Swedish tanks being sold to Iraq despite government ban

No weapons to Iraq - that was the message from many Swedish politicians in the summer of 2014. The risk of them ending up in the wrong hands were to great; Swedish weapons in the hands of the Islamic State was a nightmare. But at the same time, under the very nose of the Swedish government, 250 Swedish armored infantry carrier were being sold on to Iraq.

Swedish Radio reporter Daniel Öhman and Czech radio reporter Janek Kroupa has the story.

Podradio: Hear the whole report in Swedish

It is 90s. The Cold War is over. The Berlin wall has fallen. Democratic elections are held in country after country in the former Eastern Bloc. The World is scrapping weapons.

In a few years 58.000 tanks, artillery and other weapons are destroyed. And a lot will be for sale.

In a garage somewhere in East Germany stand 400 armored armed fighting vehicles. They are in a bad state. The Germans do not want them. The fact is that no one wants them. Everyone is reducing their arms.

But in Sweden we still fear an attack from the Russians. And we are poorly protected, says General Jan Forsberg.

– The Swedish army’s big Achilles' heel was that we lacked armored vehicles. Twenty infantry brigades instead rode bicycles and rode in trucks.


– Yes, 10 brigades rode bicycles, each brigade 5.000 men.

Isn’t it a bit unsafe to go by bike?

– Yes, and it meant that they were forced to bury themselves in trenches when the enemy came. The East German armored cars complete with cannons and ammunitions was seen as an opportunity.

– The Germans would practically give them away. The government authority FMV was commissioned to buy the vehicles.

But there was a catch, explains Stefan Fjärdhammar who became project manager at FMV for the purchase  

– They did not look so good many of them. They had stood outside for a number of years there was water in some vehicles and they were rusty

What did you think when you saw them?

– It’s going to be a lot of work, I thought.

There was a solution. A company in the Czech Republic offered to refurbish them. The price tag ended up at over 30 million Euros. About 100.000 euro per wagon.

It was considered cheap. The Swedes jumped at the offer.

But while the carriages were being refurbished in the Czech Republic the Swedish politicians adapted their views to the world.

Radio excerpt: “The Army is most affected when the Swedish defense is changing. Brigades throughout the country are closed down.'”

Swedish politicians no longer feared a gigantic attack from the Russians. So when the newly refurbished infantry vehicles cleaned from asbestos, adapted to Swedish environmental and safety regulations, finally came to Sweden in the early 2000s, there were no longer any soldiers to put in them.

– They of course closed down these brigades, so the vehicles ended up in storage right away. It was nothing I could do about it, says Stefan Fjardhammar.

What were you thinking then?

– We had arguably the world's best BMP-1 (armed fighting vehicles), and I thought it was a shame that such a good vehicle was held in storage.

During seven years they were abandoned in a storage facility before it was finally determined that they were to be sold or scrapped.

But that was no easy task. The world market was almost flooded with similar vehicles and the only countries that showed interest were dictatorships and states on the verge of collapse, like Yemen and Iraq.

And these were countries Sweden could not sell to because of the strict rules on arms exports.

Jan Villaume was the FMV officer in the case.

– We did go into some form of marketing and, among other things; we sent the information to embassies abroad. All of them answered that there was no interest.

So the joy was all the greater when a new offer came from the Czech Republic. The state company that a few years earlier refurbished the vehicles now wanted to buy them back.

– They would replace parts of its own stock and use the rest for spare parts.

And where did you get that information?

– It was the company that eventually became our buyers, VOP 26.

They would sell on to the Czech Army?

– Yes, of course, they belonged to the Czech state.

Swedish export control agency ISPS agreed to the sale. Since the Czech Republic is a democracy and a member of the EU there was no impediment.

In 2010 the armed vehicles were finally transferred back to the Czech Republic, where they would be used in the national defense.

– How they would handle it internally was not an issue for us to know.

Did you think they told the truth?

Yes, they seemed serious. We had no reason to distrust them.

But from various sources, we hear that the Swedish armored equipment is not used by the Czech defense. Janek Kroupa from the Czech radio calls up the then head of the Czech army Vlastimil Picek to ask how it really was.

The answer is immediate.

– The Czech army had absolutely no plans to buy any armored vehicles from Sweden. I know this with hundred percent certainty, he says

– I was the head of the arm back then and I know for certain that we had not planned such a thing, says the former army chief Vlastimil Picek

But if the armed vehicles are not used by the Czech defense what have happened to them?

Since the sale of the Swedish vehicles the state owned Czech company has been bought by the private company Excalibur. Scrolling through the company's export catalogs we get a clue to what may have happened to the vehicles.

In the catalog for 2011 - the year after the sale to the Czech Republic – there are pictures of vehicles that resemble the Swedish ones.

Excerpt from the technical description: “Removal of asbestos elements in certain parts of the vehicle and their replacement by harmless material”.

“Installation of a new fire detection and suppression system that does not contain Freon and can be operated manually or automatically”

The description matches the changes that were ordered for the Swedish vehicles. And it becomes even clearer as it states: "Holders of Swedish weapons"

To check if it really is the Swedish vehicles the Czechs are trying to sell, I bring the images to General Jan Forsberg. He who in the early 90s was in charge of buying the vehicles.

After a few images it seems clear that the tanks on the pictures are in fact the Swedish exports.

– It is Swedish! That is a former Swedish vehicle with our reflective patches and our turn signals to. So some of the images in the export directory represent the Swedish vehicles. But that does not automatically mean that the Czechs are planning to sell them, argue Jan Forsberg.

– They can sell their own but not these.

Do you mean they can keep the Swedish ones and sell their own?

– You could imagine something like that. These, I think, will not go to Iraq - or some other country in the third world that does not have the same view of safety as we do.

I have traveled to the Czech Republic to meet with the Chairman of the Czech arms industries Jiri Hynek. It was he who was president of the state company that bought the vehicles from Sweden. And he confirms that Excalibur has specific plans to sell them to a "third country".

– Excalibur wants to sell these BMPs to a third country.

What country?

– Sorry, I cannot say. Because this sensitive business. You have to ask Excalibur. I know it but I cannot say. Because it is a rule in this country it is not possible to say the destination.

– The transport is very sensitive. So we know now that the former Swedish armored cars to be sold they will be exported. But not where

Later I meet Andrei Cirtec, spokesperson for Excalibur Army, the private company that now owns the Swedish vehicles. After a moment's hesitation, he decides to openly tell us where they are going.

– There is business opportunity to export the vehicles to Iraq. We will sell them to Iraq, he says

– It's not just a simple exports, it is also another refurbishment to meet Iraqi conditions.

The vehicles are to be rebuilt to accommodate Iraqi conditions. This means a few years work for a hundred Czechs, he says - a very important opportunity.

– Potentially very important.

So who is the buyer?

– The buyer could be the central government in Iraq.

– It Concerns most of BMPs procured from Sweden, around 250 of them.

According to Andrei Cirtec, exporting the cars was the plan all along.

– Yes, it was a joint project from the beginning.

Already in 2011 the vehicles were in your export catalogue. So you tried to export them as early as that?

– The marketing process must be ongoing. There must be, and was from the beginning, a search for possible business. It cannot be said much clearer than that.

The private export company Excalibur has planned to export the Swedish vehicles from the outset. The state owned company VOP 26 was therefore only an intermediary - a middle man - used to get the Swedes to sell.

– The word middle man is pretty right. But I ask what is wrong about this principle?

– In my view the most important thing is, would this change the outcome of the tender? Was there any condition? Would one company from the Czech Republic be favored over another? I do not think so.

But on that point Andrei Cirtec is wrong. That is clear when I ask the project manager at Swedish FMV Jan Villaume.

Was there any interest from a company called Excalibur at an early stage?  

– We got information from them, that they were interested. We told them we cannot sell to you because you are a private company.

You made it clear also for the Czechs that it was important that it was a state enterprise?

– Absolutely.

What do you think when it turns out this state company is only an intermediary?

– Of course it’s not good. We thought, more or less, that we were selling to the Czech State.

Would you have been able to sell to Iraq?

I think not.

It is true that the Swedish FMV would not be able to sell the vehicles directly to Iraq. The Swedish government does not allow weapons exports to Iraq given the uncertain situation in Iraq and the civil war.

There are also concerns about weapon falling into the wrong hands. That is, instead of being used in the fight against the Islamic State they would be taken by the terrorists themselves.

If plans to sell to Iraq had been known, the Swedish export control authority would have said no. This is confirmed by Jan Erik Lofgren, who is Deputy Director General of the ISP.

– Had it been Iraq we obviously would have considered the question whether we thought it was appropriate that the FMV would be allowed to export to Iraq.

And what would your decision be?

– We have not tried that question but it is quite likely we would have said no. But as the vehicles are now taking a detour via the Czech Republic there is nothing we can do, says Jan Erik Lövgren.

Since the Czech Republic is an EU member and the deal does not involve Swedish-made vehicles, Sweden has no responsibility for what happens to them later on.

However, he has a bit difficult to explain how he arrived at that conclusion. There is nothing in the laws and regulations about this.

And in Germany, who sold the vehicles to Sweden, they make a different interpretation. Before the Czechs resells band wagons to Iraq, they must ask the Germans for permission.

But to make that kind of claim is not the practice in Sweden, says Jan Erik Lövgren. Even though he cannot specify any written account of this practice.

But how is this practice formed if I cannot read anything about it?

– Through the individual decisions we make.

But if I want to read and find support in the regulatory framework?

– I do not know. I’ll have to look into that, Jan Erik Lövgren says as he ends the interview.

If Jan Erik Lövgren’s interpretation of the rules is correct, it means that Sweden is only responsible for the weapons we sell that are manufactured in Sweden. Not the ones we bought and now resell.

At the International Peace Research Institute's SIPRI I talk to Peter Wiezeman. He is one of the world's foremost experts on arms exports issues and he is the very critical to the Swedish interpretation in this case.

– I would expect that Sweden has a responsibility, that Sweden would be the one to decide to whom these armored vehicles are exported to. If they are produced in Sweden or elsewhere is not important.

In his opinion the Swedes should have understood what plans the Czechs had.

– Realistically, I think one would have known that these armored vehicles were unlikely to be for the Czech Republic. The deal should have been examined more carefully.

– It would have been really easy to do.

So there was reason to believe they would sell to countries Sweden does not allow export to?

-- Absolutely. The Czech Republic had sold weapons to various countries, including the same model of armored vehicles, to countries such as Yemen, Ukraine and Equatorial Guinea.

So if they had asked you what would you have said?

I would say: do not sell to one of those companies. My guess is that they will sell them on to some country that Sweden would not sell to them.

But now, everything indicates that 250 of the former Swedish vehicles are on their way to Iraq. The Germans, who must approve the deal, have themselves supplied weapons to Iraq and Jiri Hynek who is chairman of the Czech defense industries, has been told that it is only a matter of time before the Germans give the go-ahead.

– Informal information indicates that the Germans gave agreement to this deal. The Germans will give its consent, I have been told through informal channels, he says.

– I think Sweden has a populist export control system. It's very difficult to get permission to export. But the world needs peace, and peace cannot be protected without weapons, he says.

But was it at least a good deal for Sweden, you may ask? Can we feel satisfied as taxpayers? No one in Sweden wants to talk about the price tag.

However, Jiri Hynek tells us that they bought the vehicles for about 100 million Czech crowns. It’s just over 30 million euros, a bit less than 10.000 euros each.

It’s about the same as the cost for a used car. One-tenth of what the Swedes paid for them.

– A very good price. That is why we had the idea to buy them. I am sure that the profit for this deal is very good for Excalibur.

But Jan Villaume, who handled the sale of the Swedish FMV, is not as satisfied. He had not imagined that the Swedish vehicles would end up in Iraq.

– It is clear that we would not have done a deal directly with Iraq, so it became an indirect deal. It seems to be lawful, but not so good.

– With hindsight, perhaps we should have scrapped them. Then they would no longer have been a problem.

In cooperation with Janek Kroupa, Český rozhlas, Czech public service-radio.

Photo licens: (CC BY 2.0)