European spare tanks
On the outskirts of Tournai, a sleepy medieval town in the gentle Brueghelian landscape of the French-speaking part of Belgium, lies an unassuming gray shed barely hidden behind a fence. Inside are rows and rows of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other heavy combat vehicles – some of the same types of weapons that top Ukraine’s military wish list.
The hangar is owned by the Belgian defense company OIP and contains one of the largest private arms stores in Europe. “A lot of these tanks have been here for years. Hopefully now is when they finally see some action in Ukraine,” OIP chief Freddy Versluys said as he visited. the warehouse.
“Here we have the 50 Leopard 1s,” he said, pointing. “We also have 38 German Gepard tanks, 112 Austrian SK-105 light tanks and 100 Italian VCC2 and 70 M113 armored vehicles.”
In total, his firm has around 500 armored vehicles in stock, “probably the largest private tank arsenal in Europe”, according to Versluys, who has a long history in the military sector.
After completing his military service, Versluys spent nine years in the service of the Belgian army in a division responsible for the quality control of tanks and ammunition. In 1989, he joined OIP, a company specializing in optical equipment, where he eventually founded OIP Land Systems, a subsidiary that bought old military equipment, thinking that one day there would be demand again.
“Everything we do here is legal, we follow the books and have all the necessary licenses,” he said, shrugging at the “arms dealer” label.
Wandering the narrow, cobbled lanes and boulevards of Tournai, it’s hard to imagine that such weapons are only a 15-minute walk away. Versluys has purchased most of its current stock over the past two decades, acquiring the tanks directly from European governments, reducing their defense spending.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, European nations have sought to replace some of the heavy and expensive Cold War-era tanks with lighter vehicles needed for shorter peacekeeping missions around the world. Defense cuts were accelerated by the 2008 economic crisis, and by 2014, the year Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, European military spending had reached a historic low.
In one of Versluys’ biggest deals, he bought 50 Leopard 1 tanks that the Belgian government decommissioned in 2014 for €37,000 each (about £29,600). “It was the market price because of the geopolitical situation at the time,” he said. “But buying these decommissioned tanks was a huge gamble for us. A big, big risk.
The Leopard 1, which dates from the 1960s, is lighter and less powerful than the new Leopard 2 tanks, 14 of which Germany agreed last week to send to Ukraine, but German officials said they would be still able to compete with a Russian battle. Tank.
For years, Versluys was unable to sell Leopard 1s and Gepards because German law requires Berlin’s approval for the re-export of its military equipment. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision last week on the Leopard 2s, which opened the floodgates for other European countries to follow suit, opened up new possibilities.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent unprecedented Western military support to Kyiv had already led Versluys to sell 46 M113 light armored vehicles to the UK, which then transferred them to Ukraine as part of of a military unit. Belgium, which no longer has any tanks in its defense stock, has explored the possibility of buying back the Leopard 1s sold at Versluys.
Ludivine Dedonder, Belgium’s defense minister, said last week she had opened talks with OIP but accused the company of trying to make a “huge profit” from the sale. “Talks are still ongoing, but I’m not going to pay half a million for a tank that’s far from combat ready,” Dedonder told Belgian media.
Versluys denied that the Belgian government had approached him and said it was difficult to estimate the price at which he would sell the tanks. “There is no point in talking about prices at the moment because we have to check the status of each tank and what needs to be updated,” he said.
He pointed out that it could take months and up to 1 million euros in renovation costs for each tank to make them ready for use in Ukraine. “These guys need a new engine, shock absorbers, the latest radar technology – the list goes on.”
Versluys said he had recently been approached by the Ukrainian state arms exporter and importer about the possibility of buying his tanks. Britain’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a British-led group made up of 10 northern European states, has also been in contact since Germany announced its Leopards, it said. he declares. “We are open to all options,” Versluys said. “But the price has to be right, we are not a charity.”
And while Germany has lifted its ban on exporting Leopards, other obstacles remain. The OIP is still unable to sell its large stock of Austrian-made SK-105 light tanks, as Vienna does not approve exports. “It’s a real shame because they are in good condition and can be prepared easily,” he said.
There was a debate in Brussels about whether he was short-sighted to decommission his tanks. “With hindsight, it’s a bit too simple to say that getting rid of the tanks was a mistake,” said Joe Coelmont, a senior researcher at the Royal Higher Institute for Defense and a former brigadier in the Belgian army. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was simply unimaginable that there would be a WWII-type battle in Europe. With government budget cuts in defense, the military had to take decisions, and cutting older and expensive tanks was the most logical choice.
At the hangar, Versluys dismissed accusations made by some in Belgium that he was trying to profit from the war. “Everyone thinks we’re making a lot of money, but look around, so far the shed is full,” he said.
“We welcomed these tanks when no one wanted them. Now I would very much like to see them in Ukraine.