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Israel trains to raid Iran but capacities in doubt

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel has spent years training for a possible bombing run against Iranian nuclear sites but its air force may be too small to finish the job alone, officials and independent experts said on Saturday.

Citing unidentified Pentagon sources, the New York Times said on Friday that more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 jets took part in a long-range Mediterranean exercise this month that appeared to be practice for real sorties over Iran.

Israel did not confirm that the reported exercise had taken place. But officials said such drills have been commonplace at least since 2005, when air force chief Dan Halutz became overall military commander with a mandate to enhance preparations for any confrontation with the Jewish state’s arch-foes.

“We are talking about regular ‘large-package’ maneuvers involving scores of aircraft, which are clearly aimed at Iran, given the scale and distances involved,” said one official.

For now, Israel has said it backs U.S.-led efforts to rein in Iran through sanctions. But like the United States, it has hinted at military force should diplomacy be deemed a dead end.

Officials, who declined to be identified given the censorship around Israel’s strategic capabilities, said the air force would be unlikely to deliver more than a one-time blow to an Iranian nuclear program, which international experts believe may require as many as 1,000 strikes to be destroyed.

“A hundred warplanes are enough for a raid but they do not make for an air campaign, and that is what is needed to deal conclusively with Iran’s capabilities,” an official said.

“Israel wants to go it alone against Iran as a last resort only.”

Asked why the exercise might have been leaked in the United States, the official said only: “There’s a lot of brinkmanship.”

Israel, which is believed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981. Last September, it mounted a similar raid against a Syrian site that the United States described as a secret reactor built with North Korean help -- a charge denied by Damascus.

Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel who now stages wargames for various government agencies in Washington, said Iran’s nuclear facilities were too distant, numerous and fortified for Israel to tackle unilaterally.

“The United States thinks in terms of around 1,000 ‘aim points’ while an Israeli strike would be against around 100 ‘aim points,’” he said, adding that such a mission would be “disruptive” rather than “destructive”.

“What I’m hearing from many in Washington is that if the job is going to be done, Israel does not really have the capability to do it,” Gardiner said.

Disrupting Iran’s plans may, however, be an Israeli goal in itself. Israel and the United States have said Iran may have amassed enough enriched uranium to build a bomb in the next decade. although Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy needs only.

A 2006 study by Whitney Raas and Austin Long, two strategic scholars at MIT, found that Israel’s air force could effectively attack select Iranian nuclear targets.

“The operation appears to be no more risky than the earlier attack on Osiraq and provides at least as much benefit in terms of delaying Iranian development of nuclear weapons,” they wrote.

An Israeli general described the MIT report as “sound”.

“A nuclear program is operated through a chain of facilities, and like any chain, this has weak links,” the general said. “Massive force might be useful, but it’s not necessarily required.”

Editing by Catherine Evans