TOURNE, Belgium, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Freddy Versluys doesn’t like being called an arms dealer. But he has a large warehouse full of used tanks for sale.
Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in the cool warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys emphasized that he is the CEO of two defense companies with a wide range of activities, such as making sensors for spacecraft.
But buying and selling weapons is also part of his business. And it’s the tanks that have thrust him into the spotlight over the past few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over whether to send them to Ukraine.
While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group for one reason in particular: it has no tanks left. She sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to Versluys’ company more than five years ago.
Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said it was his company’s business model — it buys unwanted military equipment in the hope that someone else will want it in the future.
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“There are still countries in the world that have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there is always an opportunity to either sell spare parts or sell additional tanks,” he said.
But he added: “Of course, it’s a gamble… We might have to scrap them tomorrow (or) 10 years later they could still be there.”
Dedonder said the government has explored the idea of buying back tanks to send to Ukraine. But she blasted the quoted prices as “unreasonable” and “extremely high”. Tanks sold for €10-15,000 each are being offered for sale for €500,000 despite not being in service, she said.
The dispute underscores the predicament Western governments face as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after nearly a year of intense war — weapons they discarded as obsolete are now in high demand and many are already in private hands. companies.
Dedonder did not name Versluys’ company, OIP Land Systems, in her allegations. But Versluys is certain that he is her target. Dedonder declined an interview request.
Versluys took the unusual step of going public to dispute the minister’s claims, offering a rare insight into the workings of a business that often prefers to keep a low profile.
Versluys said his company bought the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were fit for use. This would mean a unit cost of €40,000 for 50 tanks or around €60,600 for 33.
He said its sale price could range from several hundred thousand to nearly a million euros, but that would include work to refit the tanks, which he insisted could be very expensive.
Replacing the system that controls firing could cost €350,000 per tank, and replacing the asbestos in the engine could cost €75,000, he said. Each tank had to be evaluated individually.
“We still have to look at what their actual condition is and what we need to spend on them to make them suitable,” he said.
As part of its public offensive, Versluys gave journalists tours of its warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It looks like a military hypermarket, filled with rows of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and dozens of other military vehicles, along with shelves piled high with spare parts and piles of belts.
In its sales pitch, Versluys also stressed that the converted Leopard 1 tanks could be ready for the battlefield in months – much faster than the new models ordered today, which would take years to produce.
The Leopard 1 is a precursor to the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed last month to send to Ukraine. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models in the Versluys warehouse were last updated in the 1990s.
Johan Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said the Leopard 1 tanks would not be as valuable on the battlefield as their successors.
But, he said, they could still be useful in the fight against older Russian tanks and in support of infantry units, especially if they were retrofitted to a high standard.
If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country can buy them for Kyiv. Versluis said he had held discussions with several European governments about this option.
Last year, Britain bought 46 infantry fighting vehicles from his firm for Ukraine and sent engineers who worked around the clock to refit them, Versluys said.
However, any export of the Leopard 1 will require approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks are manufactured by the German firm KMW.
Versluys is a laid-back trader who rolls out names, model numbers and prices on many pieces of military kit. He worked as an engineer in the Belgian army before starting a business.
Although he dislikes the label “arms dealer”, he said the gun business is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s a pretty civilized market.”
Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Nick McPhee
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