Belgian arms dealer tangles with minister over tanks for Ukraine
By Andrew Grey
TOURNAI, Belgium (Reuters) – Freddy Versluys doesn’t wish to be referred to as an arms vendor. However he does have a giant warehouse stuffed with second-hand tanks on the market.
Standing subsequent to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and different navy autos within the chilly warehouse in japanese Belgium, Versluys careworn he’s the CEO of two defence firms with a broad vary of actions, equivalent to making sensors for spacecraft.
However shopping for and promoting weapons is a part of his enterprise too. And it’s the tanks which have introduced him into the highlight over the previous few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the potential of sending them to Ukraine.
Whereas different Western nations have pledged in latest weeks to ship predominant battle tanks to assist Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one motive above all: It doesn’t have any tanks left. It bought the final of them – a batch of fifty – to Versluys’s firm greater than 5 years in the past.
Requested why he purchased the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, mentioned that was his firm’s enterprise mannequin – it purchased undesirable navy tools within the hope that another person would need it in future.
“There are nonetheless international locations on the earth who’ve these Leopard 1 tanks. So there’s at all times a chance both to promote spare components or to promote extra tanks,” he mentioned.
However, he added: “After all, it is a gamble… Possibly tomorrow we should scrap them (or) 10 years later they’ll nonetheless be there.”
Dedonder has mentioned the federal government has explored the thought of shopping for again tanks to ship them to Ukraine. However she has blasted the costs quoted as “unreasonable” and “extraordinarily excessive”. Tanks bought for 10-15,000 euros every are being supplied on the market at 500,000 euros, regardless of not being operational, she has mentioned.
The spat highlights a predicament confronted by Western governments as they scramble to search out extra weapons for Ukraine after nearly a yr of intense warfare – arms they discarded as out of date are actually in excessive demand, and lots of are actually within the palms of personal firms.
Dedonder hasn’t named Versluys’s firm, OIP Land Methods, in her accusations. However Versluys is certain he’s her goal. Dedonder declined a request for an interview.
Versluys has taken the weird step of going public to dispute the minister’s assertions, providing a uncommon perception into the workings of a enterprise that always prefers to maintain a low profile.
Versluys mentioned his agency purchased the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and solely 33 have been useable. That might imply a unit worth of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33.
He mentioned his promoting worth might vary wherever from a number of hundred thousand to shut to 1,000,000 euros however that would come with work to refit the tanks, which he insisted may very well be extremely costly.
Changing the system that controls the gunfire might price 350,000 euros per tank, changing asbestos within the engine might price 75,000 euros, he mentioned. Every tank needed to be assessed individually.
“We nonetheless have to have a look at what’s their precise standing and what now we have to spend on them to make them appropriate,” he mentioned.
As a part of his public offensive, Versluys has given journalists excursions of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial city of Tournai. It resembles a navy hypermarket, crammed with traces of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty inexperienced and black camouflage and scores of different navy autos, together with cabinets stacked with spare components and piles of webbing.
In his gross sales pitch, Versluys additionally emphasises that refitted Leopard 1 tanks may very well be battlefield-ready in months – far more rapidly than new fashions ordered right this moment, which can take years to supply.
The Leopard 1 is the predecessor of the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and different international locations agreed final month to ship to Ukraine. It’s lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a special kind of predominant gun. The fashions in Versluys’s warehouse have been final upgraded within the Nineteen Nineties.
Yohann Michel, an analyst on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research suppose tank, mentioned Leopard 1 tanks wouldn’t be as priceless on the battlefield as their successors.
However, he mentioned, they might nonetheless be of some use in taking over older Russian tanks and in supporting infantry models, notably in the event that they have been refitted to a excessive commonplace.
If Belgium doesn’t purchase again the tanks, one other nation might buy them for Kyiv. Versluys mentioned he had held discussions with a number of European governments about that choice.
Final yr, Britain purchased 46 infantry combating autos from his agency for Ukraine and despatched out engineers who labored around the clock to refit them, Versluys mentioned.
Nonetheless, any export of Leopard 1s would require the approval from the Belgian area of Wallonia, the place the corporate relies, and from Berlin, because the tanks have been made by German agency KMW.
Versluys is a easy salesman, reeling off names, mannequin numbers and costs of quite a few bits of navy equipment. He labored as an engineer within the Belgian navy earlier than going into enterprise.
Whereas he doesn’t just like the “arms vendor” label, he mentioned the weapons enterprise is healthier than its fame: “Opposite to what individuals say, it’s fairly a civilised market.”
(Reporting by Andrew Grey; Enhancing by Nick Macfie)