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27 May 06. The FT reported that George W. Bush on Friday threw his support behind Tony Blair over an issue that has clouded US-UK relations.

Mr Bush said Britain should have access to sensitive US technology contained in a high profile joint strike fighter project.
Britain has threatened to pull out of the $250bn (£134bn) Joint Strike Fighter programme – the world’s largest arms project – if it did not have access to US technologies that would let it maintain, operate and upgrade the aircraft independent of the US.

The president’s show of support came at the end of a visit to Washington by Mr Blair, during which Mr Bush repeatedly praised him and dismissed the idea that the prime minister was a lame duck.

The president’s move on the JSF arguably provided a more tangible reward for Mr Blair, who had personally raised the issue with him. Many British politicians saw US resistance to sharing the aircraft technology as a poor response to the strong UK backing for Washington in Iraq and elsewhere.

A joint statement from the two leaders said: “Both governments agree that the UK will have the ability to successfully operate, upgrade, employ and maintain the Joint Strike Fighter such that the UK retains operational sovereignty over the aircraft.”

The wording echoes almost precisely that used by Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister, when he lobbied for technology sharing before a Senate committee in March.

Britain tentatively plans to order 150 of the short take-off and landing version of the aircraft, and has already committed $2bn to development costs.

The statement provides support for the UK’s position as it negotiates a production agreement with the US. A memorandum of understanding with the Pentagon is expected to be negotiated by the end of the year.

“We are very encouraged by the personal commitment shown by the president on JSF,” said a Ministry of Defence official. “However, there is still some way to go to fully resolve technology transfer issues.”

US officials had already said they hoped for a solution that would allow sharing. But there is an obstacle posed by members of Congress who worry that US secrets may leak out from Britain. In a response to these fears, the statement
said both governments “agree to protect sensitive technologies” in the programme.

Relations between the two countries over the programme, which could produce as many as 2,400 aircraft, deteriorated this year when the Pentagon cut development of a second engine without warning the UK.

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