Belgian buyer of European spare tanks hopes to see action in Ukraine | Belgium

Belgian purchaser of European spare tanks hopes to see motion in Ukraine | Belgium

OOn the outskirts of Tournai, a sleepy medieval city within the delicate, Brueghelian countryside of the French-speaking a part of Belgium, sits an not easily seen grey hangar, barely hidden behind a fence. Inside are rows upon rows of German Leopard 1 tanks and different heavy fight autos — among the similar kinds of weapons that high Ukraine’s army want listing.

The hangar belongs to Belgium protection firm OIP and comprises one of many largest privately owned weapons stockpiles in Europe. “Many of those tanks have been sitting right here for years. Hopefully now’s the time for them to lastly see some motion in Ukraine,” mentioned Freddy Versluys, head of the OIP, throughout a tour of the hangar.

“We have now 50 Leopard 1s right here,” he mentioned, pointing. “We even have 38 German Gepard tanks, 112 Austrian SK-105 gentle tanks and 100 Italian VCC2 tanks and 70 M113s.

In whole, his firm has about 500 armored autos in inventory, “most likely the widest personal tank arsenal in Europe”, in line with Versluys, who has an extended historical past within the army sector.

After finishing his army service, Versluys spent 9 years working for the Belgian Military in a division chargeable for the standard management of tanks and ammunition. In 1989 he joined OIP, which specialised in optical gear, the place he finally based a subsidiary, OIP Land Programs, which purchased up outdated army gear, banking that at some point it will be in demand once more.

“All the things we do right here is authorized, we go by the books and we’ve got all the mandatory licenses,” he mentioned, shrugging off the “arms supplier” label.

Hardware marked with the Austrian flag in the OIP hangar
{Hardware} marked with the Austrian flag within the OIP hangar. Photograph: Pjotr ​​Sauer/The Guardian

Strolling the slender, cobbled again streets and boulevards of Tournai, it is exhausting to think about that such weapons are solely a 15-minute stroll away. Over the previous twenty years, Versluys has purchased most of its present inventory, buying tanks straight from European governments which have minimize their protection spending.

For the reason that fall of the Soviet Union, European nations have sought to exchange some heavy and dear Chilly Struggle-era tanks with lighter autos wanted for shorter peacekeeping missions all over the world. Protection cuts have been precipitated by the financial disaster of 2008, and by 2014, when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, European army spending had reached an all-time low.

In one of many bigger offers, Versluys purchased 50 Leopard 1 tanks, decommissioned by the Belgian authorities in 2014, for €37,000 (about £29,600) every. “It was a market worth due to the geopolitical state of affairs on the time,” he mentioned. “However shopping for these scrap tanks was an enormous gamble for us. An enormous, huge threat.”

The Leopard 1, which dates from the Nineteen Sixties, is lighter and fewer highly effective than the newer Leopard 2 tanks, 14 of that are Germany he agreed to ship to Ukraine final week, however German officers mentioned they might nonetheless be capable of compete with the Russian battle tank.

For years, Versluys couldn’t promote Leopard 1s and Gepardas as a result of German legislation required Berlin’s approval for the re-export of its army gear. However Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s resolution final week on the Leopard 2, which opened the floodgates for different European nations to comply with swimsuit, opened up new prospects.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent unprecedented Western army help for Kiev has already led Versluys to promote 46 M113 gentle armored autos to the UK, which then transferred them to Ukraine as a part of a army package deal. Belgium, which has no tanks in its protection stock, has explored the opportunity of shopping for again the Leopard 1s bought by Versluys.

Tank in hangar
“We’re open to all choices, however the worth must be truthful,” says Versluys. Photograph: Pjotr ​​Sauer/The Guardian

Ludivine Dedonder, Belgium’s protection minister, mentioned final week that she had opened talks with OIP however accused the agency of making an attempt to make a “big revenue” from the sale. “Negotiations are nonetheless ongoing, however I am not going to pay half 1,000,000 for a tank that’s nowhere close to prepared for fight,” Dedonder instructed Belgian media.

Versluys denied that he had been approached by the Belgian authorities and mentioned it was tough to estimate the value at which he would promote the tanks. “There is no such thing as a level speaking about costs now as a result of we’ve got to verify the standing of every tank and what must be up to date,” he mentioned.

He confused that it might take months and renovation prices of as much as €1 million for every tank earlier than it’s prepared to be used in Ukraine. “These guys want a brand new engine, mufflers, the most recent radar know-how – the listing goes on.

Versluys mentioned he was not too long ago approached by a Ukrainian state arms exporter and importer about the opportunity of shopping for again his tanks. The UK’s Joint Expeditionary Pressure (JEF), a British group made up of 10 northern European nations, has additionally been involved since Germany introduced its Leopards, he mentioned. “We’re open to all prospects,” Versluys mentioned. “However the worth must be truthful, we’re not a charity.

And whereas Germany has lifted its ban on leopard exports, different obstacles stay. The OIP continues to be unable to promote its giant stockpile of Austrian-made SK-105 gentle tanks, with Vienna not approving exports. “It is an excellent disgrace as a result of they’re in good situation and straightforward to arrange,” he mentioned.

There was a debate in Brussels about whether or not it was short-sighted to decommission its tanks. “In hindsight, it is too easy to say that eliminating the tanks was a mistake,” mentioned Joe Coelmont, a senior fellow on the Royal Excessive Protection Institute and a former brigadier basic within the Belgian military. “After the autumn of the Soviet Union, it was merely unimaginable {that a} World Struggle II-style battle would happen in Europe. With authorities cuts within the protection price range, the army needed to make selections and lowering the variety of older, costly tanks was probably the most logical selection.

Within the hangar, Versluys rejected accusations made by some in Belgium that he was making an attempt to revenue from the warfare. “Everyone thinks we’re making some huge cash, however go searching, the hangar is full proper now,” he mentioned.

“We took these tanks when nobody wished them. Now I’d very very similar to to see them in Ukraine.”


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