How The U.S. Rushed Harpoon Anti-Ship Missiles To Ukraine (Updated)

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer shed some new light Wednesday on how the U.S. provided Ukraine RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile systems he said were used to sink two Russian vessels in June.

“There’s incredible innovation going on,” William LaPlante, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, said during the annual Defense News Conference.

LaPlante said a country, which he would not name, “had some Harpoons that were on a ship. They said we could maybe do something with them.”

So working with that country and a contractor he also did not name, “we got them off the ship and put them on some flatbed trucks.”

One truck contained the Harpoons and modules and another the power source.

Harpoon anti-ship missile cutaway drawing. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Then a cable was used to connect the two.

Realizing there was now a workable method of converting a ship-based Harpoon system to a truck-launched version that was quickly exportable, Ukrainian troops were brought to the U.S. to train on the system over the Memorial Day weekend, LaPlante said.

“And the next week, two Russia ships were sunk with those Harpoons after about three weeks,” he said.

LaPlante’s comments add new details to what appears to be Ukraine’s first successful combat use of the Harpoons.

In June, the Ukrainian Navy claimed to have struck a Russian vessel near the infamous Snake Island in the Black Sea, just over 20 miles off Ukraine’s southwest coast.

The incident apparently involved a Russian rescue vessel, the Vasily Bekh, which was reportedly transporting personnel, weapons, and ammunition to the island, which was at the time occupied by Russian forces and had been since very early in the conflict. Notably, Ukrainian officials claimed that the ship was hit twice by Harpoons.

At the time, there was little firm evidence of exactly what happened, although the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has released footage taken from a Bayraktar TB2 drone that purportedly shows the engagement. The video appears to confirm that two separate missiles hit the ship.

The attack on the Vasily Bekh came after the sinking in April of the Russian Navy’s Project 1164 Slava class cruiser Moskva with a pair of domestically-developed Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles. A senior U.S. defense official told The War Zone that Ukrainian forces did hit the ship with those missiles, sinking it in the northwestern area of the Black Sea.

NATO nations began announcing they would send Ukraine Harpoons in May, when Denmark promised Ukraine two shore-based RGM-84 Harpoon missile launchers and an unspecified number of rounds for the system.

And in June, the U.S. Defense Department announced its own shipment of two Harpoon missile systems, which included launchers and spares, but no missiles.

The Harpoons, which have a range of about 70 miles, have helped offset Ukraine’s lack of a Navy, helping to keep Russia’s Black Sea fleet from launching amphibious operations against ports like Odesa.

While LaPlante did not name either vessel sunk, at least now we know a little bit more about how Ukraine managed to pull off those attacks without ships capable of supporting a Harpoon system.

It’s just the latest story of weapons innovation from a war that has proven to be full of such tales.

Update 10:15 PM EST:

DefenseOne‘s Marcus Weisgerber says that after that outlet published its story on this topic a spokesperson for Undersecretary LaPlante reached out to say that he had misspoken about the training of the Ukrainians on the Harpoon system in the United States. They would not say where the training had actually occurred and it was initially unclear whether this meant that the U.S. government was not involved at all in facilitating this.

Defense One subsequently reported that another U.S. defense official told them that the U.S. government had been part of “a coalition team that did the training” and that an unnamed private “vendor” had actually conducted the training.

Update: 10:04 a.m. EST 9/8/2022:

Ukrainian troops were trained on the new Harpoon system by personnel from Boeing in a partner nation, the Pentagon told The War Zone Thursday morning. The Pentagon declined to identify that nation.

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