Belgian arms trader tangles with minister over tanks for Ukraine

Tournai, Belgium, February 1 (Post Bureau) – Freddy Versluis does not like to be called an arms dealer. But he has a large warehouse full of second-hand tanks for sale.

Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in a pepper warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys stressed that he is the CEO of two defense companies with many activities, such as making sensors for spacecraft.

But buying and selling arms is also part of his business. And it’s the tanks that have thrust him into the spotlight in the past few days, as he engages in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine.

While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to Ukraine to help fend off a Russian offensive, Belgium has not joined that group, above all for one reason: It has no There are no tanks left. It sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to the Versluis company five years ago.

Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluis, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said it was his company’s business model — he bought unwanted military equipment in the hope that in the future Someone else will want it.

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“There are still countries in the world that have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there is always a possibility of selling spare parts or selling extra tanks,” he said.

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But, he added: “Of course, it’s a gamble … Maybe tomorrow we have to eliminate them (or) after 10 years, they might still be there.”

Dedonder has said the government has explored the idea of ​​buying back the tanks to send them to Ukraine. But he has blasted the quoted prices as “irrational” and “excessive”. Tanks sold for 10-15,000 euros are being offered for sale for 500,000 euros, despite not being operational, he said.

The dispute highlights the difficulties faced by Western governments as they seek more weapons for Ukraine after nearly a year of intense war – weapons they had dismissed as obsolete are now in high demand. And many are now in the hands of private companies.

Dedonder has not named Versluis’ company, OIP Land Systems, in its allegations. But Versluys is convinced that he is his target. Dedonder declined an interview request.

Versluis has taken 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.

Versluis said his firm bought 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were usable. This would mean a unit price of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33.

He said his sale price could be anywhere from several hundred thousand to close to a million euros but would include work to repair the tanks, which he stressed could be very expensive.

He said that replacing the firing control system could cost 350,000 euros per tank, 75,000 euros to replace asbestos in the engine. Each tank had to be evaluated separately.

“We still have to see what their actual condition is and what we have to spend on them to make them relevant,” he said.

Military hypermarket

As part of his public offensive, Versluis has given journalists tours of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It’s like a military hypermarket, filled with rows of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black and shelves stacked with piles of spare parts and webbing, among many other military vehicles.

In its sales pitch, Versluys also emphasizes that refitted Leopard 1 tanks can be ready for the battlefield in months – much faster than the new models ordered today, which take years to produce. will take

The Leopard 1 is a precursor to the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed to send to Ukraine last month. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models in Versluys’ warehouse were last upgraded in the 1990s.

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Yohan Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said the Leopard 1 tanks will not be as valuable on the battlefield as their successors.

But, he said, they could still be of some use in taking on older Russian tanks and supporting infantry units, especially if they were fitted out to a higher standard.

If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country may buy them for Kyiv. Versluis said he had discussed the option with several European governments.

Last year, Britain bought 46 infantry fighting vehicles from his firm for Ukraine and sent engineers who worked around the clock to fix them, Versluys said.

However, any export of Leopard 1s would require approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks were manufactured by German firm KMW.

Versluys is a smooth salesman, reeling off names, model numbers and prices for various bits of military kit. He worked as an engineer in the Belgian army before going into business.

While he doesn’t like the “arms dealer” label, he says the arms business is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s a civilized market.”

Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Nick McPhee

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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