Denmark Pledges to Provide Ukraine With Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles

Harpoon coastal defense missile launcher circa 2002 (Marinens Biblioteks Arkiv)

Published May 23, 2022 4:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of Denmark has pledged to provide Ukraine with one Harpoon coastal defense missile system, giving defenders in Odesa enough range to hold Russian forces at risk over most of the northwestern Black Sea. Following press reports that the U.S. is seeking ways to provide Ukraine with the Harpoon, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed the news in a statement at the Pentagon on Monday. 

Denmark is a former operator of Harpoon Block II coastal defense missile batteries. The venerable Harpoon is a 50-year-old subsonic antiship missile, and though dated, it has been upgraded over the years and is still in service with many navies around the world.  It is a subsonic air-breathing cruise missile with a top speed of about 460 knots and a range of about 70 nautical miles. Denmark's version came equipped with inertial guidance and GPS navigation, and it was fitted with the Boeing Advanced Harpoon Weapon Control System (AHWCS). This upgrade gives it land-attack capabilities to supplement its primary anti-ship role. 

Harpoon Block II has enough range to reach from Odesa to Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast, or from the Ukrainian-Romanian border to Russian-occupied Snake Island, the centerpoint of recent naval engagements in the Black Sea. While it could be used to defend sea lines of communication to and from Odesa, the missile's published range would not be enough to reach Crimea or the Kerch Strait Bridge from current Ukrainian-held territory.

Harpoon Block II is still in full-rate production, and Boeing holds orders to deliver missiles under foreign military sales contracts through 2026. Boeing has also manufactured an upgrade kit for the U.S. Navy that improves missile guidance and extends Harpoon Block II's range out to 130 nautical miles, about twice the range of the original. 

Ukraine has a pressing need to end the Russian blockade of its seaports: Ukraine's grain silos are full, and there will be nowhere to store the next harvest if the existing stocks can't be shipped to market. Meanwhile, the nations that depend heavily on Ukrainian grain - like Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen - are experiencing skyrocketing prices, which fall heaviest on populations that can least afford it. 41 of the world's least-developed countries source a third of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia, according to the UN. 

"[The blockade] is devastating. We are running out of ways to describe what might actually happen," said Tomson Phiri, spokesperson for the World Food Programme, in a recent interview with CNN. "The war in Ukraine is wreaking havoc at home and abroad. We have a major food crisis on our hands . . . Most of the deepest crises are, unfortunately, in Africa."

Naval escort plans

Multiple plans to free up Ukraine's ports have been proposed, primarily naval escort missions orchestrated by NATO or by the UN. On Monday, the government of Lithuania introduced a proposal for a third way: naval escorts provided by a "coalition of the willing," including nations that are affected by the food crisis. UK foreign minister Liz Truss endorsed the plan shortly after its announcement and said that the Royal Navy could potentially contribute.

The coalition could incorporate support from developing nations in the Middle East and Africa, which have not taken a side but have a profound interest in secure shipments of grain. Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, gave Egypt as an example of a neutral nation with the capacity and potential motivation to participate in an escort mission. Egypt - the most-equipped naval power in the Middle East and Africa - is currently experiencing consumer price inflation of more than 13 percent, due in part to soaring grain prices.

"It is imperative that we show vulnerable countries we are prepared to take the steps that are needed to feed the world," Landsbergis told The Guardian. "In this endeavor military ships or planes or both would be used to ensure that the grain supplies can leave Odesa safely and reach the Bosporus without Russian interference. We would need a coalition of the willing – countries with significant naval power to protect the shipping lanes, and countries that are affected by this."

Russian forces attacked multiple merchant vessels in the opening weeks of the invasion, and the Ukrainian Navy claims that Russian occupiers continue to issue threats to merchant shipping in the vicinity of Snake Island.