On the outskirts of the Belgian city of Tournai, there is a gray warehouse owned by the private defense company OIP, which houses about 500 tanks and armor.
“We have 50 Leopard 1s here,” said Freddy Versluys, head of the Belgian private defense company OIP. “We also have 38 German Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, 112 Austrian SK-105 light tanks, 100 VCC2 and 70 Italian M113 tanks.”
Versluys said this is probably the largest private tank warehouse in Europe, with a total of about 500 tanks and armor. “Many of them have been in storage for years. Hopefully now is the time for them to participate in some operations in Ukraine,” Mr. Versluys said.
After completing his military service, Mr. Versluys worked for 9 years at the agency responsible for quality control of tanks and ammunition of the Belgian army. In 1989, Mr. Versluys joined OIP, a company specializing in optical equipment, and then established a subsidiary, OIP Land Systems, which specializes in buying old military equipment to resell if the market needs it.
“Everything we do here is legal. We have the books and all the necessary permits,” Mr. Versluys said. The existing tanks in OIP’s inventory were purchased directly by Mr. Versluys from European countries that have implemented a policy of cutting defense spending over the past two decades.
One of Versluys’ big deals was the acquisition of 50 Leopard 1s that the Belgian military scrapped in 2014 for more than $40,000 each. “It was the market price due to the geopolitical situation at the time,” Mr Versluys said. “Acquisition of marginalized tanks is our big gamble, carries a very high risk.”
The Leopard 1 main battle tank, developed by Porsche in the 1960s, was lighter in weight and less powerful than the Leopard 2, which Germany agreed to deliver 14 to Ukraine. However, many German officials believe that the Leopard 1 can still confront the Russian main tank.
Mr. Versluys for many years could not resell Leopard 1 tanks and Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns because he needed German approval to re-export equipment manufactured by this country. Germany’s approval of the Leopard 2 tank aid to Ukraine last week opened up new opportunities for Versluys and the OIP company.
The West’s unprecedented military support to Ukraine after Russia launched a military operation helped Versluys sell 46 M113 armored vehicles to Britain. This armor was then transferred to Ukraine by Britain in a military support package.
The Belgian army no longer has any tanks in service and is studying the possibility of buying the Leopard 1 tanks that were sold to Mr. Versluys to aid Ukraine.
Belgium’s Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder said last week that it was in talks with the OIP, but said that the business was looking to make huge profits from the deal. “Negotiations are ongoing, but I would not pay half a million dollars for a tank that is not ready for battle,” Dedonder said.
Mr. Versluys denied that the Belgian government had approached the company and said it was difficult to estimate the selling price of the Leopard 1 tanks owned by OIP. “It’s useless to talk about the price, because we need to check the condition of each tank and what needs to be updated,” Versluys said.
According to him, it can take several months to renovate the Leopard 1 tank at a cost of more than a million dollars each to make them ready for war in Ukraine. “These tanks need new engines, shock absorbers, radar with the latest technology and more,” said Versluys.
The director of the OIP said that the Ukrainian state arms import and export company recently approached him to inquire about the possibility of buying tanks. The Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a group of 10 countries led by Britain, also contacted the OIP after Germany approved the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
“We are open to any option, but the price must be fair, we are not a charity,” Mr Versluys said.
Although Germany has approved the shipment of the Leopard 2 to Ukraine, paving the way for the re-export of other German-made tank models such as the Leopard 1, OIP still faces another hurdle for some of the weapons in its inventory.
OIP could not sell more than 110 SK-105 light tanks made by Austria because the country did not approve their re-export. “It’s a pity they are in good condition,” Mr Versluys said.
Belgian officials have debated whether the country’s full-tank ban was a short-sighted decision. Joe Coelmont, an expert at the Royal Belgian Institute for Advanced Defense, said it was “a bit too simplistic to say that the tank type is wrong”.
“After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was difficult to imagine that a large-scale war would break out in Europe. When the Belgian government cut the defense budget, the army had to decide on the removal of the tanks. old and expensive, because that is the most reasonable option,” said Mr. Coelmont.
Mr. Versluys denied that his company was profiting from the war. “Everybody thinks we’re making a lot of money, but look, this warehouse is full,” Mr Versluys said. “We bought these tanks when nobody wanted them, and now I really want them to appear in Ukraine.”
Nguyen Tien (Theo Guardian)