF-8G Crusader, RA-5C, KA-6D Intruder, EA-6B Prowler. S-3B Viking, ES-3A Shadow and EA-3B Skywarrior.
Although the Vigilante served in the attack and reconnaissance roles, its design and configuration was believed to be a major influence on one of the world's most famous postwar interceptors: the Soviet MiG-25 "Foxbat" was apparently heavily influenced by the A-5's design.. The MiG-25 would look even more familiar if the Vigilante had retained the twin vertical fins of the prototype; although North American originally specified two fins, that part of the design was vetoed by the Navy in favor of one folding tailfin. Dual tailfins would become part of the U.S. Navy's F-14 Tomcat, the US Navy's and U.S. Marine Corps' F/A-18 Hornet) and the U.S. Air Force's F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor. The F-14, F-15 Eagle and other Western aircraft would also adopt a high mounted wing and wedge-shaped intake geometry (i.e., wedged air inlets) that were incorporated in the RA-5C.
Several Vigilantes are currently stored or on display in the United States.