The United States and its allies are working to provide Ukraine with a mix of old and new truck-mounted launchers firing Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles.
It could take a few months to build the launchers, source the missiles, train Ukrainian operators and deploy the overall system.
Once it’s in place, however, Ukrainian forces should be able to target any Russian vessel sailing within a hundred miles of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Provided, of course, the Ukrainians can detect the ship with their radars and drones.
Ukraine went to war with a nominal anti-ship capability. Kyiv in 2013 launched development of a new truck-launched anti-ship cruise missile, the Neptune, which combines the booster of an anti-air missile with a turbojet for cruising. The one-ton missile has a radar seeker head, a 330-pound warhead and a range of around 60 miles.
The Ukrainian navy expected to induct, this spring, its first full division of Neptunes with four four-round launchers and 72 missiles. The Russian invasion in late February interrupted that plan.
It’s unclear how many Neptunes and launchers the navy had on hand as Russian tanks rolled deeper in Ukraine and Russian warships sailed toward the Ukrainian coast. Perhaps just one launcher—the prototype.
In any event, the Ukrainians put their missiles to good use. On April 13, two Neptunes holed the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the most powerful air-defense ship in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
While there’s evidence a Ukrainian missile recently sank the Russian tugboat Spasatel Vasily Bekh, there haven’t been any additional confirmed Neptune strikes in the two months since Moskva’s sinking, perhaps implying the Ukrainians have very few Neptunes left.
That could help to explain the urgency of a follow-on missile deal. In late May, the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Danish government would donate to Ukraine a single, four-round Harpoon launcher. The launcher has been in storage since the Danish military retired it in 2003.
Three weeks later on Wednesday, the Pentagon sweetened the deal with an additional two truck-mounted Harpoon systems. “The U.S. will be providing the launchers,” an unnamed Defense Department official told reporters. “I’ll say any Harpoon missiles will be coming from allies and partners.”
The U.S. military has hundreds of Harpoons in its arsenal, but no ground launchers for the missiles. But Harpoon-builder Boeing offers modern truck platforms for the so-called “Harpoon Coastal Defense System” it sells. Taiwan is buying a hundred of the systems to harden its own coast against possible Chinese attack.
A second unnamed defense official said it would take several months to get the Harpoons to the Ukrainian front. “When I talk timeline, the timeline is for everything, right? So, that’s from start to finish,” the official said. “From execution of contract to building the systems to delivering the systems to including the training and all the pieces that go along with operating a package that has kind of more technology in it than we’ve been providing in some of the capabilities to date.”
There are several unanswered questions. It’s unclear exactly which model of the 1,500-pound Harpoon Ukraine is getting. Denmark’s old launchers fired Block I Harpoons with radar seekers, 500-pound warheads and enough fuel to travel around 70 miles.
But the Block I no longer is in production. The latest Block IIs Boeing currently is building have better seekers and greater range—100 miles or more.
It’s possible the “allies and partners” providing Ukraine’s Harpoons plan to pull older missiles out of storage: aging Block Is or older Block IIs. Basically, the older the missile is, the shorter its range is.
In any event, even the oldest Harpoon should have longer legs than the Neptune. Perhaps more importantly, Ukraine should be able to re-up on missiles every few months—and maintain the threat to Russian ships.
The Ukrainians expect big things of their new missiles. “Together with our Neptunes, the Harpoons are already forcing the enemy fleet to keep the distance to avoid the fate of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva,” Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov stated last week.