TOURNAY, BELGIUM, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Freddy Berthruis doesn’t like being called an arms dealer. However, he has a large warehouse full of used tanks for sale.
Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in a chilly warehouse in eastern Belgium, Welsroyce says he’s part of two defense companies with a wide range of activities, including building sensors for spacecraft. I emphasized that I am the CEO.
But buying and selling weapons is also part of his business. And it’s tanks that have put him in the spotlight in recent days, as he is in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivin Dedonder over the possibility of sending him to Ukraine.
Other Western countries have promised in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel a Russian aggression, but Belgium has not joined the group. It was sold to the Versluys company more than a while ago.
When asked why he bought the tank, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said it was his company’s business model.
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“There are still countries in the world that have these Leopard 1 tanks, so there is always the possibility of selling spare parts or selling additional tanks,” he said.
However, he added:
Dedonder said the government is considering the idea of buying back the tanks and sending them to Ukraine. However, she lashed out at prices that were described as “unreasonable” and “extremely high”. she said.
The controversy highlights the predicament Western governments face as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after nearly a year of bitter war.
Dedonder did not name Versluys’ company, OIP Land Systems. However, Versluys is convinced that he is her target. Dedonder declined an interview request.
Versluys has taken the unusual step of going public to challenge the minister’s claims, offering a rare insight into how businesses often prefer to keep a low profile.
According to Versluys, his company purchased 50 tanks for around 2 million euros and only 33 were in service. This means a unit price of €40,000 for 50 and around €60,600 for 33.
His sale price could range from a few hundred thousand to nearly a million euros, but that would include work to repair the tank, which could be very expensive, he argued.
He said it could cost 350,000 euros per tank to replace the system that controls the gunfire, and 75,000 euros to replace the asbestos in the engine. Each tank had to be evaluated individually.
“We still need to look at their actual situation and what we have to spend to make them suitable,” he said.
As part of an open attack, Versluys gave journalists a tour of his warehouse outside the provincial city of Tournai. It resembles a military hypermarket, lined with rows of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and dozens of other military vehicles, as well as shelves stacked with piles of spare parts and webbing.
Versluys also emphasized in his pitch that the modified Leopard 1 tank could be battlefield-ready in a matter of months. That’s a lot less time than it takes years to produce the new models that are currently on order.
The Leopard 1 is the predecessor to the Leopard 2 tank, which Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed to send to Ukraine last month. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different gun type. The model in the Versluys warehouse was last upgraded in the 1990s.
Johann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said the Leopard 1 tank was not as valuable on the battlefield as its successors.
However, he said it could still be somewhat useful in taking on old Russian tanks or supporting infantry units, especially if re-equipped to a high standard.
If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country may buy them for Kyiv. Versluys said it has discussed that option with several European governments.
Versluys said Britain bought 46 infantry fighting vehicles from his company for Ukraine last year and sent engineers around the clock to fix them.
However, Leopard 1 exports require approval from the company’s home region of Wallonia in Belgium and Berlin. This is because the tank was manufactured by the German company KMW.
Versluys is a smooth salesman, pitching names, model numbers, and prices for numerous military kits. Before entering business, he worked as an engineer in the Belgian Army.
Although he doesn’t like the label “arms dealer”, he said the arms business lives up to its reputation.
Reported by Andrew Gray.Edited by Nick McPhee
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