Jihadi John dead?; ‘Eyes on’ Kunduz; B-52s buzz the South China Sea; Russia’s nuclear ‘oops’; And a bit more.

BREAKING: Jihadi John is “very likely” dead, a senior U.S. defense official told Defense One Friday. The knife-wielding British executioner of American journalists Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff and other hostages, met his fate at the sharp end of a couple Hellfire missiles, it appears.   

A separate senior U.S. military official told Defense One the U.S. is “100 percent certain” that Hellfires from a Reaper drone killed two men in Raqqa, Syria, as they left a building and entered a car. The U.S. is “reasonably certain” one of those men was Mohammed Emwazi—aka “Jihadi John.” It will take some time for the official confirmation, but that’s the U.S. military’s way of saying yep, they got him.

It happened Thursday by a U.S. airstrike in the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, the Pentagon said late Thursday.

A Raqqa-based activist group reported 14 airstrikes on the city last night in roughly a 10-minute span just before midnight local time.

Emwazi, who was born in Kuwait and raised in London, is believed to have beheaded Foley and Sotloff and the American aid worker Peter Kassig, and is “believed to have participated in the killing of a number of other hostages, including Japanese journalist Kenji Goto” as well as “British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning,” The Daily Beast adds.

“There is no vengeance, but there is accountability,” a senior U.S. official told NBC News.

“If confirmed, it’s not clear that Emwazi’s death would have an important effect on the Islamic State’s strength or its hostage operations,” the Washington Post reports. “But the killing of a well-known militant who embodies the brutal tactics of the militant group and its allure to Westerners, would be a symbolic blow.”

One question: How did the U.S. find him?

Elsewhere in Syria, the U.S. has ramped up the intensity of its airstrikes on ISIS-controlled oil fields to the east, The New York Times reports. The escalation in intended to inflict damage “that takes longer to fix or requires specially ordered parts,” as part of a larger aim of crippling “eight major oil fields, about two-thirds of the refineries and other oil-production sites controlled by the Islamic State.”

This new strategy showed its first signs of life on Oct. 21, “when B-1 bombers and other allied warplanes hit 26 targets in the Omar oil field, one of the two largest oil-production sites in all of Syria. American military analysts estimate the Omar field generates $1.7 million to $5.1 million per month for the Islamic State. French warplanes struck another oil field nearby earlier this week.” More here.

“Eyes on” Kunduz. While having human eyes on a target is ideal for preventing innocent people from dying, as Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports—“the military does not always require ‘eyes on’ its target before an commander can call in a strike with an AC-130, one of the most dangerous weapons in the U.S. arsenal.”

And the implications of this could spell trouble for future operations across Afghanistan and the ISIS battlespace, as Tucker explains, here.

BUFFs buzz Spratly Islands. “Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew near a cluster of Chinese-built artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea this week, U.S. officials said, the latest in a series of American challenges to Beijing’s maritime claims,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The heavy bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons, stayed outside of 12 nautical miles of the land formations and were exercising their freedom of navigation rights, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Chinese air traffic controllers told the aircraft to “get away from our islands,” The Hill reports. What did the B-52 say back? “I am a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities in international airspace. In exercising these rights as guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard to the right and duties of all states,” WSJ reports

The B-52 pass is the latest in a recent series of U.S. military aircraft and ships to sail near the man made islands where China is said to have built a military airfield. The USS Lassen, a U.S. Navy destroyer, sailed near the islands two weeks ago. A Navy P-8 spy plane also flew near the islands earlier this year.

From Defense One

When it comes to the GOP and defense spending, Rand Paul has a point. And he brought the issue into sharp focus during Tuesday’s debates when he asked: “Can you be a conservative and be liberal on military spending?” Everyone on Tuesday’s stage, “including Paul wants to shrink government by reducing spending, except when it comes to the military budget, the single largest expenditure Congress votes on every year—which everyone but Paul wants to lavish with much more money,” writes Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies.

“We’re already spending more than $100 billion more in inflation-adjusted dollars every year than we did, on average, during the Cold War,” she writes. “Ending the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars produced the most meager and short-lived savings of any postwar period since World War II, and now we’re headed back up, even without the Republicans’ expansive plans for even more spending.” For a way out of this mess, read on, here.

Russia’s nuclear “oops” (or not). After airing images of a document purporting to show Moscow’s plans for a long-range nuclear torpedo on two state-run TV stations this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said in the future, authorities would “undoubtedly take preventive measures so this does not happen again.” Nevermind the “clumsy” messaging, what did the documents say about the nuke? Quartz’s Hanna Kozlowska has more, here.

Bet the cost of your antivirus scans don’t run in the 9-digits. But running scans on the Pentagon’s major weapon systems does—roughly $200 million, in fact. NextGov’s Aliya Sternstein explains the section buried in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act requiring evaluations of cyber vulnerabilities in U.S. military weapons, here.

Intelligence whistleblowers need a lot more protections, an advocacy group argues. That comes off a recent report from the PEN American Center whose latest release dings the White House for its heavy use of the 1917 Espionage Act amid complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers in the Defense and Justice Departments. Government Executive’s Charlie Clark has more, here.

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Lockheed boss meets with Egyptian president. Marillyn Hewson, the chairman, president, CEO of Lockheed Martin, met with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo Thursday. Sisi “looks forward to continuing this cooperation [with Lockheed] within the framework of Egypt's commitment to strengthening its security and stability, given the current challenges in the region,” according to an statement from the president’s office.

In March, the Obama administration lifted a hold on military aid for Egypt that was put in place in 2013 following a military coup. That hold included a dozen Lockheed Martin-built F-16 fighter jets.

Hewson, “highlighted the company's intent on continuing to cooperate with Egypt in all areas, and to provide the necessary equipment that Egypt needs to advance its security and capabilities,” the Egyptian statement said. A Lockheed spokesman declined to comment about the meeting.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter fired his senior military assistant Army Lt. Gen. Ron Lewis following “allegations of misconduct.” A senior defense official would not say the type of misconduct—though the NYTs reported “a senior Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity...said the misconduct was sexual.”

Carter learned of the allegations on Tuesday evening and alerted the Pentagon’s Inspector General, the senior defense official said. Carter spoke to Lewis Thursday morning since the Pentagon was closed Wednesday for the Veterans Day holiday. “I have confidence in the Inspector General's ability to determine the facts,” Carter said in a statement. “The Department of the Army will then take action as appropriate.”

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon Inspector General’s office said they have received the referral from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and would be conduct an investigation.

“I expect the highest possible standards of conduct from the men and women in this department particularly from those serving in the most senior positions,” Carter said. “There is no exception.”

Lewis was seen as an officer on the rise within the Pentagon. Many senior military assistants to the defense secretary go on to become four-star generals in prominent positions. For instance, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, was senior military assistant to Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. A replacement for Lewis has not yet been selected.

Navy “leans in” for its newly christened sub, the USS Massachusetts.  The service turned heads on Thursday when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus tapped Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg as the sponsor for its newest Virginia-class attack submarine. “Sponsors, who christen the ship, are always women but historically they were often the wives of senior officers or politicians with close ties to the Navy,” ABC News reports. “According to Navy lore, sponsors are said to imbue a ship with their personalities.”

So what’s the message here? Without going too far out on a limb, it’s no secret Sandberg is a fan of Mabus, publicly praising him for “changing personnel policies to empower women who serve, such as tripling paid maternity leave to 18 weeks,” ABC reports, adding, “She called on military leaders in September to ‘champion that equality makes us stronger.’” That story, here.

Hey, folks: Ben Carson’s foreign policy views aren’t all that crazy, says former CIA Director Michael Hayden on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Hayden was asked to respond to Carson’s recent line about the Chinese being present in Syria. “I must admit I had one lengthy phone call with Dr. Carson about two months ago,” Hayden said.

“His instincts are all right. But this is a database with which he is very unfamiliar...I think what he was trying to say is when we are absent from the playing field, we leave a vacuum in which other powers may enter. Now in this particular case, the Russians are there. I would characterize the Chinese are merely interested. And so I think he overstated the data in that point; but again, it’s more the details than the broad instinct.”

After that opener, Hayden rendered his “Morning Joe” host, Mika Brzezinski, speechless with a sympathetic—and slightly unsettling—portrayal of Carson the candidate coming to terms with complex foreign policy questions. Watch that one, here.

Lastly today—Climate change as a national security threat is now playing out on video game platforms across the world. And it comes via the blockbuster release of the futuristic war game, Call of Duty, writes Vice News.

The gist: “The game takes place in a globally warmed 2065, and players face environmental extremes wherever they go—dust storms in Egypt, floods and hurricane winds in Singapore, and so on.”

The numbers: “This is the series that routinely beats out summer blockbusters at the box office, the series that has nearly as much reach as any fiction franchise going, period. This latest installment is already the ‘biggest entertainment launch of 2015,’ according to IGN and Fortune. It pulled in $550 million in three days. That’s crazy money. Especially for a game about climate change.”

The bottom line: this latest installment in the COD series “marks an innovation in how audiences might experience distant climate impacts,” Vice writes. Not that anyone really expects substantial changes in U.S. lawmakers’ approach to climate change anytime soon. For a bit more Defense One’s coverage of climate change’s implications for U.S. national security, read here, here, here, or here. And have a great weekend, everyone.

CORRECTION: An earlier edition of The D Brief said that a U.S. Predator drone fired Hellfire missiles at what was believed to have been "Jihadi John." It was in fact a Reaper drone, according to a senior U.S. military official.