Denmark will donate to Ukraine a truck-mounted launcher for Harpoon anti-ship missiles, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Monday.
The Danish government pledged the quad Harpoon launcher, which has been in storage since at least 2003, during a virtual meeting of the so-called Ukraine Defense Contact Group earlier the same day.
The Contact Group includes more than 40 ministers and chiefs of defense including Austin and Ukrainian minister of defense Oleksii Reznikov. It’s a forum for Reznikov to express his country’s military needs as its wider war with Russia enters its fourth month.
“I’m especially grateful to Denmark, which announced today that it will provide a Harpoon launcher and missiles to help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said.
It’s not hard to guess what the Ukrainians will do with the launcher. Send it to Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic port on the country’s western Black Sea coast, in order to protect the port from attack by the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Not only could the Harpoon safeguard Odesa, through which three-quarters of Ukraine’s pre-war trade flowed—it also could free up some of the ground forces currently defending Odesa against a possible landing by the Black Sea Fleet’s battered amphibious flotilla.
Ukrainian commanders urgently need those forces farther east along the main line of contact with the Russian army.
The ex-Danish Harpoon launcher should be able to plug into Ukraine’s existing coastal-defense system. After scuttling the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy in order to keep her from falling into Russian hands, the Ukrainian navy no longer has any large warships.
But the navy does have locally-made Neptune anti-ship missiles plus missile-armed TB-2 drones—and has used them to devastating effect. The Ukrainians holed the Black Sea Fleet cruiser Moskva with a pair of Neptune anti-ship missiles on April 14, eventually sinking her and depriving the Black Sea Fleet of its only ship with long-range air-defenses.
Satellite-controlled TB-2s firing 10-mile-range MAM laser-guided missiles also have struck four of the Russians’ eight Raptor-class patrol boats, whose main role lately has been to shepherd landing craft to the Russian garrison on Snake Island, which sits astride the sea lane to Odesa.
There aren’t many vessels left that can, or will, escort the landing craft. So of course the TB-2s have plinked some of the undefended craft, too.
Turkey controls the Bosphorous Strait, the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and thus the open ocean. Ankara is a strong backer of Ukraine’s independence—remember, the TB-2 is a Turkish product—and has not allowed the Russian navy to send in fresh ships to make good the Black Sea Fleet’s losses.
In the aftermath of Moskva’s sinking, the Russians pulled their two remaining Black Sea surface combatants—the frigates Admiral Grigorovich and Admiral Essen—beyond range of the shore-based Neptune. Eighty miles or so.
Once the Harpoon launcher arrives, the frigates might have to pull back even farther. Some versions of the sea-hugging, subsonic Harpoon missile—with its radar seeker and 500-pound warhead—can travel a hundred miles or more.
An anti-ship missile is only as good as its targeting, of course. A Harpoon needs to know where to go before it switches on its seeker.
The Ukrainian navy has options. The TB-2s, of course. But also ground radars. The United States and its NATO allies also have been sharing intelligence with Ukraine. Alliance drones and manned surveillance aircraft have been flying over the Black Sea nearly non-stop since the Russians attacked on Feb. 23.
After Moskva sank, the U.K. Defense Ministry concluded a Russian landing in Odesa wasn’t feasible. An amphibious assault will be even less feasible with a Harpoon launcher guarding the city.
That’s good news for the Ukrainian army, which has been keeping a fresh tank brigade in Odesa, just in case. Overlapping anti-ship defenses finally could free up the 5th Tank Brigade and its 100 T-72 tanks to roll east and join the fight around Russian-occupied Kherson—or farther east to Donbas, where the Russians have been advancing in recent days.
It’s unclear when the Danes plan to send the Harpoon launcher. Sooner would be better for Ukraine.