The UK's biggest warship order, worth billions and which could generate 1,000 jobs in the south, is heading for a sea of confusion if the government insists on splitting the deal with a French company.

That is the view of the defence industry following suggestions that Prime Minister Tony Blair is proposing to order the two powerful companies bidding to construct the next generation of aircraft carriers to share the construction contract.

One source within the industry, who would not be named, dubbed the last-minute ministerial plan as "a potential recipe for disaster'' after such a long period of planning.

The race is now on between BAE Systems and French rivals Thales to become prime contractors for the £3 billion carrier project.

Southampton-based Vosper Thornycroft (VT) has a foot in each camp, being part of both consortia which should hear the government's choice this week.

If the decision is to share the work between BAE Systems and Thales, it is thought it would not have any drastic effect on VT's prospects to be part of the construction period as long as the government places at least 20 per cent of the aircraft carrier programme in the south.

However, BAE Systems is known to be furious over the rumoured government moves which could see the two bidders working together on the project.

According to reports, the Prime Minister does not want to face a public outcry by placing the huge deal solely with the French but at the same time there are government concerns over BAE's recent dealings with the Ministry of Defence.

If VT eventually wins a chunk of the work, parts of the carriers would be fabricated in Portsmouth and then possibly moved to Southampton's King George V dry dock where they would be assembled into bigger units, weighing up to 20,000 tonnes each, before being taken to the final construction yard.