Denmark’s plan to send Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a launcher to Ukraine would provide Kyiv with an advanced weapon that can poke a hole in Russia’s naval blockade, potentially allowing for the resumption of grain exports via the Black Sea.
The United States developed Harpoon missiles during the Cold War. They are highly versatile and can be fired from surface ships, submarines, aircraft and land-based launch vehicles. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not specify what variant Copenhagen had offered to send, but a 2013 guide to the missile system by manufacturer Boeing states that coastal defense systems use the land-based option.
Austin praised Denmark for the Harpoon contribution after a Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting on Monday. Copenhagen has not publicly commented on the arms shipment, and the Danish Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Harpoons — which can cost upward of $1 million per unit — are precision-guided armaments that require GPS coordinates to strike. Kyiv could use intelligence provided by NATO assets for targeting, said Alexey Muraviev, an expert on the Russian military at Australia’s Curtin University.
There is precedent for such assistance. Washington provided Kyiv with maritime intelligence that helped it sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, Moskva, in April, which created “more than a huge problem” for Moscow, he said.
Malcolm Nance, a Navy veteran and former MSNBC analyst who volunteered to fight in Ukraine’s military last month, said on Twitter that Ukraine could use its Turkish-designed Bayraktar TB2 drones to support targeting.
Some experts suggested that Russia might see such moves as escalation by NATO, but Nance played down that risk. “What are they gonna do. Invade Ukraine?” he wrote.
One obstacle for Ukraine is the difficulty of integrating the U.S.-designed missiles into its coastal defense systems, which are built with Soviet technology, said Muraviev. He said it could take months before the Harpoons were deployed against the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet.
The Harpoons have been compared to Javelins, antitank weapons that Ukrainian troops have used to great effect against Russia. They are also part of the arsenal of Taiwan, the self-governing East Asian island that has a contract to buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of the weapons from Boeing. Some parallels have been drawn between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat that Taiwan faces from China, its much larger, nuclear-armed neighbor.
If Kyiv’s forces are properly trained and the missiles are correctly integrated into its platforms, the Harpoons may force Russian ships to stay away from Ukrainian coastlines. That could mean a boost in the fight against global hunger: Ukraine was one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and corn in 2020, and a weakening of the Russian blockade could increase the world’s food supply and bring down prices.
But Muraviev warned that Russia was likely to react to Ukrainian use of Harpoons, perhaps by intensifying efforts to take Odessa, a major Black Sea port that is still under Ukrainian control. That would force Ukraine’s fighters farther inland and away from Russian ships.
Moscow may also rely more on its submarines because the Harpoons are designed primarily to hit surface ships, he said.