Designated A3J-1, the Vigilante first entered squadron service with Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3) in June 1961 at Naval Air Station Sanford, Florida, replacing the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior in the heavy attack, e.g., "strategic nuclear strike," role. All variants of the Vigilante were built at North American Aviation's facility at Port Columbus Airport in Columbus, Ohio, alongside the North American T-2 Buckeye, T-39 Sabreliner and OV-10 Bronco.
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 A3J-3P, became the RA-5C.
The Vigilante's early service proved troublesome, with many teething problems for its advanced systems. Although these systems were highly sophisticated, the technology of the time was in its infancy, and its reliability was poor. Although most of these reliability issues were eventually worked out as maintenance personnel gained greater experience with supporting these systems, the aircraft tended to remain a maintenance-intensive platform throughout its career.
The A-5's service coincided with 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 Heavy Attack Squadron THREE (VAH-3), the A-5A and A-5B Replacement Air Group (RAG) / Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), subsequently redesignated as Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Three (RVAH-3), at NAS Sanford, Florida in July 1963. As they transitioned from the attack version to the reconnaissance version, all Vigilante squadrons were subsequently redesignated from VAH to RVAH.
Under the cognizance of Commander, Reconnaissance Attack Wing One (COMRECONATKWING ONE), a total of 10 RA-5C squadrons were ultimately established. RVAH-3 continued to be responsible for the stateside-based RA-5C training mission of 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, Saratoga, Ranger, Independence, Kitty Hawk, Constellation, Enterprise, America, John F. Kennedy and eventually the 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 post-strike reconnaissance missions. Although it proved fast and agile, 18 RA-5Cs were lost in combat: 14 to anti-aircraft fire, 3 to surface-to-air missiles, and 1 to a MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Nine more RA-5Cs 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 to 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) Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Boeing KC-135 base in Albany, Georgia. The tenant SAC bomb wing was then inactivated and control of Turner AFB was transferred from the Air Force to the Navy with the installation renamed Naval Air Station 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 at a time when carrier air wings, with the introduction of the F-14 Tomcat and S-3 Viking, were averaging 90 aircraft, many of which were larger than the predecessors. 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 Ranger in late 1979. The final flight by an RA-5C took place on 20 November 1979 when a Vigilante departed NAS Key West, Florida. 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 photo reconnaissance aircraft, electronic warfare platforms, aerial refueling tankers, and executive transport aircraft designated as RA-3A/B, EA-3A/B, ERA-3B, EKA-3B KA-3B, and VA-3B, into the 1980s and early 1990s.
Fighters replaced the RA-5C in the carrier-based reconnaissance role. The RF-8G version of the Vought F-8 Crusader, modified with internal cameras, had already been serving in two light photographic squadrons (VFP-62 and VFP-63) since the early 1960s, operating from older aircraft carriers unable to support the Vigilante. The Marine Corps' sole photographic squadron (VMFP-3) would also deploy aboard aircraft carriers during this period with RF-4B Phantom II aircraft. These squadrons superseded the Vigilante's role by providing detachments from the primary squadron to carrier air wings throughout the late 1970s and early-to-mid-1980s until transfer of the recon mission to the Navy's fighter squadron (VF) community operating the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
Select models of the F-14 Tomcat would eventually 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 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet have evolved into the same 62,950 lb (28,550 kg) class as the Vigilante. With the retirement of the F-14, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft are purported 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, Grumman EA-6B Prowler, S-3B Viking, ES-3A Shadow and EA-3B Skywarrior.
While the Vigilante served in the attack and reconnaissance roles, its design and planform was a direct descendant of the earlier WS-202 or XF-108 Rapier Mach 3 fighter, designed originally to escort the North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber.
On 13 December 1960, Navy Commander Leroy Heath (Pilot) and Lieutenant Larry Monroe (Bombardier/Navigator) established a world altitude record of 91,450.8 feet (27,874.2 m) in an A3J Vigilante carrying a 1,000 kilogram payload, beating the previous record by over four miles (6 km). This new record held for over 13 years.