TOURNAI, Belgium, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Freddie Versluys doesn’t like being called an arms dealer. But he has a huge warehouse full of second-hand tanks to sell.
Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles at a Chally warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys emphasized that he is the CEO of two defense companies with extensive operations such as making sensors for spacecraft.
But buying and selling weapons is part of his business. It’s the tanks that have thrust him into the spotlight in the past few days as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine.
While other Western countries have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one reason above all: it has no tanks left. The last of them – a batch of 50 – was sold to Versluys’ company five years ago.
Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said that was his company’s business model — buying unwanted military equipment in the hope that someone else would get 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 sell spare parts or sell extra tanks,” he said.
But, he added: “Of course, it’s a gamble… We may have to get rid of them tomorrow (or) they may still be there 10 years from now.”
Dedonder said the government has looked into the idea of buying back the tanks to send to Ukraine. But she blasted the quoted prices as “unreasonable” and “extremely high”. The tanks, which sell for 10-15,000 euros, are non-functional but are offered for sale for 500,000 euros, she said.
The spat highlights a dilemma Western governments face in finding more weapons for Ukraine after nearly a year of intense war — weapons they left behind as obsolete are now in high demand, many now in the hands of private companies.
Dedonder did not name Versluis’ company, OIP Land Systems, in his allegations. But Versluys is sure he’s her target. Dedonder declined a request for an interview.
Versluys took the unusual step of disputing the minister’s claims, providing a rare insight into the workings of a business that often prefers to keep a low profile.
Versluys said his firm bought 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were usable. That is, 40,000 euros for 50 tanks or about 60,600 euros for 33.
He said his sale price could range from a few hundred thousand to a million euros, but that would include work to restore the tanks, which he argued would be too expensive.
Replacing the firing control system will cost 350,000 euros per tank and 75,000 euros to replace the asbestos in the engine, he said. Each tank must be evaluated individually.
“We still need to check what their actual status is and what we have to spend on them to make them suitable,” he said.
As part of his public offensive, Versluys gave journalists tours of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It resembles a military hypermarket, with lines of Leopard 1 tanks and dusty green and black camouflage, and shelves stacked with many other military vehicles, spare parts and piles of webbing.
In his sales pitch, Versluys stresses that the refurbished Leopard 1 tanks will be ready for the battlefield within months – much faster than the new models ordered today, which take years to build.
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. The Leopard 2 is lighter and has a different type of main gun. The models in Versluis’ warehouse were last updated in the 1990s.
Yohan Michael, 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 acquiring older Russian tanks and supporting infantry units, especially if they were rebuilt to a higher standard.
If Belgium doesn’t buy the tanks back, another country can buy them for Kiev. Versluys said he had discussed that option with several European governments.
Last year, Britain bought 46 infantry fighting vehicles from his firm for Ukraine and sent engineers working around the clock to restore them, Versluys said.
However, any export of the Leopard 1 would 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.
Versluis is a smooth seller of many military kit names, model numbers and prices. He worked as an engineer in the Belgian military before going into business.
Although he dislikes the label “arms dealer,” he says the arms trade is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s a very civilized market.”
Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Nick McPhee
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