Belgian buyer of Europe’s spare tanks hopes they see action in Ukraine

On the outskirts of Tournai, a sleepy medieval town in the gentle, Brueghelian landscape of the French-speaking part of Belgium, there is an unassuming grey hangar, barely hidden behind a fence. Inside are rows upon rows of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other heavy fighting vehicles – some of the same types of weapons that top Ukraine’s military wishlist.

The hangar belongs to the Belgium defence company OIP and contains one of the biggest privately owned reserves of weapons in Europe. “Many of these tanks have been sitting here for years. Hopefully, now it is the time they finally see some action in Ukraine,” said Freddy Versluys, the head of OIP, as he toured the hangar.

“Here we have the 50 Leopard 1s,” he said, pointing. “We also have 38 German Gepard tanks, 112 Austrian SK-105 light tanks, and 100 Italian VCC2 and 70 M113 armour carriers.”

In total, his firm has about 500 armoured vehicles in stock, “probably the widest private arsenal of tanks in Europe,” according to Versluys, who has a long history in the military sector.

After completing his military service, Versluys spent nine years working for the Belgian army in a division that was responsible for the quality control of tanks and ammunition. In 1989 he joined OIP, a firm that specialised in optical equipment, where he eventually set up OIP Land Systems, a subsidiary company that bought up old military equipment, banking that one day there would be a demand for it again.

“Everything we do is legal here, we go by the books and have all the licences needed,” he said, shrugging at the “arms dealer” label.

Walking Tournai’s narrow, cobblestoned back streets and boulevards, it is hard to imagine that such weapons are only a 15-minute walk away. Versluys bought up most of his current stock over the last two decades, acquiring the tanks directly from European governments cutting their defence spending.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, European nations have sought to replace some of the heavy and costly-to-maintain cold war-era tanks with the lighter vehicles needed for shorter peacekeeping missions around the world. The defence cuts were accelerated by the 2008 economic crisis, and by 2014, the year Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, European military spending had reached a historic low.

In one of Versluys’s bigger deals, he bought 50 Leopard 1 tanks that the Belgian government decommissioned in 2014 for €37,000 each (about £29,600). “It was the market price because of the geopolitical situation at the time,” he said. “But buying those decommissioned tanks was a massive gamble for us. A big, big risk.”

The Leopard 1, which is from the 1960s, is lighter and less powerful than the newer Leopard 2 tanks, 14 of which Germany agreed last week to send to Ukraine, but German officials have said they would still be able to compete with a Russian battle tank.

For years, Versluys was unable to sell the Leopard 1s and Gepards as German law requires approval from Berlin for the re-export of its military equipment. But the chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision last week on the Leopard 2s, which opened the floodgates for other European countries to follow suit, has opened up new possibilities.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent unprecedented western military support to Kyiv, had already led Versluys to sell 46 M113 light armoured vehicles to the UK, which then transferred them to Ukraine as part of a military package. Belgium, which has no tanks left in its defence stock, has explored the possibility of buying back the Leopard 1s it sold to Versluys.

Ludivine Dedonder, Belgium’s minister of defence, last week said it had opened talks with OIP but accused the firm of trying to make a “huge profit” from the sale. “The talks are still on, but I’m not going to pay half a million for a tank that’s nowhere near combat-ready,” Dedonder told Belgian media.

Versluys denied that the Belgian government had approached him, and said it was hard to estimate the price for which he would sell the tanks. “There is no point talking about prices right now because we need to check the condition of each tank and what needs to be updated,” he said.

He stressed that it could take months and up to €1m in renovation costs for each tank to get them ready for use in Ukraine. “These guys need a new engine, shock absorbers, the latest radar technology – the list goes on.”

Versluys said he had recently been approached by Ukraine’s state arms exporter and importer about the possibility of buying his tanks. The UK Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), a British-led group that consists of 10 northern European states, has also been in touch since Germany’s announcement about its Leopards, he said. “We are open to all options,” Versluys said. “But the price has to be fair, we are not a charity.”

And while Germany has lifted its ban on exporting Leopards, other hurdles remain. OIP is still unable to sell its large stock of Austrian-made SK-105 light tanks, with Vienna not approving the exports. “It is a big shame because they are in good condition and can be prepared easily,” he said.

There has been debate in Brussels about whether it was shortsighted to decommission its tanks. “In hindsight, it is a bit too simple to say that getting rid of tanks was a mistake,” said Joe Coelmont, a senior fellow at the Royal Higher Institute for Defence and former brigadier in the Belgian army. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was simply unimaginable that there would be a second world war-style battle in Europe. With the government defence budget cuts, the army had to make decisions, and cutting older, expensive tanks was the most logical choice.”

At the hangar, Versluys dismissed accusations made by some in Belgium that he was trying to profit from the war. “Everyone thinks we are making lots of money, but look around you, so far the hangar is full,” he said.

“We took in these tanks when no one wanted them. Now, I would very much like to see them in Ukraine.”