An arms dealer who snapped up 50 old Leopard tanks for EUR 750,000 from the Belgian government has been accused of demanding a whopping EUR 25 million to sell them back so they can be used in Ukraine.
But Freddy Versluys, 65, who is the CEO of OIP Sensor Systems (OIP), a private defence contractor that specialises in buying surplus military hardware from governments, refused to confirm the fee that was made public by the country’s defence minister.
But he did say that he needed to charge more than he paid, as his company, which has done business with the British government in the past, always refurbished its vehicles before selling them on.
The company, said to be unique in Belgium, currently has 50 Leopard tanks (the predecessor to the German-made Leopard 2 tank) sitting in a warehouse among some 400 armoured vehicles.
Versluys bought the tanks from the Belgian government at a time when it wanted to be rid of them.
But it seems they now want them back, according to local media after the US and Germany recently agreed to finally supply Ukraine with tanks so that it can better defend itself against Russia.
Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder, 45, has reportedly accused Versluys of wanting to resell the old tanks that he had bought for EUR 15,000 (GBP 13,200) each from the Belgian army for a whopping EUR 500,000 (GBP 440,000) each.
She reportedly stated that buying back Belgium’s Leopard 1 tanks from the private company OIP, which bought them in 2014, would be too expensive and that Belgium will instead try to buy them abroad and send them to Ukraine.
But Versluys has hit back, telling Belgian media: “The prices that the minister is chanting are sheer nonsense.”
He added: “I think our minister is not well informed, because the prices she chants are not correct. That we would sell vehicles without maintenance for half a million is sheer nonsense. I would never send tanks to Ukraine that are out of order. The purchase price that the minister gave is also incorrect. When I buy vehicles, I always pay a lot of money for them.
“Where she got that information from is a mystery to me, because the Belgian government has never submitted a concrete price request to us.
“Not for the Leopard tanks, but also not for other vehicles.”
When asked for a response, Belgian media reported that Minister Dedonder’s spokesperson said that she had been referring to an earlier offer they had received from OIP for artillery vehicles.
According to the Belgian Ministry of Defence, no concrete price offer has yet been requested, but they said that they had received spontaneous offers from OIP.
But Versluys, when pressed by Belgian media on prices, said: “I prefer not to mention prices, but everything depends on the amount of work done on the vehicles.
“If I have to upgrade them to European standards, such a tank will cost about EUR 1 million [GBP 880,000]. If we just upgrade it to a state where it is safe to use, we will easily be around EUR 300,000 to EUR 400,000 [GBP 265,000 to GBP 351,600], depending on the condition of the electronics.”
Versluys said his company is actually split into two, saying: “We actually have two companies: one in which we focus on electro-optics, for both defence and aerospace.
“And one in which we trade in armoured vehicles.”
He explained: “Our business model is simple: when European armies sell their surplus vehicles, we buy them up.
“We then store them in a warehouse until a potential customer shows up who is interested in them. We then refurbish those vehicles or sell them as spare parts.”
And speaking about the Leopard tanks his company currently has stored in a warehouse, Versluys said: “We have a total of 400 military vehicles, including 50 Leopards.
“But if we want to sell a vehicle, we always first need export permits from both the Walloon government and the country of origin.
“So far, the German government has not issued any export licenses for those Leopards, so we have not dealt with that yet.”
He also said: “The purchases we make are therefore very risky. If I can’t sell after 15 to 20 years, I have to scrap my equipment. Three years ago, for example, I had to destroy 170 tonnes of spare parts because they were not sold.”
Versluys also said: “In addition, I have a warehouse of 27,000 square metres. That costs me two million every year. So every year that I don’t sell tanks, I pay about EUR 5,000 [GBP 4,400] in storage per tank.
“Our business model consists of pure gambling. I try to see if those vehicles still have a future and are still used in other countries.”
Asked if he was busy prepping the Leopard tanks for combat, he said that he was not, explaining: “No, I don’t put hundreds of thousands of euros out of my own pocket into tanks if I don’t have a customer to sell to.
“Only when an interested party presents itself and the contract has been signed, do we start repairing the vehicles. Then we can also adapt to customer demand.”
The CEO explained: “To know that, we first have to make a complete analysis of the condition of the vehicles, but we have not done that yet. Patching up the mechanical part is no problem at all. It depends on the electronics. It was last updated in the 1990s.
“If we can get it up and running again, it can go relatively quickly, but if we have to replace them, it will take longer.”
He went on: “For example, if we have to install a new fire control system, it will cost half a million and then we will already be a year further. If the work on the electronics is not too bad, we can start delivering after three months in the best case scenario.”
Versluys has reportedly done business with the United Kingdom in the past. He said: “We have indeed sold quite a number of vehicles to the British Army. Contrary to what some media claimed, this was not about Howitzer tanks, but about various infantry vehicles.
“The collaboration went very smoothly.
“Commissioned by the British government, an English company first placed an order with us to prepare vehicles that could be sent to Ukraine.
“Because we ourselves do not have enough manpower to achieve this in such a short time, the company itself sent 20 people to help us.
“In the end, those vehicles left as new after two months. So we certainly do not trade in scrap.”