LONDON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Fancy an aircraft carrier for Christmas?
Britain's cash-strapped military on Tuesday launched a search for buyers for its sole remaining aircraft carrier, saying it would entertain bids from companies, charities and trusts.
The ageing, battle-worn HMS Illustrious - 210 metres long and 22,000 tonnes - is one of the Royal Navy's best-known symbols. It has ferried equipment during the Gulf War and supported evacuations of British nationals from Sierra Leone over the past 32 years.
Bidders do not need to be British but the buyer has to keep all or part of the ship in Britain for heritage purposes, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said on Tuesday. It did not define how big a "part" of the ship must be.
The Royal Navy's treatment of Illustrious contrasts with that of the ship's sister carriers, the HMS Ark Royal and HMS Invincible, which were auctioned off in 2011 and later sold for scrap.
An industry day to discuss the proposals submitted for the ship's future use will be held next year, and a final decision made after the aircraft carrier is retired in late-2014.
The ship is one of the Invincible class built in the 1970s and 1980s. Two new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are being built by a BAE Systems-led consortium, and the first will begin sea trials in 2017. Britain will have no aircraft carriers at sea in the meantime.
Amid major cuts in defence spending, the replacement of carriers has stirred controversy. The previous Labour government gave the green light in 2007 for the two new ships but the programme has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.