The American air raid in Lebanon last Sunday has raised serious questions about US military forces there and how they are being used. Among expert analysts and Vietnam air-combat veterans, there is concern that the 28-plane raid against Syrian surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft sites may not have been the best way to respond to attacks on reconnaissance flights and marines hunkered down there. The raids resulted in two aircraft downed and another damaged.
''The aviators in the building are kind of concerned,'' says an experienced air-warfare specialist at the Pentagon. ''One of the things they pounded into our heads years ago was: Don't get in a fight with a gun site, because you're going to lose, eventually. They'll just replace it overnight. I was really amazed that we were going after gun sites.''
Officials have said that the targets attacked by A-6 and A-7 carrier-based aircraft were selected because they had specifically fired on US F-14s the day before. This is the kind of decision, heavily weighted with political considerations, that makes professional military officers uneasy.
''We played that game in Vietnam,'' says one combat attack veteran, recalling the strikes against North Vietnamese air defenses. ''And we lost.''
This week's air strike put the pilots in a most difficult situation. They were flying into the sun, in haze that forced them to fly at lower altitudes, where antiaircraft fire was more dense. They used classic ''Alpha strike'' attack maneuvers exactly like those used in Vietnam, and which were therefore predictable to Soviet-trained defenders using Soviet-made weapons.
Pentagon officials analyzing the results must ask themselves these questions:
Why were US losses so much heavier than the Israeli Air Force usually experiences? Does the fact that the A-6s and A-7s are 1960s-vintage airplanes have anything to do with it? Why weren't pilotless drones used, as they are so effectively by Israel?
Why wasn't the battleship USS New Jersey, whose massive 16-inch guns could have reached those targets, employed instead?
While defending the raid as largely successful (despite US losses), Pentagon officials acknowledge some failings in the mission and the tactical and technical limitations they must work with.
For example: The A-6, despite its age, is still generally regarded as the best all-weather attack aircraft in the world. Similarly, the A-7 has no operational rival in weapons-delivery systems. Because no air-to-ground ordnance can be delivered at supersonic speeds, the planes' subsonic speed limit was not a hindrance in the attack itself.
But the new Navy/Marine F-18, due to enter the fleet next year, will have several advantages. It will be able to dash to and from target areas much more quickly, and it will have more survivable features (self-sealing fuel tanks, for example), enabling it to withstand antiaircraft fire better.
In fact, some military pilots suggest, a better aircraft for last Sunday's strike might have been the F-4 Phantom, the retired workhorse of the Vietnam war , which dates back some 25 years but is much faster than the A-6 or A-7.
''One of the things we could have used the other day was the F-4, just because it has the power to drive right in there,'' said one experienced Navy pilot. The F-4 ''guzzles gas,'' this source points out, but it wouldn't have had far to go in this case. The F-4 has been replaced by the F-14, which is primarily an interceptor rather than having the dual fighter-attack role the F-4 did and the F-18 will.
Despite the fact that US aircraft had been making regular reconnaissance flights over the area, officials say they were unprepared for the amount of air defense encountered by the carrier-based attackers.
''There was an awful lot of triple-A (antiaircraft artillery) in the area that was a surprise,'' said one source. And they say the advanced electronics and all-weather capability of the A-6 would not have been much help because most of the targets were mobile and had to be spotted ''by eyeball.''
This same reason is given here for the decision to use carrier aircraft rather than the battleship New Jersey, whose largest guns can hurl a 2,000-pound shell more than 20 miles with high accuracy. But Pentagon officials also stress that the decision not to use the refurbished battleship was made by the commander of all US Navy forces there, who is a naval aviator.
In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley last year, Israel first sent in drone aircraft to determine air-defense radar frequencies, then blasted these sites with radar-homing Shrike missiles tuned to those frequencies. Israeli pilots shot down scores of Russian-made Syrian jets while escaping almost totally unscathed.
The US raid did not involve such drones, and it is generally conceded here that this is an area of military capability in which the United States is clearly lacking. Asking Israel to provide drones in a joint attack would have worsened US relations with Arab states.
In response to reported criticisms from Israeli military officials about the US military performance Sunday, a highly decorated senior Navy official with considerable air-combat experience declared, ''Our pilots are the best in the world.''
But he acknowledged that most of those who took part in the attack were too young to have flown in Vietnam, and thus lacked any combat experience. There is little doubt, however, that the thick flak and missile barrage probably would have taken its toll in any case. One of those shot down was the air-wing commander.
Military sources here indicate that some tactical changes are likely in any future attacks by US forces in the Mideast.
''We are going to adjust and continually evaluate the environment we're encountering to minimize the threat,'' one senior Navy official said.