Belgian firm OIP could restore 20 former Belgian Leopard 1A5 tanks within 4 months for Ukraine

On Monday, February 6, Army Recognition called Freddy Versluys, CEO of the Belgian company OIP Land Systems (formerly Sabiex International, founded in 1967), to enquire about his claim his company could restore 20 former Belgian army Leopard 1A5 tanks in combat condition for Ukraine, should a buyer pay for.
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OIP Land Systems' hangar shelters (among 500 decommissioned armored vehicles) 112 former Austrian army SK-105 Kürassier light tanks (left) and 50 ex-Belgian Leopard 1A5(BE) tanks, among which 17 are turretless (right) (Picture source: screenshot)

When the Belgian army – regrettably and mistakenly – decommissioned and got rid of its Leopard 1A5 tanks in 2014 at EUR 37,000 each, OIP bought 50 of them, among which 17 were turretless, along with a big stock of spare parts including cannons and engines. All these tanks, as well as 70 ex-Belgian M113A1(B) APCs and 38 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, have since been stored dry in a huge hangar located in Tours, near Tournai, Belgium, that has become one of the largest private armament depots in Europe. The hangar also shelters 112 former Austrian army SK-105 Kürassier light tanks and 100 former Italian army VCC-2 (Italian version of the M113). In total, OIP Land Systems has got about 500 armored vehicles in stock.

As for the Leopard 2 tanks that several countries declared being ready to offer to Ukraine, Germany’s approval was mandatory for OPI Land Systems to export its Leopard 1A5s. Now that Berlin has given its green light, selling these tanks is at last possible. The financial risk taken several years ago might pay. But so far, the Belgian government refuses to pay the high price – so far undetermined yet – expected by Freddy Versluys for his Leopards, considering the nearly ‘’scrap-metal’’ price he had paid to buy them. Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder stated she would not pay EUR 500,000 for a tank purchased at EUR 37,000 and that is (very) far from combat condition. But "It makes no sense to talk about prices now because we need to check the condition of each tank and what needs to be updated," Freddy Versluys told The Guardian newspaper: he stressed that it may take months and up to 1 million euros to repair each tank to prepare them for use in Ukraine. "These tanks need a new engine, shock absorbers, fire control system, new radar stations (for the Gepard anti-aircraft tanks). The list can be continued."

On Monday, February 6, Freddy Versluys told Army Recognition he would need four months to get 20 of his Leopards ready for delivery in combat condition, as they are already in good condition, at the opposite of what is currently spread in the press, he says. OIP Land Systems has got an impressive stock of spare parts but not radars for its Gepards, as OIP (Optique et Instruments de Précision) – the mother company founded in 1919 but controlled by Elbit Systems since 2013 – is not involved in this activity.

Besides the Leopards, Freddy Versluys already sold 46 of his 70 M113A1Bs  to the United Kingdom which offered them to Ukraine. Some pictures that appeared in January 2023 from the battlefield in Donbas prove they are already in action.

Unfortunately for Freddy Versluys, OIP Land Systems is still unable to sell its 112 ex-Austrian SK-105 light tanks because Vienna has not (yet) approved their export. "It's a big shame because they are in good condition and easy to prepare," Versluis told The Guardian.

Commenting about his business, Freddy Versluys said: "We bought these tanks when no one needed them. Now I would really like to see them in Ukraine."

Belgian firm OIP could restore 20 former Belgian Leopard 1A5 tanks within 4 months for Ukraine 925 002
Belgian army Leopard 1A5 Main Battle Tank before decommissioning in 2014 (Picture source: Army Recognition)

Belgian army Leopard 1A5(BE) tank (decommissioned in 2014)

After evaluating a number of tanks, Belgium placed its first order of Leopard 1 tanks in 1967, becoming the first NATO country (apart from Germany) to order this tank. The first production Leopard 1 for Belgium was completed in February 1968. The Belgian vehicles had their German-made 7.62 mm MG3 machine guns replaced by FN MAG 7.62 mm, and other minor stowage changes were made. From 1975, the tanks were fitted with stowage boxes similar to those on the Dutch Leopards, a thermal sleeve and the HR Textron Incorporated stabilization system for the main gun. The tanks were also fitted with the SABCA FCS (fire control system) which was later adopted by Australia and Canada.

The SABCA FCS basically consists of an optical sight with an integrated laser range finder, seven sensors and an analogue computer. The computer determines the angles between the line of sight and the gun axis from the information it receives about the range of the target and other variables. The output of the computer is transformed, through a 2º of freedom gimballed mirror system, with torque DC motor drives and a compensated resolver feedback network, into a displacement of cross-hairs in the gunner's sight and to the gun via the gun stabilization. The cross-hairs are brought back onto the target when the gun is automatically laid with the correct target elevation (or superelevation) and azimuth. The sensors measure ambient temperature, air pressure, the temperature in the ammunition stowage area, gun wear, crosswind, trunnion cant and rate of turret traverse.

Following trials with a prototype Leopard 1 fitted with the German Blohm&Voss add-on armor, as already installed on German and Dutch Leopard 1 MBTs, the Belgian Army refitted 132 tanks with this system. Conversion work was carried out at the Rocourt Arsenal in Belgium.

Early in 1987, the Belgian MoD awarded SABCA and OIP a BEF 177 million (approx. EUR 4.4 Mn) contract for the development of a modification kit for the fire-control system, incorporating a thermal imaging system, which was then installed in the 132 Leopard 1 MBTs of the Belgian Army originally delivered by Krauss-Maffei from 1968. SABCA and OIP were jointly responsible for the integration and factory test of the new sight (under the leadership of OIP) and the integration and factory test of the new complete TFCS (under the leadership of SABCA).

The installation of the new fire-control system provides the Leopard 1 with a high-performance thermal imaging device in a day/night sight with an integrated laser range finder. The programme was divided into four phases. Phase 1 covered the system definition and was completed in mid-1986. Phase 2 covered development and evaluation, Phase 3 covered industrialization and preseries production and Phase 4 covered series production.

Under Phase 2, the integration and factory test of the sight was carried out in October 1987 with the integrated and factory-tested TFCS being handed over to the Belgian MoD at the end of April 1988 and final MoD review taking place in late July 1988. The first prototype of a modernized Leopard 1 was delivered to the Belgian army on 6 October 1988.

The Phase 3 industrialization phase was completed by mid-1989 with five preproduction systems completed by the end of 1990 and production systems being delivered through to 1997.

OIP-Instrubel was created by Oldelft of the Netherlands in order to take over the former OIP-Optics which went bankrupt in 1987.

The Belgian Army decided to upgrade 132 Leopard 1 MBTs to the Leopard 1A5(BE) standard. The remaining 202 tanks were disposed of by sale. Of these, 87 were sold to Brazil with the first deliveries taking place late in 1997.

One of the Leopard 1A5(BE)s was fitted with additional armor on the turret and gun shield, becoming became known as the Leopard 1A6(BE). This "prototype" did not lead to serial modification of the other tanks.