SINGAPORE — Next week, the U.S. Air Force is expected to announce its decision on whether to continue the JSTARS recap program, but a top Lockheed Martin executive contends that an alternative to JSTARS might actually be the best approach, even as a win could mean a $6.9 billion contract for the next phase of the program.

“If ultimately the Air Force decides to not go forward with that program, clearly we will respect that decision. And frankly, we understand,” said Orlando Carvalho, vice president of Lockheed’s aeronautics business area, during an exclusive interview with Defense News Tuesday at the Singapore Airshow.

In September, the Air Force acknowledged that it was considering canceling JSTARS recap in favor of a distributed model that would tie together its current intelligence assets and perhaps introduce new nodes could help fill the ground surveillance role.

The concern, according to Air Force leaders like its civilian head Heather Wilson, was that a buy of 17 mission-equipped aircraft would neither provide enough coverage to meet requirements nor be survivable enough to penetrate into non-contested environments.

Carvalho acknowledged that those concerns may be valid, and that an alternative approach would bring some benefits.

“Having insight into some of the operations that have been going on in the Middle East, things like that, we can appreciate the tradeoff that the Air Force is trying to make, especially as they think ahead into the future and look at a more distributed model for command and control, also taking into account permissible versus non-permissible airspace,” he said.

“There is a very legitimate, very reasonable discussion you can have, debate you can have about, is JSTARS the way you want to provide this kind of capability in the future?”

Carvalho’s statements contrast sharply with that of Boeing and Northrop Grumman, the two other defense companies currently in source selection with Lockheed, both of which are fiercely fighting for the program’s continuation. In part, that may be because Northrop and Boeing have more to lose if the JSTARS recap program is canceled.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the legacy E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System program, which was based on a Boeing 707 airframe.

For Northrop, the program gives the company the opportunity to continue on as the provider of airborne ground surveillance and battle management. It also is a surefire win for the company’s radar wing, which beat out Raytheon late last year to provide the main sensor for the recap program.

Boeing sees JSTARS as the opening salvo in a wider strategy to sell militarized versions of the 737 to meet the Air Force’s needs for special mission aircraft. Boeing’s JSTARS recap offering is based on the 737, but that airframe could also be used as the basis for future E-3 AWACS or RC-135 replacements, a Boeing official said in 2016.

During a Sept. 13 briefing with reporters, Rod Meranda, business development lead for Boeing’s JSTARS recap program, asserted that the JSTARS recap program was the best way to replace the current capability.

Other alternatives would entail using more aircraft—for instance, six to eight RQ-4 Global Hawk drones to have the same radar coverage of a JSTARS plane—and increase the amount of time it takes to make decisions, as data captured onboard an unmanned system would have to be processed on the ground and then exported back to other airborne assets, he said.

“With the JSTARS, [it] sees it — people are onboard and can communicate it out to all the fighters and bombers immediately and take care of those targets,” he said. “If you lose that satellite communications capability, the unmanned platforms are useless.”

Experts have said Lockheed’s lack of ties to the current JSTARS program makes it more a dark horse candidate in the recap competition, although Carvalho argued that Lockheed’s Skunk Works technology wing’s longstanding pedigree in ISR aircraft production like the SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 Dragon Lady makes it a viable JSTARS recap provider.

Although none of the companies have been briefed by the Air Force on the outcome of the decision and source selection on the program continues, Carvalho said that Lockheed had already begun thinking about other approaches for doing the JSTARS mission and hinted that some of those could incorporate aspects of the sensor fusion technologies that characterize its flagship product, the F-35.

“We haven’t walked in and said, ‘Here’s our alternative,’ but we have concepts for how we think are other ways to do it, and those other ways may not lend themselves to a platform, it could be very much a much more federated, distributed approach instead of having it centralized in a single platform,” he said.

“What we’re seeing with our fifth-gen airplanes, both F-22 and F-35, with the ISR capability those planes have [and] how those airplanes are integrating more into the network in their operations, that to us appears to add a lot of credence to the idea that you might be able to do this mission differently.”