Last week’s attack on a Syrian regime air base was “singular” and the US military’s focus has returned to its defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday. Speaking at his first press conference as secretary, Mattis said the use of chemical weapons, which US intelligence showed was deliberate by Syrian President Bashar al Assad, is a “separate issue” that the US needed to address militarily. Assad has used chemical weapons multiple times, and now after the launch of 59 US Tomahawk missiles, Assad likely “regrets it” because of the damage done to his air force, Mattis said. The Syrian air force was already in “bad shape” before the strike, which in turn took out about 20 percent of the fleet, Mattis said. The US mission targeting ISIS now “stays on track exactly as it was.” US Central Command chief Army Gen. Joseph Votel said during the briefing that CENTCOM is “appropriately postured to respond if necessary” if the regime does use chemical weapons again. Deterring the use of chemical weapons is a “vital national interest” to the US and in response the military needed to make a very clear statement, Mattis said. The strike was not a “harbinger” of any change in US policy to come, Mattis said.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.