The Pentagon has asked Boeing and Lockheed Martin, America's biggest defence contractors, to help deploy the new joint-strike fighter (JSF) three years early to spearhead the new type of anti-terrorist war planned by President George Bush.

Senior US industry sources said yesterday the two rivals for the $200bn programme had been asked to prepare for deployment in 2008 rather than in the 2010-11 time frame proposed before the attacks.

An earlier in-service date for the JSF would be a significant boost for the around 70 British companies - including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce - involved in the world's most lucrative military project.

Between 5,000 and 13,000 UK jobs could be created, even though the government - which is investing £2bn in the project - is buying just 150 of the fighters compared with the 3,000 to be procured by the US air force, navy and marines.

With exports of a further 2,000 planes, the entire project could be worth $400bn.

The Pentagon is due to award the next engineering, manufacturing and design phase, worth around $20bn, to one of the rival bidders on October 27.

Sources at Boeing said the US military wanted earlier deployment because the fighters met the needs of the "asymmetrical warfare" planned for Afghanistan and expected to be the norm in future.

The JSFs being developed by both bidders are said to be able to assimilate satellite intelligence within minutes and hit targets the equivalent of a square metre in size.

"We're talking about guys in tunnels or even caves," the sources said in obvious reference to Osama bin Laden and his followers.

They admitted that the rescheduled deployment would mean the early JSFs would not have the full capability of later models. Both companies are thought to have agreed they can meet the new timescale.



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